|Tuesday, 22 October 2019|
RFE/RL Newsline, 08-03-04
From: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty <http://www.rferl.org>
 PUTIN'S CHOICE FOR PRESIDENT CONFIRMED...First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was certified as Russia's president-elect on March 2 following a national presidential poll, Russian and international media reported. Medvedev, who was selected by President Vladimir Putin as his successor in December 2007, polled 70.2 percent of the vote, according to official results. Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov was officially placed second with 17.7 percent, followed by Liberal Democratic Party of Russia head Vladimir Zhirinovsky with 9.4 percent and Democratic Party of Russia leader Andrei Bogdanov with 1.3 percent. Official turnout for the poll is estimated at about 67 percent. Gazeta.ru noted that Medvedev's official tally is slightly higher than the 70.08 percent that Unified Russia polled in the December 2007 legislative elections, but slightly lower than the 71.3 percent that Putin polled in the 2004 presidential election. Analyst Aleksei Makarkin told the website, "Medvedev's success attests that the majority of the electorate has legitimized the decision of the single, solitary voter -- Vladimir Putin." Analyst Dmitry Oreshkin said Zyuganov's result was impressive, adding that it would have been impossible to poll higher given the massive array of administrative forces working against him. RC
 ...AS MONITORS DOCUMENT ELECTION VIOLATIONSCentral Election Commission member Andrei Klychkov, who represents the Communist Party on the commission, on March 3 filed 110 complaints charging election-law violations during the March 2 presidential election, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported the same day. Lilia Shabanova, executive director of the NGO Golos, which monitored the election independently, told RFE/RL their monitors were barred from polling stations in Astrakhan Oblast. Shabanova said her monitors observed "massive voting by absentee ballot under pressure just like we saw in the [December 2, 2007] Duma elections." She said election officials in Kaliningrad even issued an order saying that anyone could vote at any polling station even without an absentee ballot. Moscow voters reported receiving fliers informing them how they could vote without absentee ballots. Shabanova said election officials failed even to respond to her information: "They just don't see violations; they don't react to violations; and in general they act as if it is OK to do anything at the polling stations." She said her group will analyze the official election protocols and will issue a report in April on its estimate of the extent of falsification of the vote. RC
 CIS, SCO OBSERVERS HAIL ELECTION AS 'FREE AND OPEN,' PACE MORE EQUIVOCALCIS election-observation mission chief Nauryz Aidarov said in Moscow on March 3 that his group believes that "this election is an important step in further democratization of Russia," Interfax reported. He added that "we declare this election free, open, and transparent, and urge other international election observers to join our statement.... The election was competitive and had multiple candidates." He noted that "there were certain shortcomings in the election but not many, and they did not have an effect on the free expression of will and the outcome of the ballot." Also on March 3, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) gave the election high marks, Interfax reported. Election observation mission leader and SCO Secretary-General Bolat Nurgaliev, a former Soviet-era diplomat and then a Kazakh ambassador, called the vote "legitimate, free, and open. They generally complied with the law and international norms." Meanwhile, Andreas Gross, who headed a 25-member mission of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) to observe the presidential vote, said in Moscow on March 3 that the election was a "reflection of the will of the electorate, whose democratic potential unfortunately has not been tapped," newsru.com and news agencies reported. He added that the election had "the character of a plebiscite.... It would be too simple to say that the result was fixed. We still think that the outcome reflects the will of the majority." In Berlin, government spokesman Thomas Steg said on March 3 that "we have said in recent days that during the election campaign there were clearly incidents and situations that showed democratic and constitutional principles were not followed throughout," German media reported. He noted that "the German government has also said many times that it regrets that international election observers could not carry out their responsibilities in the desired way." Steg added nonetheless that Chancellor Angela Merkel looks forward to working with Medvedev and meeting with him soon (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 29, 2008). PM
 PRESIDENT-ELECT COMMENTS ON FUTURE ADMINISTRATIONPresident-elect Medvedev met with journalists late on March 2 at his election headquarters in Moscow, RFE/RL's Russian Service and other media reported. Medvedev was coy about how the new government will work after he becomes president and President Putin becomes prime minister. "The president has his authority and the prime minister has his," Medvedev said. "These authorities stem from the constitution and the law and no one is suggesting they be changed. But I am certain that our joint work from such a rich and effective connection can bring the country pretty interesting results and become a very positive factor in the development of our state." He noted that the president determines foreign policy and that the office of the president is located in the Kremlin. "The permanent location of the government and the chairman of the government is in the White House," he added. Medvedev said Russia must "conduct an independent foreign policy such as the one that has been conducted for the last eight years," ITAR-TASS reported. He said his first trip abroad as president will be to a CIS member state. Sergei Sobyanin, head of the current presidential administration and the head of Medvedev's presidential campaign, told Interfax Medvedev's inauguration will be on May 7. He said he does not expect major personnel changes in the government before then. When the new president takes office, the government will automatically resign, in accordance with the constitution. RC
 ANALYSTS, OPPOSITION FIGURES DISCUSS THE FUTUREPolitical analyst Nikolai Petrov told RFE/RL's Russian Service on March 2 that the main "management" of these elections did not concern the counting of the vote but the choice of which candidates were allowed to participate. He said the configuration that was allowed made certain that Medvedev would win easily in the first round. He said that he believes with time Medvedev could "become a completely strong, powerful president." "The idea that he will always be in second place is not correct," Petrov said. Yabloko party leader Grigory Yavlinsky told RFE/RL on March 3 that the election merely determined "the form of the third term of Vladimir Putin." Yavlinsky upbraided the mass media for "covering this like an ordinary election process." Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who was blocked by the Kremlin from participating in the election, told RFE/RL on March 2 that the vote "does not signal a change of epoch." He described it as "an illegitimate transfer of power." Kasyanov said the lack of legitimacy and the policies of the Putin era "are fraught with serious consequences" and predicted that there will be "some changes" within the next six months, although he did not venture any details. RC
 LENINGRAD OBLAST COMPILES LIST OF VOTERS WHO DIDN'T VOTEThe administration of Leningrad Oblast, which surrounds but does not include the city of St. Petersburg, has ordered the compilation of a list of voters who did not participate in the March 2 presidential election, RosBalt reported on March 3. Turnout in the oblast was about 60 percent. Oblast Governor Valery Serdyukov said the purpose of the list is to determine why so many voters failed to go to the polls. RC
