After brief negotiations with protest organizers, riot police allowed the sizable crowd to enter Liberty Square and celebrate what the opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK) described as a major “victory” in its drive to force President Serzh Sarkisian to call snap elections.
The HAK’s top leader, former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, again claimed that Sarkisian will soon face the kind of popular uprising that has rocked Egypt and other Arab countries. Ter-Petrosian stressed at the same time that his opposition alliance is still ready for a “dialogue” with the Armenian authorities if they meet at least some of its demands, including the release of opposition members arrested following a disputed 2008 presidential election.
In an indication that Sarkisian is taking the renewed opposition protests seriously, two Ter-Petrosian loyalists were released from jail on Thursday. One of them, Harutiun Urutian, received a hero’s welcome in Liberty Square.
“I absolutely don’t doubt that what has taken place in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere will also take place in Armenia,” Ter-Petrosian said in a speech at the rally that began in another location in the city center. “That is, the authorities will after all submit to the will of the people. But I also believe that unlike in those countries, that will take place in Armenia smoothly and without upheavals.”
“Very soon, that wave [of protests] will show a tendency to grow, rather than die out,” he said.
Attendance at the demonstrations held by the HAK since February 18 has already been quite strong. Thursday’s rally was bigger than the previous ones. It ended at a square that was the scene of Ter-Petrosian’s 2008 post-election protests harshly broken up by the Armenian authorities.
Ter-Petrosian himself was forcibly removed from Liberty Square on March 1, 2008, just hours before vicious clashes between his supporters and security forces that left ten people dead. The sprawling square facing Yerevan’s Opera House has since been effectively off limits to Armenian opposition groups.
“Liberty Square has been liberated,” Aram Manukian, a senior HAK representative, told the jubilant crowd chanting “Levon!” and “Victory!”
As the crowd made its way into the square some protesters rushed to greet Raffi Hovannisian, the leader of the opposition Zharangutyun (Heritage) party who began a hunger strike there on Tuesday. “This is the beginning of the victory of freedom,” Hovannisian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
“The symbolic return of the people to the square shows the incumbent president and the opposition that Armenia’s future is in the balance,” Hovhannisian said.
“All of us must be guarantors for a peaceful transfer of power to the people,” he added.
The Zharangutyun leader, whose party has a tenuous rapport with the HAK, was not approached by Ter-Petrosian. Nor did other HAK leaders greet or address him from the podium.
At the previous HAK rally held on March 1, Ter-Petrosian issued the authorities with a long list of economic and political demands, notably the holding of fresh presidential and parliamentary elections. Sarkisian has not directly reacted to them, saying only that his administration is open to “realistic” and “feasible” opposition proposals.
While complaining that Sarkisian has essentially ignored his demands so far, Ter-Petrosian said he and his political team stand ready to start “dialogue” with the government if the latter frees all remaining “political prisoners,” promises an independent inquiry into the March 2008 bloodshed and does not hamper further opposition rallies in Liberty Square.
We are not maximalists and have no intention to push the authorities into corner for now,” he said. But Ter-Petrosian, who served as Armenia’s first president in 1991-1998, warned at the same time that Sarkisian could be issued with a “real ultimatum” at the next opposition rally scheduled for April 8 if he fails to make major concessions to the opposition.
In remarks primarily addressed to his most radical followers, Ter-Petrosian emphasized that he is against “hasty” opposition steps and will instead continue to gradually ratchet up pressure on the Sarkisian government. “We have no reason to hurry up or hasten events as we are convinced that the success of the struggle depends solely on our patience, self-confidence, serenity and discipline,” he said.
“It’s the authorities that have to hurry up because a further delay could be fateful both for them and the country,” concluded the HAK leader.