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Silence on Armenia

By Levon Ter-Petrossian
Wednesday, March 5, 2008

YEREVAN, Armenia -- In Armenia's presidential election last month, I stood as the main opposition candidate against incumbent Prime Minister Serzh Sarkissian. The election followed a sadly familiar script: The regime harassed the opposition's representatives, bribed and intimidated voters, stuffed ballot boxes, and systematically miscounted votes. Indeed, the rigging of the outcome did not begin on Feb. 19. For the duration of the campaign the country's main medium of communication, television, which is tightly controlled by the regime, churned out propaganda that would have made Brezhnev-era Soviet propagandists blush in shame.

We in the opposition were angered by all of this but not surprised. What surprised and dismayed us was the deafening silence from the West. What dismayed us even more was the technical report of the observer mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which rubber-stamped Sarkissian's farcical claim of victory.

The people of Armenia, unlike the OSCE monitors, chose to see what happened at the polling stations. Naturally, they discounted Sarkissian's claim and gathered to demand annulment of the results. They staged a continuous protest at Opera Square that became the most wonderful celebration of freedom and one that should be studied as an example of nonviolent, lawful resistance against illegitimate rule.

Deeply concerned that the ranks of protesters were swelling by the day, the regime decided early Saturday to resort to force. Riot police were ordered to disperse the crowd, detain the opposition leaders and put me under house arrest. After several hours, citizens reassembled at another site, demanding to see their leaders, but instead they encountered more riot police, later reinforced by units of the Armenian army, which was ordered to crush the protest. At least eight people were killed this weekend, and emergency rule has been declared.

How did we come to this? Why did the regime headed by outgoing President Robert Kocharian and "president-elect" Sarkissian think it could get away with using force against its own people? Surely the two men had their reasons, but the West's signal, even if unintentional, that they did not have to worry about a strong international reaction was the most important one.

We in Armenia have been trying to understand the roots of such indifference to the rape of our democracy by the Kocharian-Sarkissian regime. The available evidence suggests two explanations: First, some influential organizations and actors in the West, and in Europe in particular, are naively wedded to the notion of positive reinforcement. They seem to think that praising small improvements, instead of criticizing major flaws, creates an incentive for good behavior. Anyone who has studied this regime closely, however, understands the absurdity of such an approach.

Second, and perhaps more important, is the oft-stated claim that the only people able to settle Armenia's long-standing conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region will be leaders who are themselves from Nagorno-Karabakh -- as Kocharian and Sarkissian are -- and who are perceived domestically as hard-liners. This is analogous to the "only Nixon could go to China" logic. The problem is that despite being in power for the past 10 years, Kocharian and Sarkissian have done little to move the negotiating process forward. More important, any leader who must make consequential and difficult choices must have the trust of his people. Sarkissian does not have that trust. After what he and Kocharian did on March 1, he will not be able to govern here, let alone make difficult choices.

So what should be done? What do the people of Armenia expect from the West, and the United States in particular? At the very least, we expect a strong and unequivocal condemnation of the violence that occurred March 1 and a recognition that the government, not the opposition, bears responsibility. This condemnation should accompany a stern warning against continued persecution of the opposition and its leaders -- mistreatment that is reaching unprecedented levels -- as well as a demand to lift the restrictions on the media and restore the people's rights to free assembly and unbiased information. We also expect a reassessment of the conduct of the election. Any serious reassessment will inevitably lead to the conclusion that a new election must be held.

If these steps are not taken, Armenians will draw two very undesirable conclusions: that peaceful and lawful means of political struggle are ineffective and pointless, and that the West cares about democracy only when it is politically expedient to do so. The West must do everything possible to dissuade Armenia's citizens from reaching those conclusions.

The writer was president of Armenia from 1991 to 1998 and was the main opposition candidate for president this year. He is under house arrest.

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