 RUSSIA DISTANCES ITSELF FROM INTERNATIONAL GROUP ON KOSOVAForeign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said in a statement on March 3 that Russia does not recognize the 15-member International Steering Group (ISG) on Kosova, which recently held its first meeting, mid.ru reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 29, 2008). Kamynin argued that the formation of the ISG violates UN Security Council Resolution 1244 and "internationally agreed principles." He warned that any attempt to resolve the Kosova issue outside the UN would only "complicate the situation surrounding Kosovo and set off unpredictable consequences." PM
 VOTER TURNOUT IN CHECHNYA LESS THAN FOR DUMA ELECTIONSDespite claims by Central Election Commission officials in Grozny on March 2 that voters were "beating all previous records," the final voter turnout figure for the Russian presidential ballot was 91.20 percent, considerably less than the over 99 percent reported for the State Duma ballot on December 2, 2007, kavkaz-uzel.ru reported. Medvedev reportedly polled 88.7 percent of the vote. Kavkaz-uzel.ru said that "many" Chechen voters regarded the poll as a farce and the outcome as predetermined. Karachayevo-Cherkessia had the highest turnout among the North Caucasus republics: 94.94 percent, of whom 90.35 voted for Medvedev. The corresponding figures for Kabardino-Balkaria were 91.7 percent and 88 percent. Turnout in Daghestan was 90.39 percent, according to regnum.ru, compared with 92 percent in the Duma elections; Medvedev polled approximately 91.9 percent of the vote. As in December, Adygeya had the lowest voter turnout in the North Caucasus: three hours before polling stations closed, fewer than half of all registered voters (48.88 percent) had cast their ballots, kavkaz-uzel.ru reported. Preliminary returns gave Medvedev 71.23 percent of the vote followed by Communist Party candidate Zyuganov with 20.67 percent. according to regnum.ru. In North Ossetia, Medvedev polled 86.13 percent of the vote, compared with 7.34 percent for Zyuganov; voter turnout was 73.26 percent. In Kalmykia, where turnout was estimated at 59.28 percent, Medvedev garnered 75.17 percent of the vote and Zyuganov 19.67, regnum.ru reported. LF
 OFFICIAL TURNOUT FIGURE IN INGUSHETIA AGAIN POSES CONUNDRUMMusa Yevloyev, chairman of Ingushetia's Election Commission, told regnum.ru on March 2 that the preliminary voter turnout figure was 87.46 percent, which is less than the official figure of 98 percent given for the December Duma elections. On March 3, kavkaz-uzel.ru quoted Yevloyev as citing a higher figure: 92.3 percent, of whom 91.6 percent voted for Medvedev. But the independent website ingushetiya.ru, which monitored turnout across the republic throughout the day, calculated after the polls closed that just 5,742 people cast ballots, which is tantamount to 3.5 percent of the republic's registered voters. In the wake of the Duma ballot, over 50 percent of Ingushetia's voters signed formal statements denying that they had cast ballots (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 3, 4, 11, and 28, 2007, and January 10 and 15, 2008), and last week Russian TsIK Chairman Churov advocated special measures, including the installation of video equipment at polling stations, to preclude a similar discrepancy arising during the presidential ballot. Parliament speaker Makhmud Sakalov rejected such measures as unnecessary (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28 and 29, 2008). LF
 PROSECUTOR ANNULS CRIMINAL CHARGES AGAINST BESLAN ACTIVISTSThe prosecutor's office in North Ossetia annulled on February 22 the criminal charges brought against three activists of the Voice of Beslan organization for allegedly assaulting and injuring seven judges and jury members during a court hearing on February 7, Ella Kesayeva, one of the three accused, told kavkaz-uzel.ru on March 2 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 19, 2008). Voice of Beslan represents survivors of, and relatives of those killed during, the September 2004 hostage taking by Chechen militants at a school in Beslan, North Ossetia, that was ended by a mass military assault in which most of the over 300 fatalities occurred. LF
 KABARDIAN FIELD COMMANDER CLAIMS RESPONSIBILITY FOR KILLING INTERIOR MINISTRY OFFICIALAnzor Astemirov, aka Amir Seyfullakh, who commands the Special Operations Group within the North Caucasus resistance tasked with the execution of persons regarded as traitors to their people and Islam, confirmed in an interview posted on February 27 on kavkazcenter.com that it was he together with two of his men who killed Colonel Anatoly Kyarov, head of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic Interior Ministry Directorate for the Struggle with Organized Crime, and his driver, Lieutenant Albert Rakhayev, in Nalchik six weeks earlier (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 14 and 30, 2008). Asked whether he regarded such a killing in downtown Nalchik as a suicide mission, Astemirov replied: "Any mission, even the simplest, can prove to be the last for any one of us. We have embarked on jihad, not on a [simple] stroll. But that does not mean that we act irresponsibly. We prepare meticulously for every operation and make use of all available resources to perform it successfully. We value the life and health of every single fighter." Astemirov said he cannot confirm or deny reports that innocent passersby were injured when he and his men opened fire on Kyarov. LF
Transcaucasia And Central Asia
 ARMENIAN POLICE USE FORCE TO DISPERSE POSTELECTION PROTEST, KILLING EIGHTPolice, security forces, and Interior Ministry troops cordoned off Freedom Square in central Yerevan at around 7 a.m. local time on March 1 and then proceeded to disperse several thousand supporters of former President Levon Ter-Petrossian encamped there to protest the perceived rigging of the outcome of the February 19 presidential ballot to ensure a victory for the candidate of the "party of power," Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian. Police used truncheons, tear gas, and electric stun guns, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Some demonstrators fought back, ignoring appeals by Ter-Petrossian to remain calm. Police spokesman Sayat Shirinian told journalists later on March 1 that the previous day the protest organizers distributed "large quantities" of metal bars and firearms to the protesters, reportedly in preparation for "actions aimed at provoking mass riots" on March 1. He added that police arrested "more than a dozen" opposition activists and were searching for others. Ter-Petrossian supporters driven out of Freedom Square early on March 1 regrouped later that day at a major traffic junction close to Yerevan City Hall and the French Embassy, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. As of early evening, some 10,000-15,000 people had congregated in anticipation that Ter-Petrossian would come to address them. Police reportedly fired tracer bullets over the demonstrators' heads and tear gas into the crowd; some protesters then attacked police with iron bars and stones. Most protesters dispersed after an appeal from Ter-Petrossian to do so was read out, but a small number went on a rampage, setting fire to police and other vehicles, and looting a nearby supermarket, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. In a March 2 statement posted on its website (http://www.moh.am), the Armenian Health Ministry reported that 131 people were injured on March 1 of whom 42 -- 14 police and security personnel and 28 protesters -- were hospitalized. It said no fatalities were reported in the period between 6 a.m. and 9:30 p.m. local time on March 1, but that between 9:30 p.m. on March 1 and 1 a.m. on March 2 -- meaning after the state of emergency was declared -- 89 people, 58 law enforcement personnel and 31 civilians, were injured and eight people died of gunshot wounds. LF
