YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–In his first public commen’s since leaving office, former President Robert Kocharian on Monday defended the governmen’s need to respond with force to opposition protests and accused his predecessor of "immorally exploiting" Armenia’s post election situation to stir continued political unrest.
In an interview with the Mediamax news agency, Kocharian explained as ridiculous Ter-Petrosian’s claims that the March 1 violence in Yerevan was orchestrated by the government to suppress opposition street protests.
"Levon Ter-Petrosian and the ANM hungered for blood as a tool to continue the political struggle," he charged. "Ter-Petrosian did everything to provoke unrest and make the police use force."
Addressing hundreds of loyalists earlier this month, Ter-Petrosian denied that the clashes, which left at least ten people dead, were part of his plot to use the February 19 election for returning to power. He said Kocharian is chiefly responsible for what he called a "slaughter" of peaceful demonstrators.
"Only a weak-headed or a deeply immoral person may state that the authorities can deliberately plan the use of arms," countered Kocharian. He insisted that his administration was never interested in putting a bloody end to the country’s post-election crisis and had no choice but to use force against thousands of Ter-Petrosian supporters who gathered outside the Yerevan mayor’s office just hours after the break-up of their non-stop protest in the city’s Liberty Square.
"The use of force by the authorities in such cases can only be a forced measure, which is to prevent grosser consequences," said Kocharian. "This is true especially for me, since I was the outgoing president then."
The Armenian authorities say security forces that tried to disperse the angry crowd were not only pelted with stones and Molotov cocktails but also came under gunfire. Two of the ten people killed in the clashes were interior troop servicemen. The authorities also point to the looting of several shops and burning of dozens of cars that followed the police retreat from one of the streets leading to the area.
The official version of events has been questioned by Armenia’s human rights ombudsman, Armen Harutiunian, and international human rights organizations. In an extensive report issued late last month, Harutiunian said that the Armenian police have so far failed to publicize any evidence of the use of firearms by the protesters. None of several dozen Ter-Petrosian supporters arrested since March has been charged with firing at security forces.
According to Kocharian, this is so because "many important figures are still hiding from the investigation."Attempts to cast doubts on the fact of the use of arms, whereas two policemen and soldiers were killed and 41 were wounded, are just foolish," he said.
Kocharian also insisted that Ter-Petrosian was not placed under de facto house arrest after riot police dispersed protesters in Liberty Square in the early morning of March 1. The opposition leader says that is the reason why he did not join the crowd that barricaded itself outside the mayor’s office later in the day.
"He was clearly told that he could go wherever and whenever he wanted, but the participation of government appointed security officers [guarding Ter-Petrosian] in illegal rallies, which had grown into mass unrest, was impermissible," said Kocharian. "He could have released his security guards and joined the people who trusted him."
"The myth about house arrest is a justification of a coward who avoided responsibility," he added.