As Armenia celebrated Easter, the President-elect of the world’s first Christian nation was fighting to resurrect his political future in the face of a revolt that has claimed eight lives and exposed bitter social divisions.
Serzh Sarkisian’s victory in an election marred by allegations of widespread fraud sparked opposition protests that erupted into violent clashes with police and troops. Fresh protests marked the end of a 20-day state of emergency on Friday, despite new legislation that effectively outlaws anti-government demonstrations in this former Soviet republic.
In an interview with The Times, Mr Sarkisian insisted that he was elected legitimately and accused Levon Ter-Petrosian, the main opposition candidate, of plotting to seize power through street protests. As he spoke, riot police, many carrying guns and electric-shock devices, lined the streets while several thousand people marched silently in the capital, Yerevan, to the square where eight people died and hundreds were injured in the clashes on March 1.
"Nothing extraordinary is happening. There are some tensions in society but I think the 20-day emergency situation helped a lot," he said. "This demonstration was not sanctioned but people are keeping to the pavemen’s and not disturbing anyone, so there is tolerance of it."
There is widespread anger at the loss of life and the emergency imposed by the outgoing President, Robert Kocharian, after police broke up 11 days of peaceful protests against Sarkisian, his ally, who is Prime Minister. Mr Sarkisian said that police intervened after learning that opposition activists were gathering weapons to overturn the election by force. He said: "The main organizers declared publicly that March 1 was the day of their civil war."
That claim is ridiculed by supporters of Mr Ter-Petrosian, who accused the Government of planting weapons to justify a crackdown. He is effectively under house arrest and more than 100 activists are in prison or in hiding as part of sweeping measures criticized strongly by the US and the European Union.
Sarkisian, 53, pledged to undertake extensive reforms as President to defuse the Armenian crisis by "hard work and raising public confidence", but he added: "I don’t think I am the one to blame for these divisions."
His 52.8 per cent vote in last month’s election was just enough to avoid a run-off against Mr Ter-Petrosian, independent Armenia’s first President, who won 21.5 per cent. International observers described the ballot initially as "mostly in line" with Armenia’s democratic commitmen’s, but a later report was far more critical of electoral abuses.
The upheavals in Yerevan have been accompanied by a sharp rise in tension between Armenia and its neighbor Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
International mediators were optimistic about a peace agreement before the election, but there are fears now that a 1994 ceasefire may break down. Nagorno-Karabakh, run by Armenian separatists who have declared independence from Azerbaijan, is close to an important pipeline carrying Caspian oil to world markets.
Arman Musinian, Mr Ter-Petrosian’s spokesman, said that protesters would continue to demand fresh elections. He told The Times: "The regime is hated by a majority in society now, even people who did not vote for us, so it is going to be extremely difficult for them to govern."
By Armenian tradition the souls of the deceased are remembered on the 40th day after their death. For those killed in the protests, that will be on April 9–the day that Mr Sarkisian is inaugurated as President.