Armenia’s leading opposition parties have condemned authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh for forcibly preventing dozens of members of a smaller Armenian opposition group from entering the territory as part of its campaign for “regime change” in Yerevan.
A motorcade of over 30 cars carrying the activists of the group called the Founding Parliament was stopped and attacked by Karabakh security forces at Armenia’s border with the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) on Saturday. More than a dozen oppositionists, including Founding Parliament leader Zhirayr Sefilian, were injured in the violent crackdown that caused outrage among government critics in both Armenia and Karabakh.
The Founding Parliament insisted afterwards that the Karabakh riot police began beating the Yerevan-based activists and smashing their cars after Sefilian agreed to obey their orders and told the convoy to turn back. “As soon as Zhirayr turned around to get in his car and drive back to Yerevan they started hitting him,” one of the activists, Ara Khudaverdian, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “It was like a bandit attack.”
“It all started after they stole my camera,” said another activist, Arsen Khechoyan. He claimed that two other Founding Parliament members filming the procession also had their cameras confiscated on the spot.
The Karabakh police defended the use of force, saying that it prevented “mass disturbances.” A police statement claimed that the oppositionists would have been confronted by many angry Karabakh Armenians had they been allowed to take their campaign to the self-proclaimed republic.
A spokesman for Bako Sahakian, the NKR president, likewise justified the violence and accused the Founding Parliament of resorting to “provocations.” “What is Artsakh (Karabakh) to do with internal political developments, regime change in the Republic of Armenia?” added Davit Babayan.
A 12-minute footage of the incident released by the opposition group on Sunday shows that uniformed policemen and plainclothes men deployed at an NKR checkpoint were not physically attacked before punching and kicking Found Parliament members mostly seated in their cars. The police pummeled many cars with truncheons and broke their windshields even when they sped away from the scene. Babayan alleged that law-enforcement used force because of being verbally abused by the oppositionists.
The video, rapidly spread by Internet users, only added to an uproar in Armenia where riot police have generally exercised restraint ever since a deadly post-election unrest in 2008.The mainstream Armenian opposition was quick to blame the political leaderships of both Karabakh Armenia.
In a statement issued on Sunday, the Armenian National Congress (HAK) linked the violence with a recent series of violent attacks in Yerevan on several opposition activists, most of them HAK members or sympathizers. The opposition party led by former President Levon Ter-Petrosian claimed that the Armenian government has orchestrated such violence to neutralize popular resentment against its “shameful failings.” It also warned that Saturday’s incident could have an “extremely negative” impact on Karabakh’s image abroad.
Zharangutyun (Heritage) party leader Raffi Hovannisian similarly blamed President Serzh Sarkisian’s and Karabakh’s Sahakian for the violence. In a statement, Hovannisian said that both men should step down “for the sake of justice.”
Nikol Pashinian, another prominent opposition figure, decried the “monstrous incident” at the start of a winter session of Armenia’s parliament on Monday.Pashinian urged parliament speaker Galust Sahakian to form an ad hoc team of parliamentarians and send it to Stepanakert on a fact-finding mission.
Sahakian responded by pledging to discuss the matter with his Karabakh counterpart, Ashot Ghulian. “I think that relevant NKR bodies are dealing with the incident,” he said. “I will analyze that information and react to your statement.”
Some pro-government deputies made no secret of their approval of the harsh crackdown. “Karabakh is off limits to trouble-makers,” said Manvel Grigorian, a retired army general. “Only normal citizens can go there.”
Yerevan-based leaders of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), which is in nominal opposition to the Sarkisian administration but allied to the NKR leadership, disagreed. One of them, Aghvan Vartanian, called the Karabakh authorities’ violent response “unacceptable.”
But both Vartanian and Armen Rustamian, another Dashnaktsutyun leader, also criticized the Founding Parliament for trying to campaign in Karabakh and using the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide in Ottoman Turkey for domestic political purposes. The centenary will be officially marked on April 24.
The Founding Parliament, which is not represented in the National Assembly and has failed to pull large crowds so far, has been campaigning under the motto “Centenary without regime!” One of its activists was beaten up in Yerevan in November shortly after a series of arson attacks on cars belonging to six other members of the vocal anti-government movement. Nobody has been arrested or prosecuted in connection with those incidents.