Immediately after the Feb. 19 Presidential Elections in Armenia, the opposition there, led by former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, himself the second place candidate in the vote, began staging protests at Yerevan’s Liberty Square. In the first post-election hours, Ter-Petrosian declared himself the winner and called the election results publicized by the Central Electoral Commission, and verified by international observers, as fraudulent and called for a re-vote. The opposition sit-ins lasted for 10 days, following which national security forces, last Saturday, broke up the protests and President Robert Kocharian instituted a 20-day state of emergency. Special correspondent Vahe Peroomian was there and this week presents an eyewitness account of the days leading up to and following the elections, which led to bloody break-up of the protests resulting in the death of eight people. As you will read, Peroomian left Armenia before the events of last Saturday, but he paints a picture of the events–and more importantly the tactics–that led to the sad events of last week.
Prologue, 15 February 2008
The day after Valentine’s Day found me Armenia-bound once more, arriving a scant two days before the nation went to the polls to elect its next president. Despite ten previous trips to my homeland, spanning the months of April through October, I was excited to be flying into uncharted territory; a bitter cold gripped the nation, so much so that Lake Sevan had frozen over completely and many of the roads outside the capital were simply impassable. My usual modus operandi of driving through hundreds of kilometers of the landscape I adored and avoiding Yerevan as much as possible would have to be modified.
The presidential elections themselves were also a centerpiece of my trip. I had hoped to act as an international observer at the elections, but the number of observers sent from overseas was less than 600 and limited to diplomats, and this opportunity did not materialize. Armenia would be taking yet another step, we all hoped, on the road to Democracy, that shining ideal that few nations, if any, had yet to achieve. Photographs and pixilated videos of thousands of people filling this square or that, advocating for their candidate, do not do justice to being immersed in that throng, in that crush of humanity yearning to have a say in the nation’s future. Not even sub-zero temperatures could keep them away. How I longed to be part of this;
17 February 2008
After only a couple of hours of sleep following my early morning arrival, I was out and about, exploring and reacquainting myself with the streets of Yerevan. There were crowds everywhere, some out for a Sunday stroll, others attending the last-minute campaign rallies organized for the last official campaign day before Tuesday’s elections.
From Sakharov Square, walking south on Nalbandian to the Hanrapetutyan Hraparak (Republic Square), it became obvious that an organized effort was bringing buses and mashrutkas full of people, some from quite far away, to a particular rally to be held at Azatutyan Hraparak (Freedom Square, at the Opera). Those holding the reins of power had ensured that only their candidate, Serzh Sargsyan, had access to downtown Yerevan. The number of buses and cars parked at the Hraparak, the closure of Abovyan Street (much to the chagrin of the motorists stuck in the resulting propka), all affirmed this effort. And thus it was that I first saw Hyusisayin Poghota, the just completed northern avenue up (more or less northward) from Abovyan to the Opera, framing this structure, synonymous with Soviet Armenian architecture, with palazzo-style architecture transplanted from Italy (or perhaps, Las Vegas!). I resolved to walk on that street later, in the absence of the singularly minded flag-carrying folk, some paid for their effort, streaming toward the Opera.
My footsteps carried me to Artbridge instead, my hangout when I visit Yerevan, for an espresso (and several lungfuls of second-hand smoke). Meeting old friends there, we decided to venture down Tumanyan and observe the spectacle being staged for the TV cameras.
At first we couldn’t believe the throngs flowing past us in the opposite direction, as we could still hear the de facto future president of the Republic nimbly navigating from one slogan to the next. Was opera square really that crowded? It wasn’t, and we spent the next hour observing, and oft ridiculing, the rally. In a way, I was happy to see that for the first time, the presidential elections seemed fair enough, superficially at least, for each of the nine candidates to organize full campaigns, and to crisscross the country with campaign stops, press conferences, and rallies.
The crowd at this rally was unlike any I’ve seen at such events. Its sparseness was punctuated by semuchka (sunflower seed) and popcorn sellers squatting on the low concrete urns that hold flowers in the warmer months, and even those bearing banners of allegiance seemed more interested in idle chatter than the speech pouring forth from the tower of loudspeakers rising over the faraway stage. The speech ended with a surprising twist, inviting the gathered to St. Sarkis Church to pray for victory! As the gathered masses departed, the stagecraft and looping soundtracks of shouts and hoorahs were exposed for what they were. We were all too happy, though, for those accepting the invitation to prayer would be moving off in the opposite direction.
