By Emil Danielyan, Armen Zakarian and Gayane Danielian
Armenia reacted with relief on Monday to the dramatic but bloodless ouster of neighboring Georgia’s President Eduard Shevardnadze that seems to have ended a bitter post-election standoff which threatened to have negative ramifications for the entire region.
President Robert Kocharian and other Armenian leaders said they are glad that Georgia, which serves as landlocked Armenia’s main conduit to the outside world, did not slip into chaos following three weeks of vocal opposition protests against the official results of the November 2 parliamentary elections.
Meanwhile, their opponents, who likewise charged massive vote rigging in Armenian elections earlier this year, hailed Shevardnadze’s exit as a “victory of democracy.” Some of them claimed that the same fate will eventually await the Armenian president.
“For us the best scenario was to have a certainty established in Georgia as soon as possible,” Kocharian said. “In effect, this is what has happened.”
Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian similarly welcomed the absence of “violence and great upheavals” in what has been touted as a “velvet revolution” in Tbilisi. “Armenia hopes that Georgia will quickly restore public calm and establish stability which is necessary not only for Georgia but also Armenia and the entire region,” he told a separate news conference.
Shevardnadze stepped down on Sunday under strong pressure from the opposition which accuses him of rigging the elections in favor of his loyalists. The resignation followed the previous day’s seizure of the parliament building and the presidential office in Tbilisi by opposition leaders backed by tens of thousands of angry protesters. One of those leaders, speaker of the outgoing Georgian parliament Nino Burjanadze, took over as interim president and pledged to hold fresh presidential and parliamentary elections within 45 days.
Oskanian said the regime change, which ended a political era in Georgia, is unlikely to affect Georgian-Armenian relations. “At the moment, there is an acting president there and we will work with her and other relevant officials appointed by her,” he said.
Earlier this month, Kocharian discussed the mounting tensions in a phone conversation with Shevardnadze and received the latter’s most powerful ally, Aslan Abashidze, in Yerevan. Abashidze, who runs the Georgian Black Sea Region of Abkhazia, was reportedly trying to drum up support for Shevardnadze from Georgia’s ex-Soviet neighbors, notably Russia.
Official Yerevan, however, ruled out any intervention in Georgia’s domestic crisis, while closely watching dramatic developments in its strategically import neighbor which has a sizable ethnic Armenian minority. More importantly, over 90 percent of Armenia’s external trade is carried out through Georgia and any disruption of those trade routes would seriously hurt the Armenian economy.
The transit of Armenian cargos through Georgian territory has so far not been affected by the political turmoil -- a fact emphasized by Kocharian. “I think that this certainty will really enable us to avoid those [negative] consequences which could have happened,” he told journalists.
Kocharian at the same time made it clear that the bloodless revolution will have negative short-term effects on the struggling Georgian economy, hinting that Armenia was lucky to avoid a similar upheaval in the wake of its 2003 presidential and parliamentary elections that were also tainted with vote rigging.
The Armenian capital too was a schene of prolonged opposition demonstrations against reported falsifications at the time. But those protests, which also drew huge crowds, were remarkably peaceful and died down in a matter of weeks as leaders of the Armenian opposition avoided any actions that could be deemed “unconstitutional” by the authorities. The opposition still refuses to recognize Kocharian’s hotly disputed reelection in the February-March vote as well as the equally controversial victory of his loyalists in the May legislative polls.
Stepan Demirchian, Kocharian’s main challenger who claims to have been robbed of the Armenian presidency, hailed the outcome of the Georgian crisis. “Fortunately, the handover of power took place without bloodshed,” he told RFE/RL. “Taking this opportunity, I would like to congratulate the Georgian people and what was until now the opposition. After all, this was a victory of the people and democracy.”
This assessment was echoed by ordinary residents of Yerevan. “Democracy had to prevail in some place,” said one middle-aged man. “The stubbornness and consistency shown by the Georgian opposition is really needed in this region.”
“Long live Georgia! This is a great victory,” said another man. “Many [ex-Soviet] republics would dream about it.”
“It’s a terrible thing when you elect someone but see others declared winners,” agreed a woman.
Demirchian sought to assure supporters that his Artarutyun (Justice) alliance will continue to fight against Armenia’s “illegitimate regime.” “The illegitimate president must go, and the process [initiated by the opposition] is not at all over,” he said.
Still, Demirchian was vague about whether Artarutyun leaders now feel buoyed by the success of their Georgian counterparts and would like to replicate their tactics. “Conclusions about the Georgian experience must first of all be made by the authorities,” he said.
Other oppositionists sounded more bullish. “Don’t worry; the same will happen in Armenia,” said Albert Bazeyan, an Artarutyun lawmaker. Bazeyan argued that the Georgian opposition achieved a quick success because it had more financial and administrative resources and faced a much weaker state security apparatus that effectively deserted Shevardnadze.
Oskanian, for his part, dismissed any parallels between the Armenian and Georgian elections that were both strongly criticized by Western election observers. He argued that despite its “deep disappointment” with the way Kocharian’s reelection was secured, the United States did not openly question the outcome of the Armenian presidential ballot.
U.S. criticism of the Georgian elections was not initially harsh. But in a statement issued just days before Shevardnadze’s resignation, the U.S. State Department stated bluntly that their official results do not reflect the people’s choice.
Washington on Monday endorsed the new pro-Western regime in Tbilisi, with Secretary of State Colin Powell calling Burjanadze to offer support. "The United States and the international community stand ready to support the new government in holding free and fair parliamentary elections in the future," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.
By contrast, reaction from Russia, which has had strained relations with Georgia for much of the past decade, was far less enthusiastic. President Vladimir Putin said he is concerned that the regime change “happened against the background of a heavy pressure.”
(AP-Photolur photo: Opposition protesters hold Georgian flags and a poster with a portrait of opposition leader Mikhail Saakashvili as they shout during a rally in Tbilisi Saturday.)