This Washington Post editorial appeared in the wake of the fraudulent presidential election that was held in Armenia 14 years ago today and proved fatal for the country’s post-Soviet history. Sadly, the piece remains timely to this day and can be “adopted” to the dramatic events of February-March 2008 in Yerevan with amazing ease. All you have to do is just to change the dates and a couple of names.
The Washington Post | Oct 1, 1996 — ARMENIA GETS more U.S. aid per capita than any other country but Israel. It earned this distinction not only through the fervent interest of so many Armenian Americans but also by portraying itself — and for a time living up to the image of being — a true democracy in the post-Soviet world. Sadly, reality has moved far from that image, as incumbent president Levon Ter-Petrossian has claimed reelection after a vote marred by fraud and has arrested or sent into exile or underground much of his political opposition. Almost as sadly, the U.S. government has reserved its strongest condemnation thus far for the opposition, even as Armenia slides toward authoritarian rule.
Armenia embarked on its post-Soviet independence with great and legitimate hopes five years ago. Unlike so many other republics in the region where former Communist bosses simply repainted themselves as democrats, it chose as its leader a scholar and former dissident in Mr. Ter-Petrossian. But more than a year ago, the president started down the slope toward rule by Diktat, banning a major opposition party and gagging much of the press. Parliamentary elections last year were widely condemned for violations of fairness.
In the just-completed presidential election, Mr. Ter-Petrossian enjoyed 1,050 minutes of coverage on state television, compared with 65 minutes for his leading opponent — a former prime minister and onetime ally named Vazgen Manoukian. According to international observers, the vote itself was marred by “significant and serious breaches in the law.” The observers’ preliminary report suggested that such breaches were not enough to sway the election, but now that Mr. Ter-Petrossian has claimed just shy of 52 percent of the vote — he needed 50 percent to avoid a runoff — the legitimacy of his victory is in strong doubt.
Opposition rallies in the capital of Yerevan were huge and largely peaceful, but fighting broke out on one occasion when the election commission refused to order a recount. Now the incumbent has sent troops and tanks into the capital, imposing a virtual state of emergency. Opposition deputies have been beaten and kicked out of parliament. Troops have stormed into opposition party headquarters and shut them down.
In the face of this, the State Department has mustered nothing more than to say it is following events “with great interest” while finding “regrettable and unfortunate” the opposition violence. What is truly regrettable is not just this mealy-mouthed American response but the sight of a small nation with a sad but courageous history watching its chance at self-rule being stolen.