By Emil Danielyan
Rows of barbed wire, water cannons, interior troops and riot police stopped Wednesday tens of thousands of people from approaching the official residence of President Robert Kocharian in the latest in a series of opposition demonstrations.
Hundreds of riot police armed with shields and batons stood in the way of the large crowd as it marched towards Kocharian’s campaign headquarters and the adjacent presidential palace in Yerevan.
The protesters were held back by barbed wire unrolled across Baghramian Avenue, one of the city’s main thoroughfares. Several meters behind it, interior troop conscripts and older police officers stood in neat lines, ready to fire tear gas. The next line of defense was made up of three trucks carrying water cannons. Special police units were positioned further behind them.
It was the biggest show of police force in Armenia in years and the first post-election demonstration since 1996 that threatened to turn violent. But the stand-off ended peacefully in about 30 minutes, with the protesters turning back after chanting anti-government slogans and pouring scorn on the security forces.
“Even the Armenian-Turkish border is not guarded like that,” shouted one protester.
The unsanctioned march followed yet another rally called by Demirchian and 13 opposition parties supporting his presidential bid. In a joint statement read out to the demonstrators, they again accused Kocharian of “usurping power” by vote rigging and demanded the release of dozens of opposition activists arrested in recent days for their participation in the anti-government protests. The oppositionists also demanded the sacking of Central Election Commission chairman Artak Sahradian and several government members, including Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian and Police Chief Hayk Harutiunian, for their role in the alleged vote manipulation.
“If Robert Kocharian does not fulfill these demands he must resign from the post of president of the Republic of Armenia,” the statement said.
In a separate speech, Demirchian again claimed “mass irregularities” during the February 19 first round of the election and denounced the arrests of “innocent people.” “I express my solidarity with those people and demand an immediate end to the political persecutions,” he said, adding that that is the main precondition for his agreement to hold a live televised debate with Kocharian.
“I have no problem with any debates because I am sure I will win them just like I won the elections,” Demirchian said. “But I can not hold a debate with a person who sponsors criminals and fraudsters. When he brings them to account I’ll be glad to debate with him.”
Demirchian and other opposition leaders addressing the crowd again claimed that it was the street protests that kept the authorities from announcing Kocharian’s first-round victory on February 20. They dismissed as fraudulent the final official results of the vote which showed Kocharian narrowly failing to garner the majority of votes needed for an outright victory.
Early results from polling stations across the country showed the incumbent winning more than 50 percent of the vote. However, the CEC’s final tally put the figure at 49.5 percent. Demirchian came in second with 28.2 percent.
“They first calculated Kocharian’s percentage points and then had a hard time adjusting the number of his votes,” said Aram Sarkisian, a former prime minister and the leader of the opposition Hanrapetutyun party.
“Armenia has a regime which impedes its development. The country will not undergo progress until we get rid of Robert Kocharian,” charged Shavarsh Kocharian of the National Democratic Party.
Although the opposition claims to have won far more votes and accuses Kocharian of planning to rig the second round, its leaders indicated on Wednesday that Demirchian will contest the run-off. “No irregularity can save Robert Kocharian; he has already been defeated,” said another Hanrapetutyun leader, Albert Bazeyan.