News > Pan-Armenian News > Times of crisis are when people most need information
The president-elect should start by demanding that Kocharian lift the emergency decree and remove the shackles from the media.
President Kocharian declared a 20-day state of emergency on 1 March 2008, banning the right of assembly and muzzling all but “official information.” (*see note below)
In a speech to the nation that harkened back to Soviet crackdowns on dissent, he accused protesters of “illegal activities” and challenging “stability” and “constitutional order.”
This week, the (president-elect Serzh) Sarkisian-controlled parliament waived immunity from prosecution for four opposition lawmakers accused of fomenting unrest.
The government has a duty to maintain order, and in a country like Armenia that is too often given to Wild West politics, it is no easy task. But people in democracies have a right to be informed, to express themselves, to assemble, to complain about their government, and to demonstrate against their public servants. Strong democracies can withstand criticism and dissent, but strong democracies are not built from the top down.
Armenia’s constitution – which vests inordinate power at the top – is partly to blame for the country’s current crisis. Its political culture is another.
Stephan H. Astourian, who heads the Armenian studies program at the University of California at Berkeley, has described the party system in Armenia as one of “a limited geographic scope, ideological fuzziness, and weak institutionalization. These are essentially personalistic organizations, instruments for the ambitions of a more or less well-known individual and his clientele.”
Donors also contribute to the crisis. They tend to chart Armenia’s economic gains as a sign of overall progress without demanding more accountability. A 2005 report from the U.S. Agency for International Development suggests there isn’t much to show for the millions of dollars Washington pumps into democracy-building and anti-corruption programs each year:
“Although Armenia has been independent for almost fifteen years, autocratic mentalities and practices remain embedded. The government is dominated by the executive branch and is without meaningful checks and balances. The judiciary is not independent, and rulings are politically biased. A symbiotic relationship between political and business elites has bred endemic corruption and severely hampers the ability of opposition parties to raise funds or access the electronic media.”
The opposition, such as it is, has offered little as an alternative. Ter-Petrosian himself was accused of cronyism during the economic privatizations in the early years of the republic, and of rigging his 1996 re-election as president. Two years later he was forced to cede power to his prime minister, Kocharian, but returned from political obscurity a decade later determined to reclaim his old office. He denies inciting his supporters, but he was back in court this week challenging the official results rather than seeking an end to the crisis.
The president’s job would not be easy for any leader in an isolated, bitterly divided society where too much blood has been spilled already. If he is to succeed where Kocharian and Ter-Petrosian both failed, Sarkisian will have to make peace with neighboring nations, heal the domestic wounds, create a public-service ethic, and decentralize his own authority.
The president-elect should start by demanding that Kocharian lift the emergency decree and remove the shackles from the media. Times of crisis are when people most need information, not government-imposed silence.
Transitions Online (TOL http://www.tol.org) is an international publishing and media development organization based in Prague, the Czech Republic, with a mission of improving the professionalism, independence, and impact of the news media in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the former Soviet Union.
(*) The following message appears nowadays in all publications and online media sources in Armenia: Under Armenian President’s Decree on imposing state of emergency, all publications concerning domestic affairs during the period of 1 March - 20 March 2008 are strictly limited to official coverage.
Photo: President-elect Serzh Sarkisian.