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Local elections in October 2002 resulted in an expected victory for the ruling Republican Party. At the same time, the fractured political opposition attempted to unite in a bid to unseat President Robert Kocharian from power in the upcoming February 2003 presidential poll. The third anniversary of the attacks on parliament, in which five gunmen killed the prime minister and other senior officials, was marked by continuing speculation about who may have been behind the shootings.
Following a brief period of independence from 1918 to 1920, part of the predominantly Christian Transcaucasus republic of Armenia became a Soviet republic in 1922, while the western portion was ceded to Turkey. Armenia declared its independence from the Soviet Union in September 1991.
The banning of nine political parties prior to the 1995 parliamentary elections ensured the dominance of President Levon Ter Petrosian's ruling Armenian National Movement's (ANM) coalition. In February 1998, Petrosian stepped down following the resignation of key officials in protest over his gradualist approach to solving the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, the disputed Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan. Prime Minister Robert Kocharian, the former president of Nagorno-Karabakh, was elected president in March with the support of the previously banned Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun.
Parliamentary elections in May 1999 resulted in an overwhelming victory for the Unity bloc, a new alliance of Defense Minister Vazgen Sarkisian's Republican Party and former Soviet Armenian leader Karen Demirchian's People's Party, which campaigned on a populist platform of greater state involvement in the economy and increased social spending. In June, Sarkisian was named prime minister while Demirchian became speaker of parliament. The relationship between Sarkisian and Demirchian on the one hand, and Kocharian on the other, was marked by power struggles and policy differences.
The country was plunged into a political crisis on October 27, when five gunmen stormed the parliament building and assassinated Sarkisian, Demirchian, and several other senior government officials. The leader of the gunmen, Nairi Hunanian, maintained that he and the other assailants had acted alone in an attempt to incite a popular revolt against the government. Meanwhile, allegations that Kocharian or members of his inner circle had orchestrated the shootings prompted opposition calls for the president to resign. However, because of an apparent lack of evidence, prosecutors did not to press charges against Kocharian, who gradually consolidated his power over the following year. In May 2000, Kocharian named Republican Party leader Andranik Markarian as prime minister, replacing Vazgen Sarkisian's younger brother, Aram, who had served in the position for only five months following the parliamentary shootings.
The trial of the five gunmen, plus eight others charged with complicity in the parliamentary shootings, began in February 2001. A final verdict in the trial had not been reached by the end of 2002. Three years after the massacre, many in the country maintain that the gunmen were acting on orders from others and continue to speculate about who may have masterminded the attacks.
In the October 20, 2002, local elections, the ruling Republican Party won a widely anticipated landslide victory across the country. International observers, including the Council of Europe, concluded that the elections were conducted according to international standards despite reported violations, including the stuffing of ballot boxes, the buying of votes, and inflated voter turnout figures.
During the second half of 2002, politicians began positioning themselves for the February 2003 presidential vote. In August, 16 opposition parties announced their intention to field a joint candidate in the hopes of defeating Kocharian in his reelection bid. However, widespread doubts about the ability of the perennially divided opposition to form a united front appeared to be justified when, by the end of the year, several of the parties had declared their intentions to nominate their own candidates.
In a controversial privatization deal, the government sold 80.1 percent of the revenue-losing Armenian Electricity Network (AET) in August to an obscure British offshore firm, Midland Resources Holding. Western donors, including the World Bank and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), criticized the selection of Midland for its reported lack of experience in the energy sector. The EBRD announced that it would overturn its earlier decision to buy the remaining 19.9 percent stake in AET once a foreign investor was found. In November, Armenia and Russia signed an agreement under which Armenia would transfer ownership to Russia of five state-owned enterprises in exchange for the canceling of $98 million in debts.
Despite continued internationally led meetings between the Armenian and Azerbaijani leadership, little progress was made during the year on reaching a breakthrough on the long-standing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. With the presidents of both countries seeking reelection in 2003, neither is likely to risk the domestic political consequences of making major public concessions over the disputed territory before then.
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 recommendations by the international community, more balanced media coverage, 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 July 2002, parliament adopted amendments to the election law that increased from 37 to 56 the number of parliamentary seats based on single-mandate constituencies, and that decreased from 94 to 75 the number elected on a proportional party-list basis. Opposition deputies charge that the purpose of these changes is to increase the chances of victory for the ruling party in the May 2003 parliamentary elections. President Kocharian signed the amendments into law in August.
The 1995 constitution provides for a weak legislature and a strong, directly elected president who appoints the prime minister. Most parties in Armenia are dominated by specific government officials or other powerful figures, suffer from significant internal dissent and division, or are otherwise weak and ineffective.
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 limited resources and consequently are dependent on economic and political interest groups for their survival. There are a number of private television stations, and most radio stations are privately owned.
On April 3, 2002, the independent television station A1+ lost its license after the national television and radio broadcasting commission granted a tender for its broadcasting frequency to an entertainment channel. Journalists and opposition politicians criticized the closure of A1+, which had a reputation for objective reporting, as a politically motivated decision to control media coverage in the run-up to the 2003 presidential and parliamentary elections. Following the decision, thousands of people demonstrated in a number of weekly protests over the station's closure and to demand President Kocharian's resignation. A1+ lost its final appeal in June regarding the loss of its broadcasting frequency and remained closed at the end of the year, The founder and the executive director of Abovian television were beaten in August by a group of men believed to have been hired by the mayor of Abovian in retaliation for critical reports aired by the station. On October 22, journalist Mark Grigorian was seriously injured in a grenade attack in Yerevan; at the time, he was preparing an investigative report on the October 1999 parliamentary attacks.
Freedom of religion is somewhat respected in this overwhelmingly Christian country. The Armenian Apostolic Church, to which over 90 percent of Armenians formally belong, has been granted official status as the national church and is not subject to certain restrictions imposed on other religious groups, including having to register with the State Council on Religious Affairs. In August, authorities announced the formation of a new religious council to advise the government on religious matters. The council will include representatives of the Armenian Apostolic, Catholic, and Protestant churches, but not of the country's various nontraditional denominations. In September 2002, the Ministry of Education ordered the compulsory display of the Armenian flag and portraits of President Kocharian and the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church in secondary schools. The history of the Apostolic Church is already a required school subject.
The government generally respects freedom of assembly and association, although the registration requirements are cumbersome and time consuming. While the constitution enshrines the right to form and join trade unions, in practice, labor organizations are weak and relatively inactive. The judiciary, which is subject to political pressure from the executive branch, is characterized by widespread violations of due process. Police frequently make arbitrary arrests without warrants, beat detainees during arrest and interrogation, and use torture to extract confessions.
While citizens have the right to own private property and establish businesses, an inefficient and often corrupt court system and unfair business competition hinder operations. Key industries remain in the hands of oligarchs and influential clans who received preferential treatment in the early stages of privatization. Domestic violence and the trafficking in women and girls for the purpose of prostitution are believed to be serious problems.