March 7, 2008


Dark Days in Armenia

The democracy that Armenians dreamed of during their long decades under Moscow’s yoke is slipping away. After opponents challenged last month’s flawed presidential election, the government imposed a brutal state of emergency. At least eight people are now dead, independent news outlets throttled and all protests silenced. President Bush and other Western leaders need to make clear to Armenia’s government that such behavior is unacceptable and will jeopardize future relations. Compared to post-Soviet tyrannies like Belarus or Uzbekistan, Armenia may not look so bad. That is why it is so important to halt this slide into authoritarianism before it is too late.

Official election results handed an overwhelming victory to the ruling party candidate, Serge Sargsyan. International monitors declared that while the overall outcome appeared fair, there were serious problems with the vote count. The protests that followed only turned violent after police began beating demonstrators.

Witnesses told our colleague, Sabrina Tavernise, that government authorities planted guns and grenades among the sleeping protestors last Saturday morning. Then, claiming that they were thwarting an attempted coup, police attacked the opposition camp. The next day, the outgoing president sent tanks into the streets, banned demonstrations and ordered Armenian news organizations to relay only information provided by his government. Local stations can no longer use the Armenian language programs produced by foreign broadcasters including the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

That drew an admirably strong protest from Washington’s Broadcasting Board of Governors, the independent federal agency that supervises these stations, while the State Department has expressed its concern over the death toll. Their words would carry more weight if President Bush added his voice. Armenia, embroiled in a lengthy standoff with neighboring Azerbaijan, is relatively isolated in its own region and especially values its good relations with the United States.

This is not a case of pure democratic virtue against pure authoritarian evil. The defeated opposition leader, Levon Ter-Petrossian, is a former president who in the 1990s sent armored cars into the streets to crush demonstrators protesting his electoral manipulations.

He insists, without credible evidence, that he won this election. And once government forces set off last weekend’s violence, some of those who turned out in Mr. Ter-Petrossian’s behalf seemed more interested in looting nearby shops. The main responsibility lies with Armenia’s government leaders, and it is to them that the White House must address its protests.