By Emil Danielyan
Thousands of opposition supporters rallied late Friday in central Yerevan to mark the approaching third anniversary of the 1999 terrorist attack on Armenia's parliament. The demonstrators carried anti-government banners as they marched through the capital to lay wreaths outside the parliament building in memory of Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian, parliament speaker Karen Demirchian and six other murdered officials.
The demonstration was organized by 15 opposition parties making up a loose pre-election coalition. Two of them -- Hanrapetutyun and the People's Party (HZhK) -- are led by relatives and close associates of the assassinated founders of the Miasnutyun bloc. Their leaders used the attack anniversary to again accuse the authorities of bungling the criminal inquiry into the parliament killings and repeat their allegations that President Robert Kocharian may have masterminded the bloodbath to cling to power.
"That horrendous crime was aimed at making Robert Kocharian's power unlimited and unrestrained," charged Albert Bazeyan, the Hanrapetutyun chairman. "By assassinating Karen Demirchian and Vazgen Sarkisian, the crime organizers wanted to create conditions for Kocharian's victory in the future elections."
"It's clear that if Vazgen and Demirchian were alive, Kocharian could even dream about reelection," Bazeyan said.
Stepan Demirchian, the late speaker's son and HZhK leader, also accused Kocharian of "sponsoring the terrorists" that perpetrated the parliament massacre on October 27, 1999.
Kocharian and his supporters have repeatedly rejected the allegations, saying that their opponents have been exploiting the case for political purposes.
The parliament gunmen led by former journalist Nairi Hunanian surrendered to police the day after the attack and went on trial in February 2001. They have insisted throughout their ongoing trial that they had acted alone and had no government sponsors outside the parliament building.
The presidential elections of next February were another major theme of the opposition rally, with speakers urging Armenians to vote against Kocharian and warning the authorities against attempting to falsify the vote. "Rest assured that in the upcoming national elections the opposition parties will do everything so that you can express your will freely," Bazeyan said.
"We will save no effort to stave off fraud," assured another opposition leader, Arshak Sadoyan.
The organizers of the rally pledged last month to try to put forward a single presidential candidate who would be popular enough to defeat Kocharian. But long running differences among the main opposition leaders have so far precluded such an agreement. One of them, Artashes Geghamian of the National Unity party, has already made it clear that he will run for president in any case.
The HZhK's Demirchian is likely to follow suit. He was greeted on Friday with rapturous applause by the crowd of several thousand people, which underscored his status as one of the most popular opposition politicians in Armenia.