Inspired by the peaceful street revolution in next-door Georgia last year that toppled the country's longtime president, Armenia's newly united political opposition set out to duplicate it here. They took to the streets this spring by the thousands, denouncing Armenian President Robert Kocharian and vote fraud in elections last year.
But as spring has given way to the sweltering Yerevan summer, it has become increasingly apparent that there will be no Armenian revolution -- at least not this time. The opposition in recent weeks has called its forces off the streets and retreated to closed-door strategy sessions. Kocharian taunted them in a speech in France for failing to realize that his police, unlike those in Georgia, were ready and able to "maintain public order."
Instead of creating a peaceful uprising, according to several independent observers, Western diplomats and Yerevan residents interviewed here last week, the protest proved to be an object lesson in the powerful inertia of post-Soviet politics. Georgia, it turns out, was more likely the exception than the model.
In the case of Armenia, Kocharian held onto power despite many signs of widespread dissatisfaction with the course of this small and struggling mountain country in the volatile South Caucasus region. And he did so using the authoritarian tactics increasingly favored across the states of the former Soviet Union, including willingness to use force against protesters, elimination of independent television news broadcasts and mass detentions of opposition activists.
"Of course, they tried to imitate" the Georgian revolution, Kocharian said in an interview at his presidential palace last week. His rivals failed, he said, because the Armenian opposition had "nothing in common" with the pro-Western protesters who triggered the ouster of President Eduard Shevardnadze in Georgia and instead is "trying to sing an aria from one opera in a completely different one."
Kocharian called his opponents poor losers interested only in competing for power among themselves and said he had no choice but to use police force to break up a demonstration they staged on April 12 and 13 because it constituted a "threat" to the state. "The government has to protect the society from political extremism," he said.
Kocharian's crackdown drew immediate condemnation from international organizations and foreign governments. Human Rights Watch, in a report titled "Cycle of Repression," found that 300 or more protesters had been temporarily detained, several journalists attacked, and dozens of protesters injured by security forces that used "excessive force," including stun grenades and water cannons, to break up the crowd.
Shortly afterward, authorities ransacked the headquarters of the three largest opposition parties and several protesters have since received harsh sentences. Edgar Arakelian, for instance, was given an 18-month jail term for throwing an empty plastic water bottle at a police officer.
"Kocharian is moving the country toward a police state," said Mikael Danielyan, a human rights activist who was assaulted March 30 by four men and hospitalized for days. Danielyan said it was the first such attack on a human rights activist in Armenia since the Soviet collapse. "When they beat me, the government tries to show they can do whatever they want; they have all the power."
In the interview, Kocharian denied any systematic violations of the sort that international election observers and human rights groups complained about. While acknowledging that Armenia has "an imperfect election system," he argued that even if election monitors were correct about violations, there would have been no change in the outcome of the 2003 race, in which he was reelected in a second-round runoff with 67 percent of the vote. "You would need a sick imagination to have doubts about my election," said Kocharian, who was first elected in 1998.
He also claimed that just 17 opposition protesters were arrested, not hundreds, and that of those, only a few appealed their convictions. "If they treated them unfairly, hundreds could have appealed," he said.
The effort to duplicate what Georgians call the "rose revolution" began in earnest in February, when two leading opposition factions -- the Justice alliance of nine smaller parties and the National Unity Party -- teamed up and walked out of the Armenian parliament.
Armenia's Constitutional Court in a ruling last year had appeared to sanction concerns about violations in the presidential race. In a passage whose meaning is still hotly disputed by Armenia's political factions, the court either ordered or recommended a national referendum of confidence in Kocharian by this April to assuage those concerns. When Kocharian's allies refused to act on a referendum, the opposition opted for the parliamentary boycott and a campaign of street rallies.
Almost from the start, opposition leaders said they believed that the Georgian revolution had convinced Kocharian that it was necessary to take tough steps against them -- unlike Shevardnadze, who wavered on ordering troops to break up the protests that triggered his resignation last November.
"They were really terrorizing people here -- they didn't have this in Georgia," said Stepan Demirchian, a leader of the Justice coalition and son of a Kocharian rival killed in 1999 when gunmen invaded parliament and shot several prominent politicians. "Here, the authorities are prepared to do everything to keep their power."
But their critics said the opposition had just as much to do with why their revolution failed as did Kocharian. Several analysts said opposition leaders are skilled at using the language of Western-oriented democracy but are in fact better characterized as Russian-leaning professional politicians interested in seizing power themselves. Ordinary Armenians, these critics added, simply never believed that the opposition could topple Kocharian and improve the situation.
"It's a very weak opposition unable to come up with any sort of vision or positive program and unable to unite about anything other than opposition to Kocharian," said a senior foreign diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity in keeping with diplomatic practice.
"They are not really opposition -- they are people who didn't get power," said Danielyan.
Another key difference between Armenia and Georgia has been the lesser role played here by foreign-funded nongovernmental groups, such as investor George Soros's Open Society Institute. Independent television -- which helped draw thousands into the streets supporting Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili -- hasn't existed in Armenia since the government yanked the broadcast license of the network called A1+ two years ago.
In Georgia, "civil society is very strong, grass-roots groups are very strong there, the media are quite strong there," and they participated in mobilizing activists who helped move along events during the revolution, said Larisa Minasyan, executive director of the Open Society Institute here. "In Armenia, genuine civil society has quite distanced itself from the two political forces in this standoff."
For now, the anti-presidential forces are on a break, unsure of how to proceed besides promising "new elements," as Demirchian put it, in their campaign against Kocharian. "The only place we have left is the street," said Aram Sarkisian, another Justice leader. "There's no other way to continue our struggle, but they don't like to let us out on the streets, either."
Hrayr Tovmasyan, an independent political analyst, said that "the two sides are deadlocked and now the government and the opposition are repeating the same moves over and over, like a long-running soap opera. The opposition has no new moves left; they can't arrange protests anymore. This could be their death.
"The authorities don't have any new moves, either, and won't even think about compromise, which could lead to their death," he said. "It's just a dead end."
He and other experts here say they worry that the Armenian political unrest might turn into not only a case study in the difficulty of challenging power in the former Soviet Union but a longer-term threat to the country's development.
Closed borders have cut off Armenia economically from its neighbors Turkey and Azerbaijan; Armenia fought a war in the 1990s with Azerbaijan over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. It does not have a wealth of natural resources available. And now, Georgia has seized what international attention there was on the South Caucasus region with its experiment in democracy.
"This standoff could last for years," Tovmasyan said. "At the same time, Georgia has grabbed the flag of democracy in the region and will get investments there as a result, and Azerbaijan can count on billions of dollars for its budget from oil. What future is there for Armenia? It's hard to say."