Opposition activists in Armenia try to reclaim Freedom Square
|Publication Date||3 June 2010|
|Cite as||EurasiaNet, Opposition activists in Armenia try to reclaim Freedom Square, 3 June 2010, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4c15f7dcc.html [accessed 24 November 2014]|
June 3, 2010 – 4:49pm, by Marianna Grigoryan
After being closed for a lengthy construction project, Freedom Square in downtown Yerevan has again turned into a venue for confrontation.
The square reopened on May 24 after nearly two years of work to build an underground parking garage, at a cost of approximately $11 million. The area was the scene in early 2008 of opposition protests over the alleged rigging of that year's presidential election. At least 10 people were killed and hundreds injured during a violent, election-related confrontation on March 1, 2008.
Within days of its reopening, critics of Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan's administration tried to reclaim the square as a venue for the venting of political discontent. On May 30 and 31, opposition activists and security forces faced off in the square. On May 31, authorities took over a dozen activists into custody. Three detainees, including Ani Gevorgian, a reporter for the opposition Haykakan Zhamanak daily, are facing criminal charges for allegedly assaulting law-enforcement personnel and for hooliganism.
Media advocacy organizations have condemned Gevorgian's arrest, alleging that she was merely covering a news event and took no active part in the protest. Hayk Gevorgian, the managing editor of Haykakan Zhamanak, asserted that Gevorgian was targeted for retribution after she recently wrote a story that portrayed law-enforcement officials in a bad light over the production of a promotional video.
Levon Zurabyan, a spokesman for the main opposition Armenian National Congress, indicated that government critics would file formal complaints with relevant international bodies over authorities' efforts to limit the right of freedom of speech and public protest.
Police, meanwhile, have insisted they were merely trying to maintain public order.
Some analysts said the tough response by authorities is motivated by desire to preempt opposition efforts to revive a protest movement. "Realizing that the opposition is currently weak, authorities do not want to lose their advantageous position," independent political analyst Yervand Bozoyan told Eurasianet.org.
"Freedom Square is a symbol of liberty for the opposition, and equally [a symbol of] fear for authorities," added Arthur Sakunts, head of Vanadzor office of Helsinki Citizens Assembly. "It's no surprise the police react so extremely to the opposition's actions."
Eduard Sharmazanov, a spokesman for the Republican Party of Armenia, the main member of the governing coalition, insisted that the government had no particular interest in keeping protesters away from Freedom Square. "There is nothing to fear, or get nervous about," Sharmazanov told Eurasianet.org. "We condemn any violence, and another question is whether a citizen is acting in accordance with the law or not."
Yerevan residents had mixed opinions about the undeclared struggle over Freedom Square. Aram Mkryan, a 25-year-old teacher, suggested that a government clampdown could do more to stoke, rather than dampen, opposition passions. "This might produce the boomerang effect, like it happened during the  presidential election, when pressure resulted in more people joining the opposition," Mkryan said.
Hasmik Harutyunyan, a 64-year-old engineer, countered that many people in Yerevan have become disillusioned with politics, greatly reducing the likelihood that Freedom Square will once again develop into a political battleground. "Freedom Square is symbolic for us and has always played an important role in our political life, but the last presidential election left the people totally disappointed in both authorities and the opposition, and it's hard to spark them again," Harutyunyan said.
Editor's note: Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter based in Yerevan.