Freedom in the World
olitics in Armenia in 2004 featured an ongoing, sometimes even violent, struggle between the ruling coalition and the country's opposition forces. A campaign of street demonstrations in April by Armenia's main opposition parties, whose demands were based on the government's failure to redress the flawed 2003 presidential elections, was met with a brutal response from the authorities. These events took place within a wider context of a closing of political space in Armenia, where independent voices, including news media, were further marginalized.
Following a brief period of independence from 1918 to 1920, a part of the predominantly Christian Transcaucasus republic of Armenia became a Soviet republic in 1922, while the western portion was ceded to Turkey. Armenia declared its independence from the Soviet Union in September 1991.
The banning of nine political parties prior to the 1995 parliamentary elections ensured the dominance of President Levon Ter Petrosian's ruling Armenian National Movement (ANM) coalition. In February 1998, Petrosian stepped down following the resignation of key officials in protest of his gradualist approach to solving the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, the disputed enclave in Azerbaijan. Prime Minister Robert Kocharian, the former president of Nagorno-Karabakh, was elected president in March of that year with the support of the previously banned Armenian Revolutionary Federation - Dashnaktsutiun.
Parliamentary elections in May 1999 resulted in an overwhelming victory for the Unity bloc, a new alliance of Defense Minister Vazgen Sarkisian's Republican Party and former Soviet Armenian leader Karen Demirchian's People's Party, which campaigned on a political platform of greater state involvement in the economy and increased social spending. In June, Sarkisian was named prime minister and Demirchian became Speaker of Parliament.
The country was plunged into a political crisis on October 27, 1999, when five gunmen stormed the parliament building and assassinated Sarkisian, Demirchian, and several other senior government officials. The leader of the gunmen, Nairi Hunanian, maintained that he and the other assailants had acted alone in an attempt to incite a popular revolt against the government. Meanwhile, allegations that Kocharian or members of his inner circle had orchestrated the shootings prompted opposition calls for the president to resign. However, because of an apparent lack of evidence, prosecutors did not press charges against Kocharian, who gradually consolidated his power during the following year. In May 2000, Kocharian named Republican Party leader Andranik Markarian as prime minister, replacing Vazgen Sarkisian's younger brother, Aram, who had served in the position for only five months following the parliament shootings.
In 2003, Kocharian was reelected in a presidential vote that was widely regarded as flawed. He defeated Stepan Demirchian, son of the late Karen Demirchian, in a second round run-off with 67 percent of the vote. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) described the elections as falling "short of international standards for democratic elections," and asserted that "voting, counting, and tabulation showed serious irregularities, including widespread ballot-box stuffing." The second round of voting, which was held on March 5, saw the authorities place more than 200 opposition supporters under administrative detention for over 15 days; the detainees were sentenced on charges of hooliganism and participation in unsanctioned demonstrations. The Constitutional Court rejected appeals by opposition leaders to invalidate the election results, although it did propose holding a "referendum of confidence" in Kocharian within the next year to allay widespread doubts about the validity of the election returns. Kocharian indicated that he would not comply with the proposal. In response to the problems associated with the election, a standoff emerged between Kocharian and the political opposition, formed by two major groups - the Artarutiun (Justice bloc) and the National Unity Party - with opposition parties choosing not to attend sessions of the National Assembly.
Protest rallies were organized in Yerevan from April 2004 into June over the failure of the government to redress the 2003 presidential vote. The authorities responded with violence, using police to disperse demonstrators in Yerevan with water cannons, batons, and stun grenades. Following the crackdown by the authorities in April, these demonstrations grew ever smaller. Perhaps as a testament of the opposition's inability to coordinate and settle on an effective strategy, no meaningful movement on the political scene was apparent as of November.
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) adopted a resolution in October 2004 expressing concern about the lack of investigation into the flawed 2003 elections and calling for steps to end pretrial administrative detention, physical ill-treatment, and other abuses.
A resolution to the long-standing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict came no closer during the year, and there were reports of some heavy fighting along the ceasefire line.
Armenians cannot change their government democratically. The 1995 and 1999 parliamentary and 1996 presidential elections were marred by serious irregularities. The most recent presidential and parliamentary polls, in February-March and May 2003, respectively, were strongly criticized by international election monitors, who cited widespread fraud, particularly in the presidential vote. The 1995 constitution provides for a weak legislature and a strong, directly elected president who appoints the prime minister. Most parties in Armenia are dominated by government officials or other powerful figures, suffer from internal dissent and division, and tend to be weak and ineffective. President Robert Kocharian, whose term expires in 2008, does not belong to any political party and relies on a three-party coalition to rule the country.
