Monday, September 1, 2008

Interview with Armenian President's Aide Vigen Sargsyan

First published in April 26, 2008 Armenian Reporter

Vigen Sargsyan: A revolution was averted on February 23

Vigen Sargsyan, an aide to Armenia’s president, discussed the government’s vision of Armenia’s post-­election crisis with our Washington Editor Emil Sanamyan. They spoke after Mr. Sargsyan’s testimony at the U.S. Helsinki Commission on April 17. (See Washington Briefing on page 2.)

Reporter: You just had an opportunity to hear the concerns of the members of the U.S. Congress as well as the State Department regarding the post-election developments in Armenia. What is your reaction to these concerns and to the Helsinki Commission hearing overall?

Sargsyan: I was pleasantly surprised by the wide context in which our [U.S.] partners were watching this particular incident. And I had a feeling that I was among the friends who are concerned about U.S.-Armenian relations. They know the Karabakh issue well. They understand the threats and the challenges. . . .

There was a lot of discussion internally [within the Armenian government] on whether this type of a hearing was appropriate and whether we should participate.

There were critics, who thought this might look like a gladiator match with a third party watching two Armenians fighting each other on the merits of past elections and internal political disputes.

But we also recognized that this would be an important opportunity for us to share with the U.S. Congress our views on why the events unfolded the way they did and what could have been done to prevent them...

We also viewed this as yet another opportunity for the government to extend its hand and offer dialogue to our citizens who appear to be in the camp that still has not accepted the offer of dialogue, which has been sounded by President Serge Sargsian many times by now...

Reporter: We have heard the concerns in the United States, Europe, and from inside Armenia, about individuals currently in detention.

Sargsyan: First of all, there is the presumption of innocence. And until a person is convicted by a court of law no one can claim that that person is guilty of a criminal offence.

Any assessment before a court hearing is arbitrary, whether one claims that persons in detention are political prisoners or criminals.

And I do not rule out that after looking into the merits of each case, some currently in detention will be acquitted and released by courts. And then it would up to the government to say “sorry” and offer compensation that is proper for any ungrounded detention.

In Armenia and countries like it, the political system is not yet sufficiently mature and stable and as a result it is difficult to preclude situations like this. In an established democracy, when someone who is politically active commits a crime there is always a threat of a political sanction. And any politician is aware of the threat of losing votes and being held responsible politically.

In countries like Armenia, political elites are quite transient and mobile, in terms of moving from one camp to another, shifting their political preferences, and most political parties are not yet established.

So, unless a legal sanction is exercised, we have a threat of anarchy. And every time a candidate loses an election he or she can claim victory and resort to political violence.

There is no doubt that these elections were problematic, as were those before it. But there is also no doubt that they were much better conducted than before...

As long as Levon Ter-Petrossian does not recognize the authority of a legitimately elected president, it is hard to have a dialogue, and he becomes more a revolutionary than a politician. And, like in any country, the government’s interaction with revolutionaries takes a different shape and the government naturally seeks to protect itself from a possible revolution.

Reporter: Shortly before March 1, we did hear Mr. Ter-Petrossian declare that a “revolution” was under way. And we also heard President Robert Kocharian claim that the protests were part of an effort to stage a coup and threatening to take action against it, which was eventually taken. The protests, however, were largely peaceful and many question how protests in themselves could have led to a coup.

Sargsyan: There is a big difference between non-violent and peaceful demonstrations. The protests were non-violent before March 1, that is correct, but they were definitely not peaceful. We heard the ex-Commanderin-Chief [Mr. Ter-Petrossian] declaring that the army is with him.

It is not a peaceful protest when Yerkrapah veterans, many of whom possess weapons, which is natural after any war of self-determination, are dragged into politics.

And in fact, days before the March 1 events, on February 23, we were very, very close to a situation where it could get to a revolution. President Kocharian was able to prevent it politically by taking a number of steps that settled down the situation.

But the threat of violence remained and the government in fact was made aware that some of the demonstrators had weapons and explosives, and had to deal with that threat because it is the responsibility of the government to provide security...

Reporter: But in the end, the government failed to provide for sufficient security, the police failed to contain the protests at the Miasnikian square and as a result of the clashes in the night of March 1 there have been ten fatalities and many more injured. Why did these failures occur?

Sargsyan: This is for the investigation to find out. But the way the events unfolded in the night of March 1 in and outside the Miasnikian square, the fact that police were attacked with firearms from the crowd and as a result two security personnel were killed and many injured substantiated the government’s suspicions that at least some of the demonstrators were armed.

In terms of civilian deaths, we know that several of the deaths occurred when individual protestors were hit by tear gas cartridges, which is not the way the tear gas is supposed to work and this probably happened because the equipment was outdated.

Reporter: But a number of people were shot with live ammunition and several individuals, including one policeman, died as a result of bullet wounds. Have the circumstances in which police shot at civilians been cleared up?

Sargsyan: All of this is part and a central focus of the investigation. And as the president said on a number of occasions he wants this fully investigated and explained to the public. And it goes without saying that if [any security personnel] used excessive force or used the types of weapons they should not have used, then obviously they should be held responsible as well.

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