 ARMENIAN PRESIDENT IMPOSES STATE OF EMERGENCY, RESTRICTIONS ON MEDIAFollowing reports of the new flare-up of violence between police and protesters during the evening of March 1, Robert Kocharian issued a decree imposing a 20-day state of emergency in Yerevan in order to "prevent the danger threatening constitutional order and to protest the rights and legal interests of the population," Noyan Tapan reported. The state of emergency entails a ban on meetings, rallies, demonstrations, and strikes; on "leaflets and other political propaganda without the permission of state bodies"; and on publishing any reports on domestic political developments except those put out by government agencies. It further entails the temporary suspension of the activities of political parties and organizations that seek to prevent the elimination of the circumstances that necessitated imposing the state of emergency; and if required, restrictions on the free movement of persons and vehicles through the city. The Armenian parliament on March 2 formally endorsed the state of emergency and issued a statement condemning the previous day's clashes as unconstitutional and blaming them on the deliberate and "hostile" actions of Ter-Petrossian's supporters, gazeta.ru reported. The statement stressed the need for "restoring order" in Yerevan and "resolving political problems by means of dialogue and on the basis of the constitution." In an address to the Armenian people on March 1, Kocharian explained his rationale for imposing the state of emergency, accusing Ter-Petrossian's supporters of having accumulated arms and ammunition in public places and of holding unauthorized rallies, Noyan Tapan reported. Kocharian said Ter-Petrossian refused to accept the official results of the February 19 election and continued to "dispute the outcome by illegal means," even though a recount of votes failed to reveal "serious violations." He said opposition representatives "behaved disgracefully" in Yerevan earlier that day and thereby threatened national security, as well as tarnishing Armenia's international reputation. Addressing students at Yerevan State University on February 29, Kocharian said the authorities intend to "wait patiently" until the "theatrical show" being staged by Ter-Petrossian supporters of Freedom Square "fades away calmly," Noyan Tapan reported. He said he hoped Ter-Petrossian would face up to reality, ask his supporters to disperse, and return to his historical research, and warned that if, on the contrary, they attack police, they will find themselves "outside the law," and many of the protest organizers will face "years in prison." LF
 DEFEATED ARMENIAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE TELLS SUPPORTERS TO GO HOMETer-Petrossian was taken early on March 1 to his home outside the city center, where he was placed under house arrest, his close associate, former Foreign Minister Aleksandr Arzumanian, told RFE/RL's Armenian Service. But speaking at a press conference later that day, Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian denied that Ter-Petrossian was under house arrest, saying that officers from the State Protection Service were stationed outside his home to protect him, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Oskanian warned that President Kocharian would impose a state of emergency if the protests continued. Ter-Petrossian held a press conference at his home on March 1 at which he said he cannot understand how the international community could tolerate the violent dispersal of the protests, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. He said he is certain that the Armenian people "will not come to terms with this reality," and that "even if Serzh Sarkisian by a miracle becomes president, I can't imagine how that president will rule the people." Ter-Petrossian said he and his supporters will continue to use all legal means of protest, requesting permission from the authorities (which they had not previously done) to stage rallies and pickets. He acknowledged the potential for spontaneous violence, but said that "we must manage and control" protest participants. After police and security forces clashed with protesters during the evening of March 1, a Ter-Petrossian aide read out a message in which Ter-Petrossian called on protesters to disperse, saying that he did not want to risk further casualties in clashes between police and innocent people. A separate statement issued by Ter-Petrossian's campaign office affirmed that "we shall continue our political struggle from democracy and rule of law." On February 29, Ter-Petrossian formally filed a protest with the Constitutional Court demanding that the election results be invalidated, Noyan Tapan reported on March 1. LF
 OSCE, COUNCIL OF EUROPE, U.S. CONDEMN ARMENIAN VIOLENCEOrganization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Chairman in Office and Finnish Foreign Minister Ilkka Kenerva on March 2 issued a statement, posted on the OSCE's website deploring the use of force against protesters in Yerevan and stressing the need for dialogue and stability. Kanerva said he has sent Finnish diplomat Heikki Talvitie to Yerevan to meet with President Kocharian, Sarkisian, Oskanian and Ter-Petrossian and try to arrange talks between the two camps. Talvitie knows all four men personally, having served in 1996 as co-chairman of the OSCE Minsk Group engaged in mediating a solution to the Karabakh conflict and from July 2003-early 2006 as EU special representative to the South Caucasus. In Strasbourg, Council of Europe Secretary-General Terry Davis said he is "very concerned" about the reports of injuries and allegations of "excessive force," Noyan Tapan reported. Referring to the reports of Ter-Petrossian's house arrest, Davis called for his immediate release. "In a democracy, you cannot arbitrarily detain political opponents," arminfo quoted him as saying. In Washington, State Department Sean McCormack said U.S. officials have contacted both sides and urge them "to avoid further violence...exercise maximum restraint and resume political dialogue," Reuters reported on March 2. Prime Minister Sarkisian spoke by telephone on March 1 with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Daniel Fried and Assistant Deputy Secretary of State Matthew Bryza and assured them that the Armenian government will do its best to avoid further violence and restore public order and stability, armradio.am reported on March 2. LF
 DEFEATED ARMENIAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE NAMED TO GOVERNMENT POSTOn February 29, Prime Minister Sarkisian and former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian, who placed third in the February 19 presidential ballot with 16.7 percent of the vote, signed a political cooperation agreement noting that between them, they garnered almost 70 percent of all votes cast in the presidential ballot, and have reached agreement on forming a coalition government, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. In addition, Baghdasarian will assume the post of secretary of the presidential council on national security, a post that Sarkisian described as "the third- or fourth-most-important position in the republic." Baghdasarian was constrained to resign as parliament speaker in May 2006 after publicly arguing that Armenia should seek to join NATO (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 3, 2006 and "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," May 5, 2006). The joint statement further underscored the need to overcome the domestic and foreign challenges Armenia faces, combat corruption and the shadow economy, and strengthen the security system. Ter-Petrossian, who prior to the ballot had hoped that Baghdasarian might withdraw his candidacy and endorse him, immediately branded Baghdasarian a "traitor" to his country, the A1+ website reported on February 29. LF
 GEORGIAN OPPOSITION PARTY UNVEILS ELECTION PLANSThe Republican Party, one of nine opposition parties aligned in the National Council, confirmed on February 29 reports that it will run separately in the parliamentary elections to be held in May, civil.ge reported. Party leader David Usupashvili explained in a statement that "under conditions of the proportional election system, the opposition will secure more votes through a broad front, rather than running on a joint ticket." The remaining eight National Council parties will run on a joint ticket headed by businessman Levan Gachechiladze, the opposition candidate who polled second in the January 5 preterm presidential election with 25.69 percent of the vote, People's Party leader Koba Davitashvili told a press conference later on February 29. Davitashvili declined to comment on the Republican Party decision, but Conservative Party leader Zviad Dzidziguri described it on February 29 as "a serious mistake" that is likely to undercut voter support for the Republican Party, Caucasus Press reported. Even before the formal announcement by the Republican Party, Gachechiladze was quoted by civil.ge as saying that what some people have construed as an imminent split in the opposition ranks was in fact simply an election tactic. He said the Republican Party has not formally quit the National Council. LF
