The written directive signed on February 23, 2008 by then Defense Minister Mikael Harutiunian was exposed by the pro-opposition daily “Haykakan Zhamanak” late last year. It was issued immediately after the outgoing President Robert Kocharian ordered Armenia’s top security and military officials to thwart what he called attempts by opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian to “seize power by illegal means.” He referred to non-stop demonstrations staged by Ter-Petrosian following the hotly disputed February 19 presidential election.
The order placed Armenia’s armed forces on high alert and ordered the Defense Ministry to form special groups of officers and hand them weapons. Harutiunian also instructed the then commander of the army’s Yerevan garrison, General Yuri Khachaturov, to form a special command structure with essentially unlimited control over military units stationed in and around the Armenian capital.
Ter-Petrosian’s Armenian National Congress (HAK) denounced the leaked document as illegal, saying that the so-called “administration of garrison commander” effectively assumed the powers of the army’s General Staff in gross violation of Armenia’s constitution. HAK leaders also presented it as further proof that Kocharian illegally used the military against the protesting opposition before declaring a state of emergency in Yerevan late on March 1, 2008.
The opposition alliance wrote to Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian last month demanding that Harutiunian’s directive be declared unconstitutional. Vahe Hovsepian, a lawyer who drew up the appeal, cited constitutional provisions that ban Armenia’s armed forces from taking sides in political disputes.
In a written response sent to Hovsepian this week, the government said that the directive did not require or amount to “use of the Armed Forces.” It said the high alert ordered by the defense minister was a routine action taken “at the tactical level of army management.”
Hovsepian rejected the explanation as baseless. “The fact is that the armed forces were used during the events of March 1, 2008,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
Defense Ministry spokesman Seyran Shahsvuvarian also defended the legality of the order. He claimed that army units were only told to guard “facilities of strategic importance” during the deadly unrest.
Shahsuvarian earlier confirmed that a former senior Defense Ministry official, Armen Sargsian, was arrested in December on suspicion of leaking the confidential document to “Haykakan Zhamanak.” Sargsian is expected to on trial soon on charges of disclosing a “state secret.”