A quiet Sunday in Yerevan

Walked into central Yerevan today.

For those of you who haven’t been following this story: for the last two weeks, tens of thousands of Armenians have been turning out to protest the results of the recent Presidential election. The ruling party’s candidate supposedly won in a landslide, but there’s reason to think the elections were stolen. Yesterday morning, the government ran out of patience, declared a “state of emergency”, and sent a wave hundreds of police into the streets, followed by a second wave of soldiers. There are reliable reports of eight people dead and perhaps a hundred injured.

But that was yesterday. Last night Levon Ter-Petrosian, the losing presidential candidate, issued a statement asking his supporters to stand down. Today…

…well, it’s quiet.

Walking around downtown, most of the shops were closed. There were few cars — much of the center was closed to traffic — and maybe 50% of the normal pedestrian traffic, dropping to more like 10% in the big central squares. But there were people, and while the atmosphere was funny, I didn’t get a sense of imminent violence.

Soldiers are everywhere. Walking down Baghramian avenue, I passed half a dozen armored personnel carriers. About fifty soldiers were hanging around them, drinking coffee and talking; they seemed pretty relaxed. Another couple of platoons were deployed in Opera Square, which had been one of the centers for the daily protests. Pedestrians were still moving around the square, but the walked by quickly, without lingering, and so did I. Down in Republic Square, where the National Museum faces the Marriott Hotel, more soldiers, along with a scattering of jeeps and ambulances. (Oddly, I found the ambulances more worrying than the armored vehicles.)

The general mood of the city is… subdued. I talked to some friends and colleagues, including a couple who’d been in the demonstrations. They’re bitter; the government is justifying the crackdown by saying the demonstrators (who had bent over backwards to be peaceful) were violent, dangerous, and about to attempt a coup. The government-controlled TV stations (which is, at the moment, all of them) have been showing the same footage over and over again of guns and grenades allegedly found on protesters. I don’t find it very convincing, but I don’t think the government cares.

Speaking of media, the state of emergency gives the government formal control over all of them: by law, nobody can disseminate anything but official or officially approved information for the next 20 days. It’s unclear whether this applies to blogs, but at least one prominent local blogger believes that it does. In which case I would be breaking the law by hitting “publish” here.

There’s not a lot more to add. The US and the OSCE have condemned the violence. Russia has been silent. Don’t know about the EU. Again, I don’t get a feeling of simmering rage or imminent violence. Ter-Petrosian’s support was drawn disproportionately from the educated middle class, and I get the vibe that these people are willing to follow his lead and go home. Ter-Petrosian himself is under house arrest “for his own protection”. (It’ll be interesting to see how long that lasts.) I’d like to give some analysis and put it all in a bigger context, but at the moment I’m too close.

And too bummed; the more I think about this, the more depressing it gets. Maybe in a day or two.

Comments welcome.

10 thoughts on “A quiet Sunday in Yerevan

  1. Thanks for the update, Douglas. And, please, take care.

    I would like to mention that AFOE is currently (and finally) updating their blogroll. Readers interested in what is going on in Armenia right now should also check our blogroll under “Eastern Europe”.

  2. Just to clarify, I was informed that the state of emergency by The Armenian Observer (http://ditord.wordpress.com) who in turn was told by the Legal expert at Internews in Yerevan.

    Anyway, I think I’ve decided to continue blogging regardless, but of course, any information considered to incite unrest or insurrection or whatever risks actions from the authorities.

    There’s going to be a fine line to tread and I’m not sure how it will play out. I’m going to try anyway. Let’s see what happens.

  3. Pingback: Armenia Election Monitor 2008 » Blog Archive » Levon Ter-Petrossian Rally: 28 February 2008

  4. Doug, please keep your head safe.

    I just find it amazing how mostly the educated middle class people would have to protest in a society where by definition they are doing better than the people who did not vote for Ter-Petrosian. It would imply that people who are not doing so well are “to a degree” happy with the way things are going, and the people who are doing better are less happy.

    The logic would be that if you’re poor, uneducated… and the rest of the stereotypes then you have nothing to loose and you risk your safety to demand change.

    I always found people who vote for the opposition to be more snobbish, sometimes bordering on racist, looking down on these “poor, uneducated, unsophisticated masses” that do not vote for “their candidate.”

    Doug, this is a general comment, not an attack on your article, just to clarify this matter.

    Anyhow, if Armenia were close to joining, say, NATO like Macedonia is hoping to be then a few thousand protesters would be able to put real pressure on the government, sadly this is not the case. So, to keep your head safe I suggest to write something about the upcoming Macedonia name dispute crisis and the risk of missing on NATO membership because of the Greek veto.

    What’s your opinion? Will we have the “Republic of Upper Macedonia” (I hate this term “upper”) or the “Republic of Macedonia-Skopje?

    Best wishes,

    Fidel

  5. Fidel, a good point, but from my point of view it can’t be said that Ter-Petrossian has middle-class support. Indeed, his rallies were mainly full of the downtrodden and people from the regions. Many of them, btw, I’ve photographed time and time again at opposition rallies lead by different figures since 2003. Basically, they’re unhappy with the situation and will support anyone in opposition who speaks to them at the lowest common denominator — i.e. hate.

    However, there were more people from civil society and the middle class supporting Levon than usual, in part because he is considered a more educated, intellectual, academic and pro-Western figure than any of the other opposition alternatives who were running. However, that wasn’t a huge number of people, but it was enough if you consider that for once they were also at rallies, and in the case of the media and civil society they utilized their own “administrative resources” in his support.

    Nevertheless, for every educated, middle-class, progressive young Armenia who supported Levon, I know three or four that didn’t. Anyway.

  6. Incidentally, although there is nothing to back this up, many of us feel as though Levon Ter-Petrossian had about 20 percent genuine support in society while Sargsyan had about 35.

    The remainder was split among other candidates — mainly Artur Baghdasarian and Vahan Hovannisian, with an unknown but probably significant number who sold their votes to the highest bidder, most likely the prime minister, Serge Sargsyan.

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  8. I would agree with Onnik.

    I said LTP’s support was drawn “disproportionately from the educated middle class”. Let me clarify that. I saw three groups out there.

    1) Hardcore LTP supporters. This was, as Onnik says, maybe 20% of the population. It is a mixed group — some young people who don’t remember how bad things were under LTP in the 1990s, some older people who revere him as the Father Of The Country, some intellectuals who love him because he’s an intellectual in action.

    2) People who just hate the government and/or the way things are here. I think these are the people who Onnik says he’s photographed again and again.

    3) People who were particularly pissed about the way the government stole THIS election.

    Not all these people were strong LTP supporters (though many were). Some didn’t vote for him or even like him much. But he was what they had, I think.

    Oh, and also (4) some hooligans and (5) some provocateurs. Maybe a lot of (5), depending on who you talk to.

    Doug M.

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