1999 Scores

Status: Partly Free
Freedom Rating: 4.0
Civil Liberties: 4
Political Rights: 4


Parliamentary elections in May 1999 resulted in an overwhelming victory for the Unity bloc, a new alliance led by powerful Defense Minister Vazgen Sarkisian and former Soviet Armenian leader Karen Demirchian, which campaigned on a populist platform of greater state involvement in the economy and increased social spending. Following the elections, Sarkisian was chosen as the country's new prime minister, while Demirchian was named speaker of parliament. Just five months later, the country was plunged into a political crisis when five gunmen stormed the parliament building on October 27 and assassinated several top officials, including Sarkisian and Demirchian. The killings left a power vacuum in the Armenian government and caused speculation about possible long-term political implications.

The landlocked, predominantly Christian Transcaucasus republic of Armenia was ruled at various times by Macedonians, Romans, Persians, Mongols, and others. Prior to their defeat in World War I, Ottoman Turks controlled a western region and, between 1894 and 1917, engaged in a systematic genocide. Following a brief period of independence from 1918 to 1920, the Russian region came under Communist control and was designated a Soviet republic in 1922, while western Armenia was returned to Turkey. Armenia declared its independence from the Soviet Union in September 1991.

Prior to the 1995 parliamentary elections, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun and eight other parties were banned, thereby ensuring the dominance of Levon Ter Petrosian's ruling Armenian National Movement's (ANM) coalition. Petrosian's ANM-led Republican bloc won control of two-thirds of the seats. In the 1996 presidential election, Petrosian defeated former Prime Minister Vazgen Manukian, who ran on a pro-market, anticorruption platform.

In February 1998, Petrosian resigned following mass defections from the ANM and the resignation of key officials in protest against his gradualist approach in negotiations over control of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan. In March, Prime Minister Robert Kocharian, who was appointed by Petrosian in 1997 and formerly served as president of Nagorno-Karabakh, was elected president with the support of the previously banned Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun. He defeated Karen Demirchian with 60 percent of a second-round vote. In April, Kocharian appointed former Finance and Economy Minister Armen Darbinian as prime minister.

In elections to the 131-seat national assembly on May 30, 75 seats were awarded in single mandate constituencies and 56 seats under a proportional system to parties receiving a minimum of five percent of the vote. The Unity bloc, an alliance of Sarkisian's Republican Party and Demirchian's People's Party created primarily to serve as a power base for their respective leaders, won by a huge majority, receiving 29 seats under the proportional system. The Communist Party came in a distant second, with 8 seats, followed by Right and Accord with 6 seats, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun with 5 seats, and Orinats Erkir (Country of Law) and National Democratic Union with 4 seats each. Under the single mandate system, Unity candidates also received a clear majority of votes, securing 27 seats, while other parties won 3 seats or less. Independent candidates, most of whom are regarded as supporters of Unity, received 37 seats. In June, Prime Minister Armen Darbinian resigned and was replaced by Sarkisian.

On October 27, five heavily armed gunmen burst into Armenia's parliament during a live national radio broadcast, assassinating Prime Minister Sarkisian, Parliamentary Speaker Demirchian, and seven other senior government officials, while taking dozens of hostages. The attackers, led by former journalist and extreme nationalist Nairi Hoonanian, claimed that they wanted to punish the government for the country's economic problems and rampant corruption, but expressed no coherent political platform. Following a night of direct negotiations between President Kocharian and Hoonanian, during which the attackers were allowed to speak on national television and promised a fair trial, the gunmen surrendered and released their hostages. Amid speculation that the gunmen were carrying out someone else's orders as part of a plan to destabilize the country, several other suspects, in addition to the five gunmen, were subsequently arrested for their alleged involvement. In the wake of the attacks, the country's interior and national security ministers resigned.

On November 3, President Kocharian appointed Aram Sarkisian, Vazgen Sarkisian's younger brother and the director of a cement factory, as the new prime minister. Armen Khachatrian, a parliamentary deputy and head of the Foreign Affairs Commission, was chosen as the new speaker of parliament. In contrast to their experienced and powerful predecessors, both men were regarded as relatively unknown and inexperienced figures, who many speculated would continue the previous government's policies.