Election Day, 19 February 2008
As the sunlight slowly illuminated the gray and drizzly morning of the 19th, I pondered upon the failures and disappointmen’s in obtaining official observer credentials for the presidential elections.
Three voting precincts lay in close proximity to the grocery store where I buy my daily loaf of fresh bread, and at 9am, one hour after the polls officially opened, nary a person could be seen with the intention to vote. The streets were deserted; Yerevan was holding its collective breath.
As the day progressed, I visited these polling stations several times. Once, around 3pm, the number of voters at Precinct 10/19, based in Public School #114 named after Khachik Dashtents, exceeded their capacity, necessitating a short wait outside. Those voting were enthusiastic and patient.
The story at Precinct 10/23, based at the Khnko Aper Library on Khanjian Avenue, across from the Opera, was very different. The queue at this polling place stretched down the Soviet-era concrete steps that connected the second story library to the courtyard on Khanjian Ave. all afternoon long. It was very heartwarming to see my countrymen brave the freezing temperatures, made worse by a swirling wind, to exercise their civic duty and move the fledgling Republic one step closer to democracy. The big question on everyone’s mind was whether these votes would actually be counted!
I have to admit that despite photographing numerous demonstrations, April 24th commemorations, and the protests in the heady days of the Karabakh emancipation movement, I usually shy away from photographing people, and my first fifty or so photos of the backs of people’s heads waiting in line attest to this. As the day progressed, though, I decided that the least I could do to honor the men and women in the queues around Yerevan would be to take more personal photos. To help break the ice, I made small talk with those waiting. I may have gone too far on one occasion, though; On my third visit to the Khnko Aper Library, I noticed an old man who was wearing a distinctive brown papakh (hat) I thought I’d seen before. Approaching him, I jokingly asked, ‘isn’t this the third time you’re voting today?’ As his mouth fell open, I was even more astonished at the slap he received from his wife, standing next to him! She went on a tirade, blasting him for standing in line twice before, but giving up before his turn came: ‘I told you they’d photograph you and accuse you of voting three times!!!’ It took me at least five minutes to explain that I was joking and had (obviously unsuccessfully) tried to make small talk.
The rest of the day was uneventful, but the announcement of an exit poll, momen’s after the polls had closed at 8pm, of the win by plurality of Serzh Sargsyan, was to be one of many sparks igniting Yerevan in the days to come. Incidentally, the poll overestimated Sargsyan’s "plurality" by more than five percent.
The Day After, 20 February 2008
Morning broke on the day after with electric anticipation. Overnight, emails from the U.S. Embassy had warned us to stay off the streets, as competing rallies had been scheduled for 3pm that day within earshot of one another. Serzh Sargsyan’s victory rally was to take place at the Opera, while Levon Ter Petrosyan’s (LTP) protest rally occupied the Matenadaran.
It turns out that my joke the previous day actually had more than a grain of truth to it, as stories of voting irregularities, bribes and paymen’s (5000 Drams, just over $16, per vote), and ballot stuffing circulated in the capital. While the victory rally ended quickly, the Matenadaran rally stretched for more than an hour. Speaker after speaker spoke of injustices, of beatings of observers, and buses full of illegal voters at some polling stations. As I watched the reaction of the masses, I wondered where all this was going; would this crowd be large enough, would it persevere long enough, to force new elections? At least one of the speakers addressing the gathered throng thought so, as his estimated the crowd at 300,000 strong (it was less than one fifth of that, but more on this later). Soon, those gathered formed ranks and began marching down Mashtots Avenue. Making a left turn on Amiryan, they then gathered in Republic Square. It took the marchers just over 20 minutes to pass by me, perched atop a pile of snow and ice on the corner of Mashtots and Tumanyan. As I walked home, I reflected on the day’s events; Those gathered at the Matenadaran had obviously had enough of rigged elections, and were sick and tired of the establishment to the point that they preferred, or were guided to prefer, the original perpetrators of the most rigged elections in the history of the Republic, the ’96 presidential contest. The pot was certainly calling the kettle black, but the pot had obtained new polish in the eyes of the people.