 ABKHAZ RELEASE ONE GEORGIAN JOURNALIST, REMAND A SECONDThe Abkhaz authorities on February 29 sentenced Malkhaz Basilaia, a journalist with the independent Mze television channel who was apprehended three days earlier, apparently for entering Abkhaz territory illegally, to two months' pretrial detention, Caucasus Press reported the following day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28 and 29, 2008). Basilaia and a second detained Georgian, David Tsotsoria, told a representative of the UN Human Rights Office in Sukhum(i) that they have not been beaten, kavkaz-uzel.ru reported on March 1; Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili claimed on February 27 to have incontrovertible evidence that Basilaia was being tortured. The Abkhaz court released Tsotsoria's mother, Maia Danelia, on February 29 after fining her 1,500 rubles ($62.38). Also on February 29, the Abkhaz armed forces embarked on five days of maneuvers originally scheduled to begin on March 1, Caucasus Press reported. On March 1, the Abkhaz authorities were placed on partial alert following an intense exchange of fire with Georgian forces the previous night in which three Abkhaz militiamen were injured, apsny.ru reported, quoting presidential spokesman Kristian Bzhania. The Abkhaz Foreign Ministry released a statement on March 1 claiming that Georgia was concentrating special forces on its border with Abkhazia in order to reignite the conflict and destabilize the situation in the region, thereby creating further obstacles to the ongoing peace process. LF
 KAZAKH OPPOSITION PARTY CHANGES NAMEAt a party congress in Almaty, a majority of delegates voted on February 29 to change the name of the Kazakh opposition Naghyz Ak Zhol (True Bright Path) party, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. According to Deputy Chairman Bulat Abilov, the fourth party congress adopted the new name "Azat" (Free) for the party, voting down the alternative names of "Azamat" (Citizen) and "Birlik" (Unity). Later the same day, Abilov was also elevated to the position of full party chairman, after delegates resolved to abolish the post of deputy chairman. Abilov was formerly a senior leader of the opposition National Social Democratic Party, but joined Naghyz Ak Zhol after the two parties briefly merged in an opposition coalition (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 11, 2007). Fellow Deputy Chairman Tolegn Zhukeev was approved as the new secretary-general of the party. The congress also adopted a new party symbol and began consideration of a new party program. RG
 PROBE OF KAZAKH MILITARY JET CRASH CONCLUDESIn a report released at a press conference in Astana, an interagency commission announced on February 29 that its probe of the February 12 crash of a Kazakh military aircraft concluded that the crash was caused by serious mechanical failure (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 13, 2008), Kazinform reported. The probe determined that the aircraft's electrical system failed, triggering an immediate loss of power and control of the plane. The head of the commission, Air Defense commander Major General Aleksandr Sorokin, also said that investigators conducted a thorough examination of the wreckage with the assistance of a small group of Russian technical experts. The crash of the Russian-designed MiG-29 occurred during a training exercise at the Zhetygen air base in the southern Almaty region's Ili district and resulted in the death of the pilot, although the co-pilot survived. RG
 KAZAKH POLICE BREAK UP SMALL DEMONSTRATIONKazakh police forcibly on March 1 dispersed a small demonstration by about 20 people in Almaty, according to Interfax-Kazakhstan. The demonstration was staged to protest the planned construction of an "underground trade and entertainment center" in Almaty. The protest, organized by the recently renamed opposition Azat party (see above), was aimed at halting construction at what local party leader Viktor Saliev argued was a historical site in the city. Police briefly detained eight of the protesters after breaking up the unsanctioned public demonstration. RG
 KYRGYZ COURT UPHOLDS FINE FOR OPPOSITION PARTYThe Bishkek City Court issued a ruling on February 29 upholding the imposition of a 16.5 million som (about $450,000) fine on the opposition Social Democratic Party, the 24.kg website reported. The fine was first imposed by a lower court after ruling in favor of a law suit by the Kyrgyz Central Election Commission that sought "compensation for the destruction and printing of new ballot papers" for the December 2007 parliamentary election. The commission argued that the opposition party was liable for the additional election-related costs after Edil Baisalov, a leader of the Social Democratic Party and a commission member, posted a sample ballot on his personal website (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 7, 2007). Baisalov was subsequently threatened with charges of "obstructing elections and inflicting material damage on the state" for the incident, which election officials argued would "assist" in producing forged ballots (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 17, 2008). Galina Skripkina, an attorney representing the party, protested the ruling and vowed to challenge it in the Supreme Court. RG
 KYRGYZ OMBUDSMAN VOWS TO CHALLENGE BAN ON PUBLIC RALLIESDuring a meeting with leading human rights groups and other civic organizations in Bishkek, Kyrgyz ombudsman Tursunbek Akun vowed on February 28 to challenge a law imposing restrictions on public gatherings and rallies in the capital, AKIpress reported. The restrictions, adopted in December by the Bishkek municipal authorities, limit any public events or gatherings to only three main locations in Bishkek and come in the wake of other similarly restrictive measures, including a requirement calling for the traffic police to monitor and approve the use of loudspeakers in vehicles (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 3, 2007). RG
 BELARUSIAN INTERIOR MINISTER SAYS KAZULIN'S RELEASE WAS ILLEGALInterior Minister Uladzimir Navumau said on February 29 that the temporary release of former presidential candidate Alyaksandr Kazulin was illegal, Belapan reported. "If laws were taken into account, there were no criteria in his [Kazulin's] favor," Navumau said. "But this decision was made, and it was not just exceptional, it was contrary to laws." Kazulin, who is serving 5 1/2 years in prison for organizing events that disturbed public order following the March 2006 presidential election, was recently granted a three-day leave to attend the funeral of his wife, Iryna, who died on February 23 after a long fight with breast cancer (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27, 28, and 29, 2008). Navumau told reporters that Kazulin and the deceased were officially divorced and thus she was not an "immediate relative," giving no grounds for the temporary release for the funeral. However, Kazulin's former lawyer, Ihar Rynkevich, said that Belarus's Family Code specifies that a person may be declared a family member of another when they have lived together for a long time. Kazulin said during his three-day leave that he formally divorced his wife and transferred all his property to her ahead of the persecution he expected after the March 2006 election. AM
 BELARUSIAN OPPOSITION LEADER HOLDS MEETINGS, DESPITE POLICE INTERFERENCEMovement For Freedom leader Alyaksandr Milinkevich on February 29 and March 1 traveled around Brest Oblast, where he held meetings with local residents, Belapan reported. During the trip, the police detained Milinkevich seven times. He was stopped four times by traffic police on his way to Brest, and then taken to a police station after an open-air meeting with nearly 200 city residents. Police then detained Milinkevich while he was traveling from Brest to Kobryn, as well as after a meeting with Kobryn residents, forcing him to explain the meeting. "The authorities are afraid of such meetings," Milinkevich said. "They are afraid that people would openly speak about their problems and discuss ways of solving them. They are afraid of alternative views," he added. AM
