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Armenia received a downward trend arrow for the holding of presidential and parliamentary polls that failed to meet international standards for democratic elections, and for the arrest and detention of large numbers of opposition supporters.
The political scene in Armenia was dominated for much of 2003 by developments surrounding the February-March presidential election and the May parliamentary vote, both of which were condemned by international election observers for failing to meet democratic standards. President Robert Kocharian was reelected in a controversial second-round runoff, taking office despite mass street demonstrations against the election results and the detention of hundreds of opposition supporters. Pro-presidential parties gained a majority in parliament and formed a three-party coalition government following legislative elections. The final verdict in the trial of those accused in the October 1999 shootings in parliament had not been reached by November 30, while the brother of a key opposition leader was convicted in a murder case allegedly linked to the parliament killings. Meanwhile, ties with Russia were further strengthened during the year as Moscow extended its control over Armenia's energy sector.
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 and Demirchian became speaker of parliament. Kocharian's relationship with Sarkisian and Demirchian 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 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 parliament shootings.
The trial of the five gunmen, plus eight others charged with complicity in the parliament shootings, began in February 2001 and finally ended on November 14, 2003. A final verdict had not been reached by the end of November. More than four years after the massacre, many in the country continue to believe that the gunmen were acting on orders from others and accuse the authorities of a high-level coverup about the identity of the masterminds of the attacks.
Despite earlier pledges by much of the perennially divided opposition to field a joint candidate in the February 19, 2003, presidential election in order to improve its chances of defeating Kocharian, several parties eventually decided to nominate their own candidates. Among the nine challengers in the presidential poll, Kocharian officially received 49.48 percent of the vote, followed by Stepan Demirchian, son of the late Karen Demirchian, with 28.22 percent. Since no candidate received the 50 percent plus 1 vote necessary for a first-round victory, a second-round vote was schedule for March 5 between the top two finishers. According to international election observers, including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the election fell short of international standards for democratic elections, with the voting, counting, and tabulation processes showing serious irregularities. Other problems noted included media bias in favor of the incumbent and political imbalances in the election commissions.
During the days that followed, thousands rallied in the largest peaceful demonstrations in Yerevan in years to protest alleged election falsification and show support for Stepan Demirchian. According to a highly critical Human Rights Watch report, police used controversial Soviet-era legislation to arrest hundreds of opposition supporters. More than 100 were sentenced in closed-door trials to two weeks in prison on charges of hooliganism and participating in unsanctioned demonstrations.
In the March 5 second-round runoff, Kocharian was reelected with 67.44 percent of the vote, while Demirchian received 32.56 percent. International observers echoed many of the same criticisms as those expressed regarding the first-round vote. The next two months saw further mass protests against the final results of the election and more arrests and detentions reported. The Constitutional Court rejected appeals by opposition leaders to invalidate the election results, although it did propose holding a "referendum of confidence" in Kocharian within the next year to allay widespread doubts about the validity of the election returns. Kocharian promptly replied that he would not comply with the proposal.
The political atmosphere remained tense leading up to the May 25 parliamentary poll. Several hundred candidates were registered to compete for the 56 singlemandate seats, while 17 parties and 4 electoral blocs contested the 75 seats to be distributed under the proportional representation system. The pro-presidential Republican Party, Orinats Yerkir (Country of Law), and Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun secured 40, 19, and 11 seats, respectively. The Artarutiun (Justice) bloc, which was formed in March and is comprised of more than a dozen opposition parties, came in third place with a total of 15 seats. Thus, deputies backing Kocharian, including a number of independent candidates who broadly support the president, secured a majority in parliament. For the first time, the Communist Party failed to pass the 5 percent threshold required to gain seats under the proportional system. The OSCE and Council of Europe noted improvements in the freedom and fairness of the campaign and media coverage when compared with the earlier presidential poll. However, they concluded that the election still fell short of international standards for democratic elections, particularly with regard to the counting and tabulation of votes. Artarutiun refused to recognize the validity of the election returns; a formal appeal of the results was subsequently rejected by the Constitutional Court.
A concurrent referendum on a package of constitutional amendments, representing a wide range of issues and nearly 80 percent of the constitution's articles, was rejected by voters. The amendments reportedly were not widely publicized or well understood by most of the electorate. Although some of the proposed changes were originally intended to curb some of the disproportionate powers of the presidency in relation to other branches of government, opposition parties had argued that the amendments would actually increase them. Other amendments included abolishing a ban on dual citizenship, allowing noncitizens to vote in local elections, and granting foreigners the right to own land in Armenia.
On June 11, the Republican Party, Orinats Yerkir, and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun agreed to form a coalition government despite disagreements over some substantive policy issues and the distribution of government posts among the three parties. Andranik Markarian remained prime minister, while Orinats Yerkir chairman Artur Baghdasarian was named speaker of parliament. The following day, Artarutiun and another opposition party elected to parliament, the National Unity Party, boycotted the opening session of parliament to protest the results of the parliamentary election; they finally ended the boycott in early September.
In a politically sensational case, Armen Sarkisian, the brother of former prime ministers Aram and Vazgen, was convicted on November 18 of ordering the December 28, 2002, murder of Tigran Naghdalian, the head of Armenian Public Television and Radio. Sarkisian was sentenced to 15 years in prison, as was the trigger man, John Harutiunian, while another 11 defendants received prison sentences of 7 to 12 years. The prosecution had argued that Sarkisian had ordered the murder in revenge because he believed that Naghdalian was somehow involved in the October 1999 parliament shootings, in which his brother Vazgen had been killed. However, some opposition members maintained that the case was a politically motivated campaign against Armen's brother, Aram, a vocal critic of Kocharian's leadership. They also believed that the murder was part of a government cover-up to prevent Naghdalian from testifying in the ongoing trial over the parliament shootings; Naghdalian had been in the control room of his television station when the shootings, which were recorded on videocassettes, occurred. Critics of the verdict questioned the validity of the evidence in the case against him; in August, Harutiunian retracted pretrial testimony that Armen had ordered the murder, contending that he had signed his original testimony under duress.