21 February 2008, Freedom Square
The next "meeting" organized by the LTP "coalition of the willing" took place at 3pm on the 21st. Before describing this particular event, it’s best to delve into the politics of head count, the all-important number of souls present at a meeting, protest, or march. The first law of head count is to never trust the number given from the podium, a corollary to which is the trick in finding the fraction that this number should be multiplied with to arrive at a reasonable estimate of the actual number of people present. The 300,000 claimed at the Matenadaran the day prior paled in absurdity compared, for example, to the official number of registered voters, a whopping 2.3 million, released on the Sunday prior to the elections. I hadn’t realized that many people still actually lived in Armenia!
Back in Freedom Square, accompanied by several ex-pats and re-pats, we discussed the very same issue. How many people could Freedom Square hold? As a part of a bet, several of my friends had measured the surface area of the Square abutting the Opera house, then multiplied the number by 2.3 persons per square meter, to arrive at an estimate of about 25,000 people (later, I learned that an architect friend of mine had arrived at an estimate of 16,000 using a similar technique).
That day, there were perhaps 25,000-30,000 people at the Opera, as I had no trouble at all cutting through the crowd and reaching within touching distance of the TV cameras arrayed in front of the makeshift stage. Freedom Square was full, but it wasn’t packed. If you believed what you heard, though, their numbers had doubled since the Matenadaran meeting.
Having missed most of the campaign season, I was coming face to face for the first time with the LTP propaganda machine. Employing university students and chiefly aimed at that population, he had a dynamic website, popularized logos, a campaign song you could download not only in its entirety, but also as a mobile phone ringtone. This public relations campaign, and a never say die win at all costs attitude had seen the meteoric rise of LTP from persona non grata four months prior to February 19, to a second place finish in the elections. Addressing the crowd of supporters chanting "Levon, Levon" and crowning him their champion against all the evils and shortcomings of the government, he boldly claimed he’d actually received 65% of the vote in the elections! We Armenians are incredible exaggerators, as immortalized in Tumanyan’s Kaj Nazar, who felled a thousand with a single blow (he had actually killed seven flies, but the village priest had made him a flag with this slogan after his wife kicked his lazy behind out into the cold night).
What was LTP’s message? Nothing but yerk ou par (song and dance). Day after day, he stood at the microphones at Freedom Square, often with a grandchild in hand, and told his supporters, mostly disenchanted and disenfranchised youth, to sing and dance with him. Day after day, speaker after speaker, and often the same ones, would rile the crowd with tidbits of sensationalism. Today, it was the results of the mandatory recount in one precinct, where the recount had shown that Sargsyan’s tally had been increased by stealing miniscule numbers of votes from the lesser candidates, four from one, six from another, and a whopping 47 (out of a thousand) in total. The presentation of this news was so brilliant but long-winded that, LTP, leaning against the Opera wall and smoking one of the forty or so cigarettes of his daily regimen, left his perch to whisper in the speaker’s ear. Though I didn’t catch the exchange, the aspiring president of the Republic clearly something to the effect of "kake mi hanir" (that’s quite enough).
Having the benefit of a good zoom lens (more on this later), I scanned the crowd, and realized that I was seeing many of the same faces that were at the Matenadaran, carrying the same placards and flags as the prior day. Though the number and variety of flags and signs would increase in the next several days, these first symbols and their bearers would become very familiar to me, as, I suspect, I became to some of them.
The Midnight Hour, 22/23 February 2008
At this point, many thought that the dwindling numbers at the Opera meant that people had lost interest, that the self-proclaimed revolution (the color of which had not yet been decided, or publicized) had fizzled away into the frigid Yerevan air.
Having spent most of the day outside Yerevan (at last!), I was drawn after dinner to Freedom Square again, where the yerk ou par was still in session. The LTP propaganda machine, undaunted by the dwindling number of supporters, had compelled its most vocal proponents, once again the youth, to pitch tents throughout the Square, turning the landscape into a round-the-clock vigil. Several people had also proclaimed a hunger strike, and one had gone as far as sewing his lips shut so that he would not be tempted to eat.