 UKRAINE TO ASSIST BELARUS IN CONSTRUCTION OF NUCLEAR POWER PLANTAfter meeting with his Ukrainian counterpart Oleksandr Turchynov in Minsk, Belarusian First Deputy Prime Minister Uladzimir Syamashka said on February 29 that Ukraine will assist Belarus in building its first nuclear power plant, Belapan and RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Syamashka said that the Kyiv-based Energoproyekt research institute will help Belarusian experts to select an appropriate site for the plant and that the Belarusian authorities also intend to buy some equipment for the plant from Ukraine. The Belarusian Security Council in mid-January made "an ultimate political decision" regarding the construction of a nuclear power plant in the country and President Alyaksandr Lukashenka called for speeding up the necessary preparations. According to Belarusian authorities, the plant will cost $4 billion and is expected to start operating in 2018. AM
 RUSSIA CUTS GAS SUPPLIES TO UKRAINE BY 25 PERCENTGazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov said on March 3 that Gazprom has reduced its gas supplies to Ukraine by 25 percent, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. "The undocumented consumption of gas in Ukraine continues," Kupriyanov said. "No agreement has been signed [between Gazprom and its Ukrainian partners] that defines further cooperation in the gas sector. Under these conditions, to protect its economic interests, at 10 a.m. [Moscow time] today, Gazprom reduced its gas supplies to Ukraine by 25 percent," he said. The Russian gas monopoly has recently threatened Ukraine with gas cutoffs several times, demanding the payment of debts incurred for gas consumed by Ukraine in late 2007 and the signing of agreements on gas supplies in 2008 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27 and 28, 2008). Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin agreed in mid-February in Moscow on conditions of the debt repayment, and Gazprom CEO Aleksei Miller announced that Naftohaz Ukrayiny, Ukraine's state-owned gas operator, and Gazprom agreed to set up a new company that will supply Russian gas to Ukraine. The Ukrainian government announced on February 27 that it has settled the issue of gas debts to Gazprom as of January 1, 2008. However, Gazprom said that due to the continued and undocumented gas consumption by Ukraine it regards the issue as "unregulated." Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who is known to be strongly in favor of excluding intermediaries from Ukrainian-Russian gas deals, said on March 1 that starting the same day Naftohaz Ukrayiny will be the exclusive gas deliverer to Ukrainian consumers. Tymoshenko also said that starting on March 1 the registration of the UkrGazEnergo company has been annulled and its license to sell gas will also be annulled. At the same time, Tymoshenko confirmed that Russia will not limit its gas supplies because, according to her, the exclusion of the intermediaries was agreed on at the presidential level. Russian and Central Asian natural gas has been delivered to Ukraine since January 2005 through two intermediary companies: Swiss-registered RosUkrEnergo and Ukrainian-registered UkrGazEnergo. AM
 UKRAINIAN OPPOSITION HOLDS CONGRESS IN EASTERN CITYAt least 3,600 supporters of the opposition Party of Regions -- legislators, representatives of local and regional self-governments, political parties, nongovernmental organizations, and foreign guests -- gathered on March 1 in Severodonetsk, Luhansk Oblast, to attend their second congress, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. The gathering considered four issues of current Ukrainian policy: "violating the rights of local and regional self-governments," "violating the rights of the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine," "the falsification and revision of Ukraine's history," and "the economic and sociopolitical aftermath of Ukrainian membership in NATO." The participants accused the Ukrainian authorities of "an aggressive nationalism that, in fact, borders on Nazism." Party of Regions leader Viktor Yanukovych reiterated his opposition to "drawing Ukraine into the process of joining NATO without the consent of the majority of the country's population." The pro-presidential Our Ukraine-People's Union described the congress in Severodonetsk as "a provocation arranged by the Party of Regions and its satellites" aimed "exclusively at destabilizing and confrontation in society." At a similar congress in 2004, participants proposed separatist slogans that called for the declaration of "an autonomous southern-eastern republic" in Ukraine. AM
 ECONOMY MINISTER SEES SPECTER OF FORMER DICTATOR IN SERBIASerbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica walked through downtown Belgrade on February 29, distributing "Kosovo is Serbia" badges to passersby, Reuters reported. "We have to arm ourselves with patience to get Kosovo back," he said. Kostunica reiterated his claim that the new EU mission to Kosova is "illegal." Also on February 29, Deputy Prime Minister Bozidar Djelic and Economy Minister Mladjan Dinkic criticized Kostunica's policy of continuing to service Kosova's $1.25 billion debt in order to reinforce Belgrade's claim to Kosova. Dinkic said on a television talk show that he "cannot take part in a policy leading the nation to collective insanity," adding that Kostunica's neglect of economic issues important to ordinary people will prove costly for Serbia. Dinkic compared Kostunica's stubbornness to that of former President Slobodan Milosevic, asking rhetorically, "Is this taking Serbia forward or making Serbia stronger?" Deputy Prime Minister Djelic, who belongs to President Boris Tadic's Democratic Party, on February 29 warned against "self-isolation" and stressed that EU membership should be a goal for Serbia, Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" reported on March 3. Deutsche Welle noted on March 3 that the current political atmosphere in Serbia in general and Kostunica's rhetoric in particular recall the Milosevic years. AP reported from Belgrade on February 29 that Serbian political rhetoric "these days harkens back to the era of late autocrat," Milosevic, as some Serb leaders declare "Kosovo Albanian leaders are 'terrorists,' America is an 'ignorant aggressor,' and Serbia is a victim that must turn to Russia for help." PM
 SERBIAN PREMIER CONGRATULATES MEDVEDEVPrime Minister Kostunica on March 3 in Belgrade offered his "warmest and friendliest congratulations" to Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on the occasion of his "great victory" in the presidential vote the previous day, news agencies reported. Kostunica added that "Russia has become...a guardian of the basic principles of the international law" by supporting Serbia in the dispute over Kosova. The Belgrade daily "Blic" noted on March 3 that Serbs are ill-advised to view their relationship with Russia in romantic or idealistic terms. The paper pointed out that Russia has always dealt with Serbia from a perspective of tough self-interest, and that current Moscow-Belgrade relations are no exception to this pattern. The daily noted that Serbia is in the process of selling the state-run oil monopoly NIS to Gazprom "for a song," and questioned whether anyone could imagine a world in which Russia sells its gas to Serbia for half of its market value while paying the full market price for NIS (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," February 13, 2008). PM