Relations with Russia, which counts Armenia as its closest ally in the Caucasus, continued to be strengthened during the year. In exchange for a write-off of its considerable debts to Moscow, Yerevan agreed to transfer key state-owned assets to Moscow, including six hydroelectric power plants. In September, Armenia ratified an agreement to transfer financial control of the Medzamor nuclear power plant to Russia. These deals will provide Moscow, with its already substantial military interests in Armenia, with additional political and economic leverage over Yerevan.
Despite ongoing international pressure to resolve the long-standing NagornoKarabakh conflict, little progress was made during the year on reaching a breakthrough. Sporadic exchanges of fire along the ceasefire line continued, but did not escalate into full-scale fighting. At the same time, neither Kocharian nor Azerbaijan's president Heydar Aliev appeared willing to risk the domestic political consequences of making major public concessions over the disputed territory, particularly during a presidential election year in both countries.
Armenians cannot change their government democratically. The 1995 and 1999 parliamentary and 1996 presidential elections were characterized by serious irregularities. The most recent presidential and parliamentary polls, in February-March and May 2003, respectively, were strongly criticized by international election monitors, who cited widespread fraud particularly in the presidential vote. 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 weak and ineffective. President Robert Kocharian formally belongs to no political party, but instead relies on the support of a number of both large and small political groups, including the Republican Party of Prime Minister Adranik Markarian. Bribery and nepotism are reportedly quite common among government bureaucrats. In November 2003, the government approved a long-awaited anticorruption program that had been drafted with the support of the World Bank.
There are some limits on freedom of the press, and 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. In April 2003, journalist Mger Galechian was assaulted in his office by a group of assailants and was hospitalized with head injuries. Galechian was a correspondent for the opposition newspaper Chorrod Iskhanutyun, known for being strongly critical of the government. As of November 30, parliament had not yet adopted the final version of a controversial draft media law. International organizations and media watchdogs criticized provisions, including one requiring media organizations to reveal their sources of funding and another permitting the courts to compel journalists to disclose their sources to protect the public interest. Meanwhile, the criminal code makes libel an offense punishable by up to three years in prison, while insulting a public official could lead to two year's imprisonment.
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. In 2003, additional bids by A1+ for a broadcast frequency were rejected.
Freedom of religion is somewhat respected. The Armenian Apostolic Church, to which 90 percent of Armenians formally belong, enjoys a privileged status and has advocated for restrictions on nontraditional denominations. While 50 religious groups are officially registered, the Jehovah's Witnesses have been denied registration repeatedly because of the group's strong opposition to compulsory military service; 23 members are in prison for practicing conscientious objection. Draft legislation providing for alternative military service was pending in parliament as of November 2003. The law's adoption is likely to clear the way for the registration of the Jehovah's Witnesses.
In general, the government does not restrict academic freedom. In September 2002, the Ministry of Education ordered the compulsory display of the portraits of Kocharian and the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church in secondary schools. The history of the Apostolic Church is a required school subject.
The government generally respects freedom of assembly and association, although the registration requirements for nongovernmental associations are cumbersome and time-consuming. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, the authorities abused administrative detention regulations to intimidate and punish peaceful demonstrators and political activists following the February 2003 presidential election. More than 100 activists were sentenced to up to 15 days in prison for attending or engaging in acts of hooliganism at rallies that the authorities said were unauthorized, the report stated. The authorities arrested some individuals who were not protest organizers, even though only leaders--and not mere participants-of unauthorized rallies may be penalized under the country's code of administrative offenses. After major international organizations, including the OSCE and Council of Europe, condemned the crackdowns, the authorities began to release some of the arrested at the beginning of March. 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. A Human Rights Watch report concluded that police denied access to legal counsel to those opposition supporters who were given short prison terms for participating in unauthorized rallies after the 2003 presidential vote. The accused were sentenced in closed trials and denied the opportunity to present evidence or lodge formal appeals. In April, the Constitutional Court declared that these and other related arrests were unlawful. However, the Council of Justice, a judicial oversight body headed by Kocharian, rejected the Court's recommendation to investigate the mass arrests and the conduct of those judges who had issued the detention sentences.
In September 2003, parliament voted to abolish the death penalty in all cases by ratifying Protocol 6 of the Council of Europe's Convention on the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Although the abolition of capital punishment was a major obligation of Armenia's membership in the Council of Europe, the government had delayed ratifying Protocol 6 largely because of widespread support for the use of the death penalty against the suspects in the October 1999 parliament shootings. In November, Kocharian signed amendments to a new criminal code denying parole to those sentenced to life imprisonment for grave crimes, including terrorist acts and assassinations of public figures. The amendments were regarded as a guarantee that those on trial for the parliament shootings would never be released from prison.
Although members of the country's tiny ethnic minority population rarely report cases of overt discrimination, they have complained about difficulties receiving education in their native languages.
Freedom of travel and residence is largely respected. However, registering changes in residency is sometimes complicated by the need to negotiate with an inefficient or corrupt government bureaucracy. 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 trafficking in women and girls for the purpose of prostitution are believed to be serious problems. In June 2003, the U.S. State Department issued a report that cited Armenia as among those countries making significant efforts to comply with minimum requirements for eliminating trafficking. Traditional societal norms tend to limit women's professional opportunities to more low-skilled jobs.