By Marianna Grigoryan
Inspired by recent developments in North Africa, Armenia’s largest opposition coalition is preparing for “large-scale rallies” in Yerevan’s Freedom Square starting on February 18.
The government’s public response to the announcement by Levon Ter-Petrosian’s Armenian National Congress (ANC) has been muted. But official actions suggest that authorities are taking the potential for an “Egypt Effect” in Armenia seriously. Soon after the ANC revealed its protest plans, Yerevan city officials countered that Freedom Square would be off limits because it would be the scene of “sporting and cultural events” from February 15-March 15.
ANC leaders say that if they can’t secure permission to rally in Freedom Square via PR efforts and official application procedures, they will simply protest without a city permit.
Freedom Square has long been the preferred site for opposition rallies, and it was the scene of the 2008 post-presidential election crackdown, during which at least 10 people were killed. The date selected for the rally — the eve of the date of the 2008 presidential election, a vote that the ANC claims was stolen from Ter-Petrosian – is designed to reinforce the opposition message.
Ter-Petrosian, a skilled orator and former president, has repeatedly pledged to restart the ANC’s rallies in Freedom Square and has routinely had to contend with supposed city “scheduling conflicts.” When the ANC has staged protests at other venues in recent years, they have failed to attract large numbers.
This time, timing may be on the ANC’s side, some analysts believe.
Aside from heated discussions among Armenians about the changes underway in Egypt and Tunisia, economic discontent is brewing in Armenia. An ANC demonstration, if it takes place, would come on the heels of angry protests by Yerevan street traders, whose activities were recently banned. High prices – consumer prices in 2010 increased by 8.8 percent compared with the previous year, according to the National Statistical Service – and near-double-digit inflation (9.4 percent in 2010) are fueling a growing sense of discontent.
“Revolutions act like contagions,” said Manvel Sarkisian, a political analyst at the Armenian Center for National and International Studies. “In any event, the incidents in Tunisia and Egypt have already affected Armenia’s domestic life; the opposition has whipped up its excitement, and the authorities are responding accordingly.”
For now, the reactions of both sides are “predictable,” Sarkisian said. For the opposition to succeed in promoting substantive political changes, he added, Ter-Petrosian and others have to move beyond simply talking about holding protest rallies. “They must set goals and achieve them,” Sarkisian said.
The leader of the opposition Heritage Party’s parliamentary faction, Stepan Safarian, agreed; while the complaints of protesters in Egypt and Tunisia may resonate in Armenia amid the simmering discontent about runaway prices and dwindling jobs, staging a rally, by itself, is not much of a political goal. “We need to clarify the issues,” said Safarian. “Occupying Freedom Square cannot be a goal when we face the problem of restoring the rights of the people and many other important issues.”
Eduard Sharmazanov, the spokesperson for President Serzh Sargsyan’s Republican Party of Armenia, downplayed the chances that the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings will prompt a large number of Armenians to take to the streets. “There is some discontent in Armenia, but there are no grounds for a social revolt,” Sharmazanov. “Armenian authorities are determined to carry out reforms to alleviate the consequences of the [economic] crisis.”
One Yerevan pensioner, 63-year-old Janik Avagian, scoffed at such rhetoric, and indicated a readiness to protest. Social and economic conditions, Avagian asserted, were worsening by the day. “Everything gets more expensive, the public utilities, the food, life, and the authorities only give promises,” Avagian said.
In contrast to Avagian, one Yerevan taxi driver said that while events in Egypt had captivated the attention of Armenians, he personally remained reluctant to throw his support behind Ter-Petrosian. The driver, who declined to give his name, voiced disappointment over the outcome of the protest movement in 2008, and expressed the belief that Ter-Petrosian was merely trying to position himself for another presidential run in 2013. “After hundreds of thousands of people attended his rallies, and the notorious events [of 2008], Levon Ter-Petrosian dropped out of sight, and now he shows up again,” said the driver. “Why should I believe him?”
Editor’s note: Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter in Yerevan and the editor of MediaLab.am.