 INTERNATIONAL POLICE TO MAKE UP SHORTFALL IN KOSOVA POLICE FORCEPieter Feith, the chief representative in Kosova of the EU and the international community, said in a radio interview in Mitrovica on March 2 that international police will help fill the ranks of Kosova's multi-ethnic police force (KPS) in the face of an apparent growing boycott by ethnic Serbian policemen, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. In several interviews in recent days, Feith also stressed that there will be no partition of Kosova. Roughly 700 members of the 7,000-strong KPS belong to Kosova's Serbian minority, which accounts for about 5 percent of the population. On February 29, about 120 ethnic Serbian police in Gracanica turned in their badges and guns, following a similar recent move by Serbs in Gjilan, to protest the February 17 declaration of independence by the authorities in Prishtina (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, 2008). The ethnic Serbian members of the KPS say they are willing to continue working with the UN authorities in Kosova. KPS spokesman Veton Elshani said on March 1 that "we have enough [ethnic] Albanian police officers who have worked in these areas before. They will patrol in cooperation with UN police, and if necessary with KFOR as well." PM
 VETERAN MONTENEGRIN LEADER RETURNS TO OFFICEFormer President and Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic was again elected prime minister in a parliamentary vote on February 29 following Zeljko Sturanovic's resignation for health reasons, news agencies reported. Djukanovic, who left public office in 2006, said it would be a "waste of time" to reshuffle the cabinet. He also said he will continue to work for Montenegrin membership in the EU and NATO. The Podgorica daily "Vijesti" noted on February 29 that popular support in Montenegro for NATO membership has never been lower, with 29.5 percent of those recently polled by the CEDEM institute in favor compared with 44.2 percent against. By contrast, 72.8 percent of respondents support EU membership, compared with 9.2 percent against. PM
Southwestern Asia And The Middle East
 TALIBAN COMMANDER SETS CONDITION FOR RECONCILIATION WITH AFGHAN GOVERNMENTTaliban deputy leader Mullah Brother has said that the insurgent movement could cooperate with the government of President Hamid Karzai if foreign troops leave Afghanistan, Reuters reported on March 1. Rather than calling for the government's ouster, as Taliban leaders have done in the past, Mullah Brother told a militant-linked website that "the matter cannot be solved through war.... The issue should be settled through understanding and talks." But he also reaffirmed the Taliban's pledge to use violence against foreign troops, saying that "martyrdom attacks and roadside explosions will form a major part of operations." Mullah Brother said suicide attacks are "very effective" against foreign and Afghan government forces. The Taliban carried out more than 140 suicide attacks last year, the highest number since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. The deteriorating security situation has led some Western politicians to warn that Afghanistan could slide into anarchy. AT
 MOBILE-PHONE TOWER DESTROYED IN SOUTHERN AFGHANISTANArmed men attacked and destroyed a cell tower belonging to the Roshan mobile company in Kandahar Province in southern Afghanistan on March 1, the Xinhua news agency reported on March 2, quoting local police officer Ghulam Hazrat officer (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 25, 2008). Hazrat did not say who was thought to be responsible for the attack, but added that the attackers also set fire to a generator at the site. Roshan is one of four mobile service providers in Afghanistan. AT
 THREE KILLED IN ROADSIDE BOMBING IN EASTERN AFGHANISTANTwo men and a woman were killed when their car hit a roadside bomb in eastern Afghanistan on March 1, AFP quoted a district chief as saying that day. The remote-controlled device exploded as the group drove to a cemetery in Khost Province near the Pakistani border, Alisher district chief Sher Ali said. "It was the work of those who always commit such crimes," Ali said, in a reference to Taliban militants who have used roadside bombs to target Afghan and international troops fighting the insurgency. Khost borders Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal region, where Taliban and other militants are said to have training camps. AT
 UN REPORTS AFGHAN MOTHERS GIVE THEIR CHILDREN OPIUM AS MEDICINEThe UN's IRIN news agency reported on March 2 that mothers in remote areas of Badakhshan Province, northeastern Afghanistan, give their children opium as a substitute for other medicines, and are unaware of its potential harmful effects. The news service showed a video filmed in the remote village of Jukhan where some women give their children opium up to three times a day. The UN reports that efforts are being made to rehabilitate drug addicts in the village. Although there is no official data about the number of drug addicts in Badakhshan, the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crimes (UNODC) says 1 million people, including 45,000 women, are addicted to opiates in Afghanistan, the world's leading opium producer. AT
 IRAN DOWNPLAYS POTENTIAL SANCTIONSIranian officials have downplayed the impact of sanctions that might be imposed by the UN Security Council following a March 3 vote, news agencies reported. AFP reported that the Security Council on February 29 appeared to have drafted a sanctions resolution satisfying all or most council members. Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said in Tehran on March 1 that no UN resolution can dissuade Iran from pursuing its nuclear program, while Iranian government spokesman Gholamhussein Elham said the UN Security Council has no legal right to investigate Iran's nuclear activities, IRNA reported. On March 2, parliamentary speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel said additional sanctions would not affect Iran's determination to pursue its "right" to make nuclear fuel. Iran has ignored two UN resolutions demanding that it stop fuel-making activities that could be applied to manufacture nuclear weapons. Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki separately urged the United States on March 2 to recognize Iran's rights under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and recognize its nuclear program as peaceful, IRNA reported. "We advise America to put aside its mistaken approach and accept the realities of the peaceful" nuclear program, Mottaki said. VS
 STUDENTS PROTEST IN SOUTHERN IRANAbout 1,000 students from Shiraz University in Fars Province staged a protest on March 1 to call for the resignation of university chief Hadi Sadeqi, Radio Farda reported, citing witnesses and Iranian websites (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27, 2008). The students gathered in the main campus courtyard before marching to an administrative building. Students claim to be under pressure from the university authorities, who they say have interfered in elections for student groups, favoring groups with similar views to their own, presumably conservative political and religious views. An unnamed student told Radio Farda that about 10 student protesters have been summoned and "threatened" by university security officials in recent days, while the university authorities have called and "pressured" the families of 25 students. VS
 IRANIAN OFFICIAL SAYS MOST HOPEFULS APPROVED FOR POLLSGuardians Council spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhodai said in Tehran on March 1 that about 73 percent of candidates have been approved to run in the parliamentary polls scheduled for March 14. The council has a decisive role in vetting Iranian electoral hopefuls to check their political records and personal backgrounds, and ensure that they are eligible for public office in line with Iranian law. Many in Iran say the vetting process is overly strict and biased against reformists or politicians critical of the status quo. Kadkhodai said 5,538 of the 7,597 registered hopefuls have been approved, "Kayhan" reported on March 2. He said the figure could still change, and that the Guardians Council will produce a definitive list of approved parliamentary candidates on March 3. VS
 IRAN SAYS IT WILL NOT RENEW ALGIERS ACCORD...Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said in Tehran on March 2 that Iran will not renew its signature to a treaty with Iraq that would replace the 1975 Algiers Accord demarcating the two countries' border, Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian news agency reports. Hosseini was speaking at his weekly press conference, which coincided with the first day of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's visit to Iraq. Hosseini said Iraqi officials who recently visited Tehran had "good and constructive" conversations relating to the border, but "we had no discussions about the treaty itself, nor will we," Radio Farda reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22, 2008). Media reports in recent months have indicated that Iraqi officials are not satisfied with the treaty. VS
