The sudden calm in a vast square outside the Yerevan mayor’s office could hardly be more deceptive on the sunny afternoon of March 1, 2008. Riot police had just left and thousands of people stood there in silent anticipation of the unknown. The most bullish of them were busy arming themselves with whatever they could find and blocking all the approaches to the area with public transportation and police buses. Hundreds of other men sat or lay on a nearby lawn dotted with iron bars stuck in the ground.
The scene, surreal for a traditionally non-violent country like Armenia, summed up the extent of their fury with the forcible break-up early in the morning of non-stop demonstrations staged by opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian and his supporters in another major Yerevan square in protest against the alleged rigging of the February 19 presidential election. One young man having a rest outside the high-rise municipality building compared the pre-dawn police operation to the 1988 Armenian pogrom in Sumgayit, Azerbaijan. “We are all ready to stand here until the end, until the situation is sorted out according to law,” he said.
Just hours later, ten people were killed and more than 200 others injured in vicious clashes between security forces and opposition protesters. The Armenian political discourse is still dominated by differing theories of the worst street violence in the country’s history. The Armenian authorities insist that it was the result of an opposition conspiracy to illegally seize power in the wake of the disputed election. Ter-Petrosian and his associates dismiss the coup allegations and say the government deliberately used lethal force to crush what they call a popular revolt against vote rigging. Both rival camps continue to deny any responsibility for the bloodshed. The only encouraging development in the past year was the formation last November of a bipartisan fact-finding group tasked with conducting an independent inquiry into the unrest. The group has since been working behind the closed doors and has yet to issue any reports.
The events of March 1 marked the bloody end of massive demonstrations staged by the Armenian opposition following the presidential ballot. Official election results showed Serzh Sarkisian, the then prime minister and outgoing President Robert Kocharian’s favored successor, cruising to a landslide victory with almost 53 percent of the vote. According to the government-controlled Central Election Commission, Ter-Petrosian came in in a distant second with 21.5 percent, followed by two other candidates, Artur Baghdasarian and Vahan Hovannisian.
In their preliminary report, Western vote monitors mostly deployed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) concluded that despite serious problems observed during the counting of ballots, the election was “administered mostly in line” with democratic standards. The report gave a serious boost to the legitimacy of Sarkisian’s victory, even if the OSCE mission’s final assessment released in May was more critical of the Armenian authorities’ handling of the election.
Ter-Petrosian and his broad-based opposition coalition refused to concede defeat, alleging a plethora of vote irregularities demanding a re-run of the ballot. The opposition stepped up its pressure on the authorities on February 21 as it set up a tent camp in Yerevan’s Liberty Square. Up to 2,000 people led by Ter-Petrosian spent nine consecutive nights there in freezing temperatures, dancing in circles, setting off fireworks and warming themselves in tents and around bonfires. Tens of thousands of other Armenians joined them in daytime to listen to rousing speeches by opposition leaders and take part in daily marches through the city center.
Cracks within the ruling regime emerged already on February 22, with Deputy Prosecutor-General Gagik Jahangirian addressing the rally and declaring Ter-Petrosian the rightful election winner. This was followed by the defections to the opposition camp of seven parliament deputies affiliated with the governing Republican and Prosperous Armenia parties. Among them was a nephew of General Manvel Grigorian, one of the two deputy ministers of defense who reportedly pledged allegiance to Ter-Petrosian. The latter assured the Liberty Square crowd on February 22 that the generals will make sure that the Armenian military is not used for suppressing the ongoing street protests in the capital. He also claimed to have secured the backing of the “middle and lower echelons” of the country’s security apparatus.
Kocharian’s response was not long in coming. Meeting with the top army brass and other high-ranking security officials the next morning, the departing president accused Ter-Petrosian of seeking to “seize power by illegal means” and ordered them to take “all necessary measures to maintain law and order in the country.” In a clear reference to General Grigorian, who was conspicuously absent from the meeting, Kocharian said he “will not allow anyone to play a shadowy role” in the deepening standoff. The seven defecting lawmakers promptly withdrew support from the opposition. Jahangirian was ambushed and arrested by a special police squad later in the day. Several other prominent opposition figures were detained in the following days.