As I approached the tents and bonfires, his catchy theme song of "paykar paykar minchev verj" (fight, fight, until the end) reverberated from the monstrous stacks of speakers, and groups of die hards, young and old, danced in circles and waved the tricolor in excitement. The choice of music was brilliant. As I walked through the crowd, top 40 tunes were followed by Armenian favorites, and, most astonishingly, by the revolutionary songs of Dashnaktsakan fedayees. What an ultimate twist of irony, for the man singularly responsible for banning the Dashnaktsutiun from Armenia during his reign, to use our songs to rally the youth of the nation!
Riveted to the Opera steps, I suddenly realized that it was nearly 2 a.m., and I’d been there close to two hours! This is how effective his post-election campaign was!
25 February 2008, Freedom Square Revisited
Except for a souring of the weather, not much had changed in Yerevan over the previous couple of days. The crowd at Freedom Square varied between the five thousand die-hards, some overnighting in tents, to the twenty or thirty thousand that gathered at 3pm and stayed the afternoon.
A segment of the Yerevan population was clearly fed up with the ongoing protests that had disrupted traffic flow, shut down shops, and robbed many a university classroom of its entire student population.
The protesters, on the other hand, were incensed by the number of unreasonable and petty arrests and threats of imminent attempts by the authorities to disperse the "unlawful" gathering. LTP was to take full advantage of this today. As I approached Freedom Square in the late afternoon, I strategized today’s route to the heart of the Square. As mob-like as gatherings at Freedom Square may look, there is actually an ebb and flow and pattern of human movement that has shaped itself to the topology of the historied place. The crowd is always densest between the statues of Tumanyan and Spendaryan flanking the Opera House, and getting close through the center requires no little amount of pushing and jostling. This is the path I’d taken four days ago, but one I avoided today. The area in front of the loudspeakers flanking the stage, especially those stage left, were being kept clear. Deciding to trade a bit of old age deafness with the opportunity to survey and photograph the gathering, I strolled along the perimeter, paralleling the green park benches circling the central Square and an established avenue of movement no matter how thick the crowd. Skirting to the right, I took advantage of the sparseness of the crowd beyond Spendaryan’s statue to reach the disabled access ramp to the Opera doors. A bit of jostling then brought me as far as I could go, at the cordon of bodyguards encircling the stage. By now, my left ear was feeling the full brunt of the vitriol pouring forth from the stage. I need to add here that the last step in my strategy, one that gave me access to where I stood not only that day, but for two days hence, was to mount the biggest lens I had, including a tele-extender, on my camera and let the bodyguards "talk to the lens." As much as I hate commercialism, there’s something about a big, white-barreled Canon professional lens that no other piece of equipment can achieve in photojournalistic circles, especially if you’re not even credentialed! To illustrate my audacity (I was feeling particularly giddy that day) I actually challenged the bodyguards, to very interesting effect. In the failing light of the late afternoon, it was difficult enough to find and capture expressions in the crowd with a super telephoto lens, but my first several attempts were further muddied by bumps from the nearest bodyguard attempting to keep the crowd off the steps. Not willing to put up with this, I turned to him and asked whether he was going to ruin every one of my shots by bumping into me. The shock on his face was priceless, but from then on, he and his partner would apologize to me before even attempting to cross my field of view! At this point, LTP began his speech, cunningly playing the crowd, and I was within five feet of the man that I cared not a whit for. His speech today was beyond masterful. He read the names of those arrested, those beaten, those already "martyrs" in his thus-far bloodless revolution. What followed was simply amazing. He started naming those close to him, insinuating that their arrest was imminent, followed, not a second later, by "hangist" (stay calm). He would say that his own arrest was imminent, and timed perfectly to the crowd’s reaction, would urge complete calm. Emotions were being superheated, and very effectively bottled for future use. Only the most foolish would have attempted to disperse this supercharged crowd after his speech.
There were signs, however, that the opposition was losing steam, as that day’s March down Mashtots Ave., just before 5 p.m., took only 11 minutes to pass by and was much sparser than before.
