Armenian opposition rallies; pace says reforms "inadequate"
|Publication Date||20 June 2008|
|Cite as||EurasiaNet, Armenian opposition rallies; pace says reforms "inadequate", 20 June 2008, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4864e8db28.html [accessed 22 May 2013]|
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Marianna Grigoryan: 6/20/08
With cries of "Fight, fight till the end!" supporters of ex-President Levon Ter-Petrosian on June 20 held their first large-scale public demonstration in Yerevan since the violence of March 1 that left ten people dead.
Opposition protestors made plain that they saw the rally as a critical test for the government – both at home and abroad. Next week, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe will discuss Armenia's progress in meeting the terms of a recent resolution calling for the government to undertake various confidence-building measures in the wake of the March 1 crackdown on opposition demonstrators. Failure to honor the resolution could result in the loss of Armenia's PACE voting rights.
On June 20, the body announced that Armenia's progress in meeting its demands had been "insufficient."
With those demands in mind, some rally participants carried posters with the photographs of arrested opposition members. "Prescott and Colombier, don't protect the assassins of March 1," read one poster, in reference to John Prescott and Georges Colombier, two PACE rapporteurs sent to evaluate Armenia's progress in meeting Resolution 1609 before the body starts its summer session on June 23.
As if a reminder for the international community, rally speakers re-emphasized their chief complaints against the government of President Serzh Sarkisian.
"This rally proves that the people do not accept the results of the [February 19 presidential] elections and [Armenian President] Serzh Sarkisian's legitimacy," Ter-Petrosian, who officially finished a distant second in the presidential race, told cheering onlookers.
The ex-president went on to assert that such rallies should not be linked with the events of March 1. "Dozens of rallies and demonstrations have taken place before, but no disorder ever happened," he proclaimed. "The bandit group, the Tatar-Mongol gang, fired at the people. Sooner or later, they will pay for this," he charged in reference to Sarkisian and former President Robert Kocharian, who was in office at the time of the March 1 events.
In an apparent flashback to his own presidency, Ter-Petrosian also promised the crowd that those who died during the violence would be named official national heroes.
As usual, opposition and police showed little convergence in their estimates of the number of participants on hand to hear that message. Police monitoring the crowd estimated 10,000; at the start of the rally, senior opposition Republican Party member Suren Sureniants put the number at "around 50,000." By the end, Ter-Petrosian himself asserted that 200,000 protestors had turned out to express their disapproval of the government.
Opposition supporters claimed that public transportation cuts were used to block a greater turnout.
Less debate surrounds the demonstration's timing – the event took place just three days before the start of the PACE session. The two PACE rapporteurs were in the country from June 16-17, while the Ter-Petrosian movement's fight to secure a downtown location for their rally was still going strong.
Contrary to the two men's findings, President Sarkisian's government has maintained that progress has indeed been made in releasing some prisoners, setting up a structured dialogue with some opposition groups, and launching an investigation into March 1.
The opposition, however, says that it sees no sign of change. "There is only one issue for me at this moment – the issue of liberating the political prisoners," declared Ter-Petrosian. Only once such prisoners have been released from jail, he added, could talks with the government begin.
In the days running up to the rally, however, the opposition had been careful to keep the focus on their fight with the Yerevan city government over the demonstration venue.
The Yerevan city government had earlier denied the group permission to convene at Liberty Square, the most popular site for opposition rallies. The request was rejected on the grounds that an event for children had been scheduled for June 20 at the square for the same time.
But on Friday, Liberty Square bore no sign of such an event.
Instead, rows of police with shields tightly ringed the square, minutes away from the offices of the president and prime minister. Several police vehicles stood parked in the square's center.
Opposition leaders, charging that the city was playing politics, had vowed to gather at the site, nonetheless. Their announcements sparked a warning from First Deputy Police Chief Major General Armen Yeritsian on June 19 that "our position will be very harsh" if "mass disorder and crimes take place." sparked a warning from that "We will not allow mass disorder and crimes to take place."
In response, the opposition tuned its sights on the area in front of the Institute of Ancient Manuscripts, also known as Matenadaran, the standard fallback site for opposition rallies. The city had earlier also rejected an opposition request for this site, and made a counter-offer of a soccer stadium, which was rejected out of hand.
But, after negotiations between protestors and police, the rally at Matenadaran was allowed to proceed. Police armed with electric shock devices and shields had taken up position at the site in the afternoon, a few hours before the original 6pm start time.
Neighborhood onlookers watched the rally with interest, but without necessarily joining in. While a flag-waving Ter-Petrosian supporter asserted that "[w]e will win" eventually, one taxi driver took a more distant approach. As the opposition and government do battle, he said, "[n]o one is thinking about the simple people."
Editor's Note: Marianna Grigoryan is a reporter for the online ArmeniaNow.com weekly in Yerevan.
Posted June 20, 2008 © Eurasianet