Despite the wave of arrests, the opposition demonstrations continued unabated and reached their peak on February 26, the day when Sarkisian held his own rally in Yerevan’s main Republic Square in an effort to show that he enjoys greater public support. It proved to be a public relations disaster as thousands of people bused there from across the country walked over to Liberty Square and joined the opposition crowd even before Sarkisian’s rally was over. What the opposition plans to do next was not clear, with Ter-Petrosian and his associates only telling supporters to remain camped in the square. The authorities, for their part, warned that their patience is wearing thin and that they can break up the unsanctioned protests at any moment.
The United States and the European Union warned both sides not to resort to force. “This peaceful exercise of the freedom of assembly, coupled with effective, non-violent crowd management, is a notable achievement and a sign of democratic progress,” the U.S. mission at the OSCE headquarters in Vienna said in a February 28 statement. “We call on all sides to ensure that this peaceful situation continues.” Kocharian said the next day that the authorities are ready to “patiently wait until that theatrical show dies out,” implying that they will clear Liberty Square only if the opposition attempts to seize government buildings.
At around 6:30 a.m. on March 1, the square was surrounded by hundreds and possibly thousands of riot police, interior troops and other security units. Within 10-15 minutes it was cleared of protesters, who put up fierce resistance before chaotically fleeing the scene. Dozens of them were detained on the spot, while others were chased hundreds of meters away from the square. Some protesters are known to have been caught by the police near the Yerevan State Circus, about two kilometers away from Liberty Square and just a few hundred meters from the epicenter of opposition protests that would erupt later in the day.
The only protester allowed to stay in the square was Ter-Petrosian. Wrapped in a blanket, Armenia’s first president chain-smoked and watched the police dismantle the remnants of the tent camp, the symbol of his dramatic political comeback. “They want me to go but I told them that I won’t leave this square unless they handcuff me and show an arrest warrant,” he told two RFE/RL correspondents that were allowed to interview him there at around 8 a.m. Shortly afterwards he was forced into his limousine and driven to his house overlooking the city center.
The Armenian government and police have said all along that security forces dispersed the small crowd only after it refused to allow them to search the square for weapons allegedly stashed there. The police claim, in particular, that they received on February 29 “reliable information” that the protesters will be handed firearms, explosives, iron bars and other weapons to provoke “mass riots” in the capital on March 1. A handful of such weapons, which the police claimed to have found in the square, were shown by government-controlled TV channels.
Ter-Petrosian and other opposition leaders contend that the police planted the weapons to justify the break-up of the peaceful sit-in. Like many ordinary campers, they say that they did not receive any demands or prior warnings from law-enforcement officials before being attacked. The police, which filmed the Liberty Square clash, have not released any video evidence to the contrary.
The official rationale for the pre-dawn operation has also been challenged by Armen Harutiunian, the state human rights ombudsman. “If … fleeing demonstrators left guns behind them, then why is it that during their dispersal, which was accompanied by beatings and resistance, not a single gunshot was fired?” he asked in an April report. The report said that the purported search also violated Armenia’s Code of Procedural Justice that requires court warrants and the presence of witnesses in such cases.
Despite being placed under de facto house arrest on March 1, Ter-Petrosian was able to hold a news conference in his residence that started at around 11:30 a.m. Exuding trademark calm, he gave a detailed account of the previous night’s events but was rather vague on what the opposition plans to do next. “I don’t know what further developments there will be,” he said. “It is possible that a [rally] will erupt spontaneously, and we are obliged to lead, to manage it. If I am allowed to leave this house, I will naturally be with the people.”
“I think that Robert Kocharian and Serzh Sarkisian are finished,” added Ter-Petrosian. “I have a feeling that they won’t last even for 10 days in Armenia.”