Bribery and nepotism are reported to be common among government bureaucrats, and government officials are rarely prosecuted or otherwise removed for abuse of office. Corruption is also believed to be serious in law enforcement. Armenia was ranked 82 out of 146 countries surveyed in the 2004 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index.
There are limits on press freedom, and in 2004 the Armenian media continued to exist on a landscape where independent television and radio news content was effectively nonexistent. There are a number of private television stations, and most radio stations are privately owned. While most newspapers are in private hands, the majority operate with limited resources and have small circulations and consequently are dependent on economic and political interest groups for their survival. Newspapers in impoverished Armenia are often out of the economic reach of many Armenians. A media law adopted in 2003 abolishes the requirement that media organizations register with the Ministry of Justice, but the criminal code still includes libel as a criminal offense. A high level of political intimidation also leads to considerable self-censorship by journalists.
In 2002, the independent television station A1+ lost its license after the national television and radio broadcasting commission granted a tender for its broadcasting frequency to another channel. Journalists and opposition politicians criticized the closure of A1+, which had a reputation for balanced reporting, as a politically motivated decision to control media coverage in the run-up to the 2003 presidential and parliamentary elections. Following the decision, thousands of people demonstrated in a series of weekly protests over the station's closure and to demand Kocharian's resignation. In 2003, additional bids by A1+ for a broadcast frequency were rejected. In 2004, A1+ won the right to take its case to the European Court of Human Rights. According to the U.S. Department of State 2004 human rights report, Armenia did not restrict access to the Internet.
Freedom of religion is somewhat respected. The Armenian constitution provides for freedom of religion, but the law specifies some restrictions on the religious freedom of adherents of minority faiths. The Armenian Apostolic Church, to which 90 percent of Armenians formally belong, enjoys a privileged status and has advocated for restrictions on nontraditional denominations. While 50 religious groups are officially registered, the Jehovah's Witnesses have been denied registration repeatedly because of the group's strong opposition to compulsory military service.
The government generally does not restrict academic freedom. In September 2002, the Ministry of Education ordered the compulsory display of the portraits of Kocharian and the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church in secondary schools. The history of the Apostolic Church is a required school subject.
Registration requirements for nongovernmental associations are cumbersome and time-consuming. The authorities abused administrative detention regulations to intimidate and punish peaceful demonstrators and political activists following the 2003 presidential election. This issue remained a bone of contention in 2004, with the PACE condemning the use of violence by the Armenian authorities in April and criticizing them for the continued application of the administrative code to arrest protesters. Opposition activist Eduard Arakelian was given an 18-month jail sentence in May for hitting a policeman with a plastic mineral water bottle during the April rally. Arakelian pleaded guilty but said that he had struck the policeman after the official had hit him with a truncheon in the face. In May, parliament banned rallies not approved in advance on virtually all public squares in Yerevan and other major cities.
While the constitution enshrines the right to form and join trade unions, in practice, labor organizations are weak and relatively inactive.
The judiciary is subject to political pressure from the executive branch and also suffers from violations of due process. Police frequently make arbitrary arrests without warrants, beat detainees during arrest and interrogation, and use torture to extract confessions. A Human Rights Watch report concluded that police denied access to legal counsel to those opposition supporters who were given short prison terms for participating in unauthorized rallies after the 2003 presidential vote.
Although members of the country's tiny ethnic minority population rarely report cases of overt discrimination, they have complained about difficulties in receiving education in their native languages.
Freedom of travel and residence is largely respected. However, registering changes in residency is sometimes complicated by the need to negotiate with an inefficient or corrupt government bureaucracy. According to a Human Rights Watch report, in March and April of 2004, the police restricted the movement of opposition supporters seeking to travel to Yerevan by setting up roadblocks, stopping cars, and questioning the passengers.
Citizens have the right to own private property and establish businesses, but an inefficient and often corrupt court system and unfair business competition hinder operations. Key industries remain in the hands of oligarchs and influential clans who received preferential treatment in the early stages of privatization.
Domestic violence and trafficking in women and girls for the purpose of prostitution are believed to be serious problems.