Each night, after my daily excursions in and out of Yerevan, I’d try to catch the news on the various networks. It was difficult enough keeping track of their schedule, but it was amazing to see not even a mention of a 30,000-strong protest on Haylour, on the official TV network.
One commendable aspect of the opera gathering, especially at night, was the intolerance for alcohol abuse, and the incessant warnings to avoid confrontations with the authorities at all costs. The buzz around Yerevan was that en or a-a] harova/i gu grovi , (he who strikes first, will surely lose). It was a standoff, then. To attempt to disperse that crowd would increase it tenfold, to attack government structures would be the end of the opposition. A tense d?tente ruled Yerevan for at least another 24 hours.
The Trick to Playing Chicken is Knowing When to Flinch.
26 February 2008
It must have been the worry, the unspoken fear of the masses gathered now for the seventh day in Freedom Square, that caused Sargsyan to flinch. A second victory rally was scheduled for Republic Square on this day, to show off the breadth of the governing coalition, to bolster the claim of Serzh Sargsyan to the presidency of the Republic. Busing in mashrutkas full of bribed voters was one thing, but trying to stage a "meeting" to rival the seven-day-long event of the Opera would be quite another. Though a sprint would take me from Republic Square to Freedom Square in less than 10 minutes, it was difficult to decide where to be when the excitement began at 3pm.
I met my brother Oshin for lunch at Caf? Gusto, which had opened after my last visit to Yerevan, and over foccaccia and and spaghetti carbonara, we strategized where we’d go that day. On my way to the eatery, I’d passed by both squares. All of Republic Square, plus Amiryan street and Abovyan Street below Pushkin, was blocked off even at 1pm. Wasn’t the government the one that complained of the propkas created by political rallies? The empty republic square, booming with last-minute sound checks and the hasty construction of a large stage in front of the now-empty fountains, stood in stark contrast to the crowd already at the Opera. Here, an hour before the "meeting" was officially about to begin, the crowd was told that once victory was theirs, once LTP gained the seat of power, February 26th would be proclaimed the day of university students. So focused was this campaign to attract and energize students, that some speakers had to make sure to remind the gathered that they hadn’t forgotten about the older segment of their supporters!
After our hearty lunch, I returned to Republic Square. The word "staged" took on a new meaning for me there and then. The large stage was occupied by tricolor shawl-wearing members of the coalition. In front of the stage, penned up in an area surrounded by barricades, stood those obviously brought in to support those on the stage, with tens of banners squeezed into the space directly in front of the stage and the view of the TV cameras. A large crowd had gathered, some there of their own volition, most others told to show up or else. Teachers at my niece and nephew’s public school fit into this latter category. The event even had an M.C., one that was trying very hard to generate cheers from the crowd, but whose slogans were shouted back by only the handful closest to the stage. The rest of the square stood silent. I could not estimate the crowd, but the entire Republic Square was filled, albeit sparsely. After 10 minutes, and before Sargsyan spoke, I decided to head back to the Opera.
Once again, within minutes, I found myself at my now familiar perch in front of the stage left speakers. The same bodyguards stood there, and I was allowed to photograph and observe without impediment. Here I must add that Yerevantsis are generally very photophobic. There is an innate suspicion of people with cameras photographing crowds of dissenters, and the suspicion is definitely proportional to the size of lens used. In spite of this, I was continually asked why I was photographing the protest, which news agency I represented (never by the bodyguards, by the way), whether I was holding a video or still camera, and whether I’d be spreading word of their revolution. In Freedom Square, deprived of official news coverage, the strong desire to be seen worldwide as the foot soldiers of the revolution overpowered all other instincts and suspicions.
The emptiness of LTP’s message astounded me once more. He stood at the microphones, absorbed the cheers of the crowd, and exclaimed that there were half a million compatriots there (multiplication factor 0.1 to 0.15, still making this the largest rally of the previous week). He also very astutely welcomed each and every individual and group that streamed northward along Hyusisayin Poghota, thanking them for abandoning the Sargsyan rally and joining his. It was easy to note when the former ended, as the cordon of grim policemen’stretched two-deep across the mouth of Hyusisayin Poghota at Tumanyan disappeared.