The charismatic ex-president was already informed that thousands of his supporters, infuriated by the police actions, are converging on a section of Grigor Lusavorich Street just outside the French Embassy in Yerevan. Police units rushed to the area clashed with the rapidly growing crowd but failed to disperse it. They could only cordon off area for a while to keep the crowd from moving to Liberty Square and key government buildings. None of the nine members of Ter-Petrosian’s election campaign board were spotted there at that time.
It was Vartan Khachatrian and Zaruhi Postanjian, parliament deputies from the opposition Zharangutyun (Heritage) party not directly involved in the Ter-Petrosian campaign, that held first negotiations with high-ranking police officials at the scene at around 1 p.m. It was agreed that the crowd will be allowed to march through the city center and rally outside the Matenadaran institute of ancient manuscripts, another traditional venue for public gatherings in Armenia.
The protesters rejected the agreement. “The people were extremely agitated and did not listen to anyone at that point,” recalls Khachatrian. “Many of them feared that the police would ambush and attack them on their way to the Matenadaran.”
Major-General Sasha Afian, deputy chief of the national police, reaffirmed the Matenadaran option during ensuing negotiations with David Shahnazarian and Levon Zurabian, two close Ter-Petrosian associates who arrived at the scene later in the afternoon. The crowd again refused to budge. “The people felt that the police are trying to trap them,” says Zurabian.
But Vahagn Harutiunian, a senior official at Armenia’s Special Investigative Service (SIS) leading the criminal investigation into the March 1 events, dismisses this explanation, saying that the “organizers” of the protest themselves did not let their supporters unblock Grigor Lusavorich street in breach of an “explicit agreement” reached with Afian. Harutiunian says police forces left the blocked street section, as well as the adjacent square outside the Yerevan municipality, at about 2 p.m. because of that agreement.
Shortly after the police pullout, groups of mainly young men blocked all three streets crossing the square with buses and other vehicles mostly seized from the police. Adding to their anger were rumors (that turned out to be false) that the police killed protesters in Liberty Square. Standing near the French Embassy, one middle-aged woman infamously held up a shoe that she claimed belonged to a 12-year-old girl allegedly killed in the police assault.
Later in the afternoon, the crowd was joined by other opposition leaders that had gone into hiding following the Liberty Square clash. One of them, Nikol Pashinian, took the center stage in the escalating standoff, inspecting the barricades and urging activists to fortify them. “The authorities attacked peaceful protesters, and we have grounds to assert that their hostile actions will be repeated,” Pashinian declared at an ensuing rally. “Our task now is to think about our defense.”
Many male protesters were already armed with metal and wooden sticks and rocks. Some were busy preparing Molotov cocktails with petrol sucked out of the seized police vehicles. Others began stopping public transportation buses and using them for completing the blocking of all streets, including Grigor Lusavorich, leading to the barricaded area.
In the meantime, Ter-Petrosian began negotiating with Kocharian through the chief of the presidential security detail, Grigori Sarkisian, and Western embassies in Yerevan. Ter-Petrosian would say afterwards that he offered the authorities to calm his protesting supporters by addressing them in person, leading them to the Matenadaran square and then telling them to disperse until the next rally. Kocharian was only willing to let the protesters move on to two locations outside the city center because, as he would say at a March 5 news conference, the crowd would have gone on a rampage had it been allowed to march through downtown Yerevan. Speaking to foreign journalists on March 3, Ter-Petrosian said he rejected Kocharian’s offer because he believed the authorities are trying to lure the crowd away from the center and attack it “far from foreigners’ eyes.”
The negotiations were apparently still going on when Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian and a senior police official held a news conference at the presidential palace at 6:30-7 p.m. “The president is in serious negotiations, but if these illegal actions continue the president will have to declare a state of emergency to ensure public security,” warned Oskanian.
