By Emil Danielyan and Karine Kalantarian
Authorities in Yerevan banned Saturday the next anti-government rally planned by opposition presidential candidate Stepan Demirchian as incumbent Robert Kocharian warned his top challenger against attempting to unseat him with street protests.
“We will react very seriously and strictly to all those attempts that could be aimed at disrupting the public order and especially paralyzing the work of state bodies,” Kocharian said in remarks broadcast by state television.
Yerevan’s government-appointed Mayor Robert Nazarian, speaking on the state-run Armenian Public Television right after the president, said: “I officially announce that the February 23 demonstration is not sanctioned.” He argued that Demirchian and his opposition allies have not applied for an official permission to hold it and urged opposition supporters not to gather in the city center on Sunday.
The move followed Friday’s unsanctioned march through Yerevan by tens of thousands of Demirchian supporters protesting alleged widespread fraud in Wednesday’s presidential election. Demirchian aides say more than a hundred of them were subsequently arrested by the police.
Neither Kocharian nor Nazarian commented on the reported arrests. Kocharian, who is due to face Demirchian in the March 5 run-off, said only that opposition efforts to keep up pressure on the authorities in the wake of the controversial first round of voting is a “wrong tactics.”
“When the opposition transcends the boundaries of law, it immediately allows the authorities to strengthen their positions by enforcing the law,” Kocharian explained. He also alleged that unnamed opposition leaders are seeking to destabilize the political situation in Armenia while “hiding behind the people’s back.” He said “political stability” is one of the main achievements of his five-year rule and he is determined to preserve it.
Another warning to the opposition was issued by the Armenian military. In an extraordinary statement, the Defense Ministry said the armed “will not take a passive stance” if opposition actions “endanger the state order.” The ministry did not elaborate. The current defense minister, Serzh Sarkisian, is also Kocharian’s campaign manager. Armenia’s constitution bars the military from meddling in politics.
Opposition activists, meanwhile, claim that Kocharian would have been declared the winner of the February 19 election if they had not taken to the streets of the capital the next day. Demirchian said on Saturday that they will use only legal methods of political struggle. “We will do our best to avert upheavals and establish justice by legal means,” he told RFE/RL. “But first of all, it is the authorities who must avoid provocations.”
Reacting to the government ban later in the day, a spokeswoman for Demirchian’s People’s Party of Armenia (HZhK), said Sunday’s gathering will go ahead. “We will consider it a meeting with the voters, not a rally,” she said.