 ...AND REJECTS CLAIMS ON GULF ISLANDSIn his comments on March 2, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hosseini rejected claims to three disputed islands in the Persian Gulf made by members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), IRNA reported. In a communique on March 1 or 2, the regional grouping repeated its backing for the United Arab Emirates' claims to the islands of Greater and Lesser Tunbs and Abu Musa, which are occupied by Iran. Foreign ministers of the GCC met in Riyadh on March 1. Hosseini said such claims amount to meddling in Iran's domestic affairs, and that the islands are an inseparable part of Iranian territory. He welcomed the GCC's assertion that states in the region have the right to peaceful nuclear energy programs, IRNA reported. VS
 IRANIAN PRESIDENT MEETS WITH IRAQI COUNTERPART...Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad met with senior Iraqi officials on March 2 during a three-day visit to Iraq, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported. At a press conference with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, Ahmadinejad said: "The joint roots of the Iranian and Iraqi people [are embedded] in history, culture, and civilization. Throughout history, the two peoples have had the best cultural and brotherly relations. Today...the political will of the leaders of our two countries is keen on promoting and consolidating the bonds of brotherhood between the two peoples." Regarding the issues discussed during the visit, Talabani said: "All economic, political, oil, and security issues have been discussed.... The results have been positive and we share identical views. The agreements reached will be announced at the end of talks." Asked about the presence of the Iranian opposition group Mujahedin-e Khalq on Iraqi territory, Talabani said: "We have not dealt with this issue [at this meeting]. We discussed this issue earlier. Their presence within the borders of Iraq is prohibited by the [Iraqi] constitution as they are a terrorist organization. We will strive to get rid of them on Iraqi territory." KR
 ...CRITICIZES U.S. DURING APPEARANCE WITH IRAQI PREMIER...Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki welcomed President Ahmadinejad during a March 2 press briefing in Baghdad, news agencies reported. "We strongly welcome the visit of his excellency.... By all standards, the visit, which is the first of its kind, reflects the interest of the two neighborly and friendly countries in expanding and enhancing their relations to serve their common interests," al-Maliki said. He added that the visit "witnessed intensive dialogue between ministers [of the two states] in various sectors: electricity, oil, transportation, trade, and industry." Al-Arabiyah television asked Ahmadinejad about U.S. President George W. Bush's statements regarding Iran's purported support for militias in Iraq, to which Ahmadinejad responded: "You can tell Mr. Bush that leveling charges against others will only aggravate America's problems in the region. Generally speaking, this will not settle problems. [America] has to accept the region's realities. The Iraqi people do not prefer or love Americans." Asked to what degree the two countries trust each other, al-Maliki told reporters: "I think there is a very high level of mutual trust.... The Islamic republic's recent stand [on security] played a key role in establishing security and stability. We hope these relations will continue in other areas." "There is no doubt the two peoples trust each other," Ahmadinejad added. Asked by Alhurra television if the strategic agreement between Baghdad and Washington is a source of concern for Iran, Ahmadinejad said: "The Iraqi people's interests are what the Iraqi people decide.... The Iraqi government and people are capable of finding where their interests lie, even on the regional level." KR
 ...AND SAYS U.S. NOT SERIOUS ABOUT FIGHTING TERRORISTSSpeaking alongside Iraqi Shi'ite leader Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim on March 2, Iranian President Ahmadinejad affirmed that Iran is on the "front line of combating terrorism," and that both countries are victims of terrorism. At the press briefing broadcast live on Al-Furat television, Ahmadinejad said: "We believe that leveling accusations [that Iran backs militias in Iraq] will not solve any of the Americans' problems. We believe that the Americans should change the way they view these issues. None of these terrorists were present in our region six years ago. The terrorists appeared here when others set foot in this country and this region. We believe that fighting the terrorists does not require the leveling of accusations." He continued: "I also believe that if the forces present in our region really want to combat terrorism, they can do so, because it is clear where terrorism is. The main centers for training terrorists have become known to all. If [the United States] is serious in this regard, the Iraqi people can give them the addresses so that they can fight the terrorists." KR
 IRAQI NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER UPBEAT ON FUTURE RELATIONSNational-security adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i told state-run Al-Iraqiyah television on March 2 that President Ahmadinejad's visit to Iraq signals an end to enmity and the start of an era of friendship between the two countries. "This visit is also a message to all the leaders in the region to the effect that Iraq is safe. It encourages all the region's leaders to initiate equal relations with Iraq," al-Rubay'i said. He praised Iran's role in bringing security to Iraq in recent months. Asked about the future of relations between the two countries, he added: "The relationship will be based on equality and mutual respect.... No country will interfere in the other's internal affairs. Neither country will export terrorism and violence. In addition, neither country will allow terrorist groups or any other side to use its territory to attack the other country." KR
 CHALDEAN BISHOP KIDNAPPED IN NORTHERN IRAQMosul Archbishop Bulus Faraj Rahhu was kidnapped outside the Holy Spirit Church in Mosul on February 29, AINA reported the same day. Rahhu's driver and bodyguard were shot and killed during the abduction, while another security guard was shot and died later in a hospital. Tribal chiefs and other officials in Mosul issued an appeal on March 2 calling on the abductors to release Rahhu, who is 67, out of deference to the special social status of the Chaldean Catholic archbishop and to safeguard the spirit of fraternity among the various parts of the Mosul population, Al-Sharqiyah television reported. Meanwhile, a statement released by the Vatican said Pope Benedict "feels close to the [Chaldean] Patriarch Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly and all of the Christian community, which has been severely tested, as well as the families of the victims. The Pontiff invites the Universal Church to unite in fervent prayer so that reason and humanity may prevail in the minds of the authors of this attack, and that Monsignor Rahhu is restored to the care of his flock as soon as possible." Chaldean Christians -- some 700,000 of whom live in Iraqi -- recognize the authority of the Pope but are autonomous from the Vatican. KR
 HOW WILL AFTERMATH OF CRACKDOWN IMPACT ARMENIAN POLITICS?By Richard Giragosian
Most statesmen, presidents and prime ministers alike, tend to devote the last days and weeks of their time in office to forging a lasting legacy of political accomplishment and leadership. But for Armenian President Robert Kocharian, who is due to relinquish power next month to his prime minister, Serzh Sarkisian, his legacy is now irrevocably marred by his imposition of a state of emergency, complete with bans on the freedoms of assembly and speech coupled with sweeping media censorship, in response to an internal political crisis that has cost at least eight lives. That decision can only compound his already entrenched unpopularity.