The assassinations closely followed a visit by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, who had left the country just hours earlier after holding talks with Sarkisian and Kocharian on the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. While the timing of the killings led to immediate speculation that the two events were somehow connected, particularly as Armenia and Azerbaijan appeared to be making progress in peace negotiations, lead gunman Hoonanian denied a direct link between the two. Although the 1994 ceasefire continued largely to hold, little progress was made in internationally led peace negotiations. Armenia generally has approved the most recent peace plan of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which calls for Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan to form a common state, while Azerbaijan has rejected the proposal for not explicitly guaranteeing the restoration of its sovereignty over the territory.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Armenians can change their government democratically, although the 1995 and 1999 parliamentary and 1996 presidential elections were characterized by serious irregularities. International observers reported some improvements regarding the 1999 parliamentary vote over previous elections, including the adoption of a new electoral code in February containing some recommendation of the international community, more balanced media coverage before and during the vote, and the return to the political arena of previously banned parties. However, they also cited serious problems with significant inaccuracies of voter lists, the presence of unauthorized persons in polling stations, and the lack of effective and impartial electoral commissions.

In 1995, voters approved the government-backed constitution, which provides for a weak legislature and a strong presidency. The directly elected president appoints the prime minister, who is in charge of the cabinet, although the legislature can remove the prime minister by a no-confidence vote. The government appoints the ten regional governors, who have the authority to remove locally elected officials from office.

Twenty-one political parties and blocs, including newly legalized parties, ran under the proportional system in the May 1999 parliamentary elections. However, most parties in Armenia are dominated by specific government officials or other powerful figures, espouse similar political platforms, or are weak and ineffective. The Unity party is associated with the Yerkrapah militia group of Nagorno-Karabakh war veterans, which has been linked to harassment of and attacks on religious minorities.

Self-censorship among journalists is common, particularly in reporting on Nagorno-Karabakh, national security, or corruption issues. While most newspapers are privately owned, the majority operate with very limited resources and are dependent on economic and political interest groups. Libel laws have been used to intimidate the media. In August, the editor of the daily Oragir (Diary) was found guilty of crimes including publishing libelous statements about the wife of a parliamentarian and distributing defamatory information against a candidate for May's legislative elections. He was fined and sentenced to three years in prison. In addition to two state television channels, a number of private television stations broadcast throughout the country. Most radio stations are privately owned.

Freedom of religion is somewhat respected in this overwhelmingly Christian country. However, the Armenian Apostolic Church, to which 90 percent of Armenians formally belong, is not subject to certain restrictions imposed on other religious groups, including having to register with the State Council on Religious Affairs. Provisions in a law on religious organizations prohibit financing for groups based outside of the country and require religious organizations to have at least 200 members to register. As of June 1999, 48 religious organizations were officially registered, although the council continues to deny registration to Jehovah's Witnesses.

The government generally respects freedom of assembly and association, although the registration requirements are cumbersome and time-consuming. The constitution enshrines the right to form and join trade unions. In practice, however, labor organizations are weak and relatively inactive.

The judiciary is not independent and is subject to political pressure from the executive branch and corruption. Despite the adoption of new legislation concerning criminal investigations and trials, Armenia's justice system remains characterized by widespread violations of due process. Under a new criminal procedure code which went into effect in early 1999, witnesses do not have the right to legal counsel while being questioned in police custody, and detainees may not file a complaint in court before trial regarding abuses suffered during criminal investigations. Police frequently make arbitrary arrests without warrants and beat detainees during arrest and interrogations, and prison conditions remain poor.

The government places some restrictions on travel, particularly for those possessing state secrets or subject to military service. The constitution provides for the right to private property. While citizens have the right to establish businesses under several laws, regulation and an inefficient and often corrupt court system hinder operations. Key industries remain in the hands of oligarchs and influential clans who received preferential treatment in the early stages of privatization. Women face obstacles to professional advancement in this traditional patriarchal society, and trafficking in women and girls for the purpose of prostitution is believed to be a serious problem.

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