As he spoke, hundreds of interior troops, other police forces and, according to some eyewitness accounts, army units massed in and around Yerevan. By 8 p.m. security forces took up positions on two of the five approaches to the barricaded area. They never moved further forward from one of those “frontlines,” only blocking two parallel streets and a park leading to the Armenian prime minister’s office in Republic Square. Other police units were deployed at the junction of Mashtots Avenue and Grigor Lusavorich Street, more than 300 meters from the nearest opposition barricade. They mostly consisted of interior troops (officially called Police Troops) wearing heavy riot gear. Regular and special police units, some of them armed with AK-47 automatic rifles, were positioned behind them.
The eerie silence there was broken at 9-9:15 p.m. by deafening explosions of stun grenades thrown by the police and stones and Molotov cocktails coming from the barricade. The rows of interior troops then began slowly advancing towards the barricade, backed up by tracer bullets fired in the air by the special police moments later. The continuing hail of rocks and petrol bombs forced them to move back. In the meantime, opposition leaders delivered fiery speeches to thousands of people who rallied less than 200 meters down Grigor Lusavorich Street. All that the demonstrators could see from there were tracer bullets flying overhead and lighting up the night sky for about an hour. They responded to the gunfire with “Struggle to the end!” and “Levon! Levon!” chants.
“We will not retreat from this square,” Pashinian told the crowd. “But we will not attack anyone either. If they attack us, they will get an adequate response.”
“Dear people, they are simply trying to spread panic,” said Miasnik Malkhasian, an opposition parliament who was subsequently arrested and accused of organizing the “mass disorders.” “Please do not panic, stand firm like men, and we will win.”
As the violence intensified, Pashinian issued orders to barricade fighters and urged the security forces (both through loudspeakers and a police radio seized by protesters) to switch sides. “Take up your arms and redirect them against Kocharian’s and Serzh’s criminal clan. We will stand to the end, even if all of us die in this square,” said the young editor of Armenia’s best-selling daily newspaper, “Haykakan Zhamanak.” “People, we must finish the job tonight, enough is enough,” Pashinian told the thinning crowd later on.
According to Vahagn Harutiunian, the chief unrest investigator, the authorities never attempted to disperse the peaceful demonstrators and that the police forces charged towards the barricade only after stick-wielding protesters “came out of the barricades and pushed forward.” “The law-enforcement forces tried to advance in order to stop that movement and immediately came under attack,” he tells RFE/RL.
Opposition leaders deny this, saying that the first clash, which occurred on a Grigor Lusavorich Street section next to the Russian Embassy, was provoked by the police. Whatever the truth, Captain Hamlet Tadevosian, commander of an interior troop company, appears to have been its sole casualty and the first person killed in the unrest. The investigators say he was killed by a hand grenade or another explosive device thrown by a protester. They also claim that some of the protesters had firearms, pointing to, among other things, to police footage of the first street battle that shows what looks like a trail of automatic gunfire coming from the opposition side. The opposition denies that any of its supporters used guns or grenades and blames the police for Tadevosian’s death.
After the unsuccessful pitched battles the security forces retreated to the Lusavorich-Mashtots intersection and then further back to Paronian Street, leaving behind vehicles burned by the protesters. It was at that crossroads that the protesters apparently suffered their first fatalities. Three of them were shot dead there in still unclear circumstances. Another protester was fatally wounded at the beginning of Mashtots Avenue. Several shops in that area were looted by rioters after 10 p.m.
Not all speakers at the opposition rally condemned the looting and the burning of cars parked nearby and blamed that on government “agents provocateurs.” “Even if they are looting oligarchs’ shop, they are probably not committing a theft, they just found a way of punishing [the authorities,]” declared Shant Harutiunian, an obscure extreme nationalist who played no part in the Liberty Square protests but was one of the main opposition orators late on March 1.
The investigators believe the four other civilian deaths occurred on Paronian Street and at its intersection with Leo Street where the police forces retreated later in the evening, unable to contain the advancing protesters despite using water cannons and continuing to fire tracer bullets. They suffered their second casualty on Leo Street when an interior troop serviceman, Tigran Abgarian, was shot in the neck and died without regaining consciousness a month later. Law-enforcement authorities say Abgarian was killed by one of the protesters, a claim denied by the opposition. None of more than 100 oppositionists arrested in the following weeks was charged in connection with the deaths of the 19-year-old conscript and Captain Tadevosian.
