Revisiting March 1 Election Crisis: Elusive Justice?

Op-Ed by Emil Sanamyan, USC Institute of Armenian Studies

In the past month, public humiliation of former government figures and their relatives has become one of the main features of Armenia’s news cycle. The National Security Service – originally intended for foreign intelligence and counter-terrorism – has been releasing embarrassing videos of previously powerful individuals being detained with cash, weapons and other ill-gotten goods. From once powerful retired general Manvel Grigoryan to Serzh Sargsyan’s brothers, nephews and key aide, and even director of Hayastan Fund held over misuse of a credit card, the point of these arrests appears to make clear that no one in Armenia is beyond the reach of the law enforced by the Nikol Pashinyan government.

On July 3, the Special Investigation Service (SIS) of Armenia informed the public that it has brought charges against former defense minister Mikhail Arutyunyan for the role he “and others’” in the Robert Kocharyan government allegedly played during and after the 2008 presidential elections. SIS charged the 72-year-old Arutyunyan with “violent overthrow of constitutional order,” a charge that carries between ten and fifteen years in prison, and said that it wants to question Kocharyan. Both Arutyunyan and Kocharyan are not in Armenia at this time.

The 2008 presidential election was the most contentious in Armenia’s history, because of strong personal animus between challenger Levon Ter-Petrossian and Kocharyan, who had replaced him a decade earlier. After Kocharyan-backed Serzh Sargsyan was officially announced the winner, Ter-Petrossian claimed victory for himself and launched street protests. As he mobilized public pressure, the former president succeeded in securing support from government defectors.

Most significantly, during a public rally on February 21, 2008, Ter-Petrossian claimed that two of Arutyunyan’s deputies at the time – the now infamous Manvel Grigoryan and Gagik Melkonian – have told him that they and others in the military would support Ter-Petrossian’s bid for political power. If true, the move would amount to a military mutiny and possible civil war. The following day Manvel Grigoryan’s brother and other Yerkrapah-affiliated MPs pledged loyalty to Ter-Petrossian.

Two days later, Arutyunyan issued an order to the military entitled “On implementation of tasks set by the commander-in-chief.” In that order, the defense minister – a political appointee of the president – argued that the opposition campaign was destabilizing the country, ordered the armed forces to higher state of readiness and created special units comprised of officers. The investigators claim that this order violated the constitutionally mandated neutrality of the armed forces (Article 8.2) and is therefore a prosecutable offense under criminal code amounting to “violent overthrow of constitutional order.”

Three weeks ago, Pashinyan appointed Sasun Khachatryan as the new head of the SIS and directed the agency to focus on the March 1 investigation. Khachatryan worked in state prosecution from 2000 until 2016 when he joined his family’s law practice. In 2008, Khachatryan’s former boss Aghvan Hovsepyan, then acting on orders from Kocharyan, brought similar charges of “usurpation of power” against Ter-Petrossian supporters, Pashinyan among them. Those charges were eventually dropped under Sargsyan.

To accuse Arutyunyan of “overthrowing constitutional order” seems illogical unless he acted outside Kocharyan’s authority, which is clearly not the case even judging superficially by what his order was entitled. And as commander-in-chief Kocharyan had discretion to instruct the military to take steps to prevent any defections and be ready for potential emergency rule. Arutyunyan made this point repeatedly, when he was questioned by parliamentary investigators seven years ago.

Arutyunyan is little known publicly, but he was one of the key figures responsible for the establishment of the Armenian army. In 1992, he left his position at the General Staff Academy in Moscow – the Soviet Union’s top military institution – and returned to Armenia to serve as deputy chief of general staff, and from 1994 to 2007 as chief of staff or the most senior military officer. From 2008 until last May, he was Armenia’s chief military inspector under the president. In this 26-year career, Arutyunyan has not been cited in any scandals and has maintained a generally positive image.

Arutyunyan’s order first came to public attention, when its contents were leaked to Pashinyan’s newspaper Haykakan Zhamanak in 2009. For years afterwards, opposition figures, including Pashinyan argued that the order was unconstitutional and amounted to a coup. The former government argued to the contrary. Both arguments are in the realm of political rhetoric and only the Constitutional Court can opine on constitutionality. With the change of government, the SIS has uncritically endorsed the former opposition’s views, and now has won a court sanction for Arutyunyan’s arrest.

The SIS press release further suffers from hyper-politicized, even emotional references to “Armenia’s international image,” “public anger,” and similar turns of phrase that would be at home in a newspaper editorial, but look out of place in an official communication of a government investigative entity.

The press release also accuses the military along with police of causing ten deaths on March 1-2. But from past investigations, no evidence had emerged that these deaths – of eight civilians and two security personnel – were caused by the military, rather than police actions. This raises further questions about reasons for SIS focus on the former defense minister. Former President Kocharyan, as the chief decider at the time, would be the one to question about the government’s use of force. And the charge against Arutyunyan seems like an indirect attack on Kocharyan.

It is important to note that Pashinyan’s concerns about Kocharyan do not reside merely in the past. During last spring’s protests, Kocharyan made public comments that cautioned the parliament against Pashinyan’s election as prime minister. Like Sargsyan before him, Pashinyan may see Kocharyan’s friendly rapport with Russian leader Vladimir Putin as a potential source of problems for him. These could be legitimate concerns.

Whatever may be Pashinyan’s political calculus, the SIS charge against Arutyunyan does not appear to conform to due process and looks precisely like the sort of political vendetta that Kocharyan pursued against the opposition in his time and that Pashinyan repeatedly promised to avoid during street protests he led in April and May.  

The Armenian public deserves closure over March 1 violence. There has to be a credible investigation that makes clear how ten people died and others were injured and what individuals should face legal or political sanctions for the violence. Further, lessons must be drawn on how to avoid such violence in the future. Such positive outcomes will be as difficult as they are essential. They will be lasting. Political calculations won’t be.

Emil Sanamyan lives in Washington DC, and specializes in the politics of the Caucasus.