To be fair, Kocharian introduced a state of emergency in response to one of the most serious threats he has faced in his decade as president. After several opposition candidates either rejected outright, or called into doubt, the official results of the February 19 presidential ballot, which gave Sarkisian over 52 percent of the vote, the Armenian authorities came under increasing pressure from the street tens of thousands of supporters of defeated challenger and former President Levon Ter-Petrossian attended public rallies and demonstrations in central Yerevan for several days. Those daily opposition demonstrations, bolstered by nightly vigils by students camped out in tents on Liberty Square, combined with the opposition's steadfast rejection of the election results, clearly unnerved the authorities and took them by surprise, even though the opposition's tactics were neither especially violent nor directly confrontational.
After 11 days of escalating tension, the Armenian authorities apparently decided that the best way to end the crisis was to confront the challenge head on. In the early morning hours of Saturday, March 1, Armenian police units, backed by more heavily armed security forces, were ordered to disperse the opposition demonstrators from Liberty Square. The presence during that operation of both Yerevan police chief Nerses Nazarian and Grisha Sarkisian, the president's personal head of security, only served to underscore its tactical importance and may have emboldened some police units to adopt especially aggressive tactics.
The security forces, equipped with truncheons, tear gas, and electric stun guns, forcibly dispersed the roughly 2,000 demonstrators from the square, driving them from their tents with little or no warning. Throughout the potentially dangerous confrontation, Ter-Petrossian urged his followers to remain calm and refrain from any violent resistance. After an operation lasting only about 30 minutes, police effectively ended the protests, leaving several dozen young protesters injured.
In a subsequent defense of their action, police officials noted that the demonstrations were illegal and continued despite previous warnings and appeals by the authorities -- including by Kocharian himself on February 26 -- for participants to disperse.
The action was successful in clearing the main square and taking control over a key opposition venue, with the area quickly secured and police conducting mass arrests before carting off the tents and banners of the demonstrators. Several of the most prominent opposition figures were initially detained but quickly released, although Ter-Petrossian was escorted from the scene and placed under virtual house arrest by his own state-assigned security detail.
Even after the loss of the main square as a central focal point and the brief detention of its leadership, the opposition quickly regrouped, with several thousand demonstrators gathering at a main intersection near the French Embassy and opposite the municipal government building. In large part as a reaction to the harsh methods of the police and security forces earlier that morning, the atmosphere became increasingly tense by mid-afternoon, as the roughly 15,000 demonstrators turned large buses and vehicles into barricades.
Although the most effective way to handle such a situation would have
been to simply contain the demonstration in order to allow the tension to dissipate, police and security forces were instead hurriedly ordered to the scene and instructed to display a strong show of force. Police and demonstrators soon clashed after police fired tracer rounds into the air, followed by several tear gas volleys into the crowd. This triggered an immediate and intense response, as some demonstrators hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails at police while others set fire to police vehicles.
In Ter-Petrossian's absence, other opposition leaders were unable to restrain the crowd as clashes escalated further, resulting in injuries on both sides. Armen Martirosian, a lawmaker from the opposition Zharangutiun (Heritage) Party, was stabbed by several men after he intervened to protect an injured police officer from a group of attackers.
President Kocharian reacted by imposing a 20-day state of emergency, effectively allowing him to call out the army to quell the violence. Although the deployment of armored personnel carriers and light tanks into the city center was the first visible sign of martial law, it was a telephone call by Ter-Petrossian to his supporters ordering them to return to their homes that finally defused the clash.
Looking beyond the immediate aftermath from the crisis, the most pressing challenge is to chart the middle ground toward compromise. Although both the authorities and opposition can claim varying degrees of success, the reality of Armenia's post-election crisis suggests that both sides lost.
For the Armenian authorities, regaining control and retaking the momentum from the opposition came at a heavy price. Their handling of the crisis demonstrates the difference between ruling and governing a country, and has clearly exposed a dangerous lack of legitimacy and revealed the fragility of the rule of law. For Kocharian personally, the crisis has also magnified his unpopularity and possibly even ended any thought of continuing his political career. (The question arises as to whether Kocharian deliberately provoked disproportionate violence and then imposed a state of emergency to contain it solely in order to demonstrate that he is the sole figure capable of preventing political chaos, thereby seeking to substantiate his implicit claim to the post of prime minister. If so, he miscalculated badly.)
For the opposition, the crisis has also revealed a fundamental shortcoming far more serious than the temporary restrictions imposed by the current state of emergency. Although Ter-Petrossian was able to leverage both public discontent and antigovernment sentiment into mass public protests, the opposition, even at the height of its displays of public support, lacked a political party structure or organization. Despite Ter-Petrossian's repeated claims that a major shift has taken place over the past four or five months in Armenians' collective political consciousness, the protests were more a mass movement than a firmly-rooted political campaign. The lack of a formal party structure makes it even more difficult for Ter-Petrossian and the parties that back him to negotiate a compromise with the authorities.
Finally, it will be especially hard for the Armenian people to forgive, and even harder to forget, the events of the past few days. Even though there are no clear winners from this post-election crisis, the biggest losers have been the Armenian people.