The investigators have also shed little light on the circumstances in which the eight civilians lost their lives, saying only that three of them were hit by tear gas capsules fired by the police. Vahagn Harutiunian asserts that the police forces involved in the March 1 clashes did not receive prior orders to shoot at the demonstrators, dismissing opposition claims to the contrary. “They were only ordered to fire tracer and blank rounds in the air,” he says.
Armenia’s law on police service allows police officers to use lethal force for “repelling an attack that threatens their life or health” without their superiors’ permission. The police believe the March 1 events posed such a risk but have so far stopped short of stating that the deadly gunfire was necessary for neutralizing the danger. They have stressed that more than 180 police officers and interior troop soldiers received various injuries during the clashes. Forty-two of them were injured by grenade explosions and required hospitalization, according to law-enforcement authorities.
President Kocharian cited police casualties as he went on national television at 10:30 p.m. to declare a three-week state of emergency and order the Armenian military to restore “public order.” Army units backed up by armored vehicles began rolling into the capital shortly after midnight. About one square kilometer of the city center was under full or partial opposition control at that point. At around 4 a.m. on March 2 Ter-Petrosian made a phone appeal to the demonstrators remaining outside the municipality and urged them to go home. "I do not want any victims and clashes between police and innocent people. That is why I am asking you to leave," he said.
The Armenian government continues to stand by its claim that the clashes were pre-planned by the opposition with the aim of “usurping state power by force.” Seven of the arrested opposition members, among them Ter-Petrosian’s election campaign chief, three opposition parliamentarians and Shant Harutiunian (no relation to Vahagn), are currently on trial on corresponding charges. Why Ter-Petrosian himself has not been prosecuted for the alleged coup bid remains unclear.
The SIS’s Harutiunian says the criminal case against the seven defendants contains “testimony by numerous people who clearly state that they were told to go to the French Embassy.” He says the official theory is also supported by wiretapped phone conversations of opposition leaders and police video of the March 1 events. Late last, year Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian shared these and other details of the case with John Prescott and Georges Colombier, the two Armenia rapporteurs of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE). Prescott and Colombier described the purported evidence as unconvincing in a January report to the Strasbourg-based assembly.
Opposition leaders insist that the street protests that followed the police assault on Liberty Square were spontaneous. “After the dispersal of the Liberty Square demonstration we lost control over the course of events,” Zurabian tells RFE/RL, adding that Ter-Petrosian’s campaign team was too scattered and paralyzed to make decisions. “We didn’t even know what’s going on,” he says.
Zurabian, widely considered as the ex-president’s right-hand man, also claims that the opposition had no contingency plans for a possible break-up for its sit-in. Ter-Petrosian repeatedly assured supporters camped in Liberty Square that Kocharian and Serzh Sarkisian are “not crazy” to disperse them by force. “You can now say that I was mistaken,” he would tell journalists on March 11. “Our country is probably too savage to be judged with rational categories.”
Zurabian believes that the opposition committed no “strategic blunders” in the post-election period. “The only alternative was not to engage in any political struggle in the first place,” he says.
Khachatrian, the Zharangutyun parliamentarian, is more self-critical. “At the end of the day, we are all responsible for the fact that people got killed in the streets of Yerevan,” he reckons. “One party more so, the other less.”
There have been suggestions that Ter-Petrosian might have prevented bloodshed had he been able to join the protesting crowd. The authorities say that he was free to leave his house on March 1, but only without his state-funded armed bodyguards. For Ter-Petrosian and his entourage, this condition was illegal and amounted to a death threat.
“If he feared for his own security, then he should have also worried about the security of the crowd,” Kocharian scoffed at the March 5 news conference. “He should have had the courage … to go there and participate in that rally.”
(Photo courtesy of http://ditord.com)