The fine drizzle that had begun an hour earlier had by now intensified, and a few in the crowd even attempted to open umbrellas (they were discouraged, as they blocked the view of those further back). By the end of LTP’s speech, which ended once again with a reminder that he’d danced with his supporters at 4am the previous night, and once again with an invitation to yerk ou par, I was nearly drenched. I walked away toward the warm but smoky sanctuary of Artbridge, thinking how could the crowd be sustained by so little substance. Was yerk ou par such a compelling call to arms?
At Artbridge, I was treated to a magical concoction called Exotica, a mixture of hot tea, Armenian cognac, cornelian cherry preserves (known for their strong antibiotic qualities), and lemon juice. This was exactly what I needed, and my momentary fears of returning to Los Angeles with a cold disappeared. I had barely finished my tea (actually, my second cup) when Oshin called to say that the crowd had begun marching from the Opera and was already at the corner of Mashtots and Amiryan. I took off at a dead run down Abovyan, and arrived in front of the Republic Building, protected by riot police in full regalia, momen’s before the marchers. At first, sandwiched between the plastic shields of the police (which showed an alarming amount of wear and tear) and the rush of shouting marchers, it was difficult to assay the size of the protest. Twenty-five minutes later, Republic Square once again filled with cars, we stood stunned at the magnitude of the march. This march was denser and moved slower than the two on Mashtots the previous week, and had taken a full twenty-five minutes to walk by. The Sargsyan rally had clearly had the opposite of the intended effect, more than doubling the masses of protesters shouting "Serzhik Heratsir" (Serzh [Sargsyan], go away; Serzhik is a diminuitive form of Serzh) at the Republic Building whose hasty evacuation Oshin had witnessed. If this crowd grew any larger, or even sustained its numbers over the next several days, the president-elect was clearly in trouble.
That night, the crowd at the Opera was both larger and more energized, and the yerk ou par went on well past midnight. A siege mentality had now settled in, with multiple rings of cars parked to block easy police vehicle access to the square, and wary faces scanning outward, ready to rally at the smallest hint of a crackdown. The encircling ring of police cars was further out and most visible at Fransia Hraparak (France Square) at the intersection of Mashtots and Sayat Nova, on the northeast corner of the Opera building, on Tumanyan, and on Abovyan.
As I went to bed late that night, I wondered whether the momentum gained by the protest would grow, and where this was going. LTP’s stance seemed very rigid: he was president-elect. Would this absurd notion gain enough traction to matter?
28 February 2008
My involvement in observing the elections and ensuing protests would end today, as this was my last day in Yerevan. Time had flown by, and the twelve days spent in my homeland had come and gone.
As I write these words, on the second leg of my voyage home, emotions firmly in control now, I am unsure of what the future will bring. Did I witness the beginnings of a (color to be filled in later) revolution? Was the basis for this unrest the same as those in the Ukraine and Georgia? Many observers feel that this was indeed a proxy war between Russia and the U.S., each silently backing their candidate, each unwilling to give up the fight.
More importantly, what would happen to the beating heart of the movement, the disenchanted and disenfranchised youth that fueled the fire of yerk ou par? Would they be disillulioned once more? Would they become the latest fodder in the renewed battle for world supremacy?
I can only hope that the effect of the elections and their aftermath is stamped on the Gen-Xers and Gen-Yers filling Freedom Square, that governmen’s of the Republic, present and future, are no longer free to do as they please, but are under the constant, vociferous and watchful scrutiny of their citizens. Whether LTP will succeed in his mission is irrelevant, for his young supporters will clearly apply these more elevated standards especially to him. Not everyone has forgotten the dark years of his first presidency.
The powder keg that Yerevan had become exploded a scant two days after my return, as the government ran out of patience with the protesters. The policemen guarding government buildings have been replaced by soldiers, and tanks and armored personnel carriers are, for the first time since LTP stole the 1996 elections, a common sight on the streets of Yerevan. As of this writing, it is unclear what the aftermath of this crackdown will be, but one thing is clear. The Republic of Armenia, once deemed the most democratic of the former Soviet republics, has taken several giant steps backward in the eyes of the world.