By Emil Danielyan
The Armenian opposition rallied thousands of supporters in Yerevan Friday for the first time in nearly five months, promising unspecified “decisive action” to force a referendum of confidence in President Robert Kocharian whose legitimacy it refuses to accept.
Stepan Demirchian and other leaders of his Artarutyun (Justice) bloc said they will step up their campaign for the vote suggested by Armenia’s Constitutional Court in the wake of last winter’s presidential election that heightened political tensions in the country.
Echoes of the two-round ballot, strongly criticized by international observers, continued to resonate in their emotional speeches. The oppositionists said they will soon stage another protest which they said might prove critical for their attempts to force Armenia’s Kocharian-controlled parliament to call the referendum.
“A referendum of confidence would enable the establishment of a legitimate government in the country,” Demirchian told the crowd. “We will bring the process to a logical conclusion.”
“Kocharian should need a referendum more than we do,” said Demirchian’s more radical ally, former Prime Minister Aram Sarkisian. “Let him prove that he got a vote of confidence from the people. But he can’t do that because he was not elected president.”
Sarkisian went on to declare that this is the last rally which he is attending in order to “give information” to his supporters. “The next rally will be one of decision actions,” he said. “Kocharian will quit with that rally. I promise you.”
Sarkisian declined to elaborate on the opposition’s tactics, saying that the authorities should be taken by surprise. An opposition activist who moderated the gathering held in the city center likewise did not specify the date of the next anti-government demonstration, saying only that it will be called “very soon.”
Other opposition speakers indicated that the Demirchian-led bloc will rally supporters outside the parliament building in Yerevan to try to pressurize the National Assembly into passing amendments to the Armenian law on referendum that would pave the way for the nationwide vote on Kocharian. One of them, Albert Bazeyan, warned of the possibility of a “popular rebellion” in Armenia. “The opposition can not achieve that objective without public support,” he said.
Opposition proposals on the referendum legislation have already been submitted to the parliament’s committee on legal affairs. It is not known when it will officially discuss them. The parliament majority will almost certainly reject them as Kocharian and his allies have strongly denounced the Constitutional Court for floating the idea of a referendum of confidence last March. They insist that the court had no legal authority to make such proposals and that irregularities reported during the vote were not widespread enough to affect its outcome.
The opposition, however, has been using the issue as a rallying point for its post-election activities. Artarutyun is adamant in portraying Demirchian as the rightful winner of the vote and plans to challenge its official results in the European Court of Human Rights. “The regime must definitely be changed before next elections,” another prominent Artarutyun figure, Vazgen Manukian, said. “Only angry people concerned about their future can achieve that.”
The Armenian authorities hope that Artarutyun will fail to draw large crowds for its renewed political offensive. In that regard, Friday’s rally was a far cry from similar street protests staged by Demirchian in February and March. Tens of thousands of people attended them at the time.
Organizers of the latest protest claimed that the authorities blocked all major highways leading to Yerevan to prevent residents of nearby towns and villages from demonstrating in the capital. The practice was commonplace in the aftermath of the March 5 presidential run-off.
Meanwhile, Artarutyun further upped the stakes in its push for power when it issued a statement to the protesters openly accusing Kocharian of complicity in the October 1999 terrorist attack on the Armenian parliament. Among the eight officials killed in the massacre were Sarkisian’s powerful brother Vazgen and Demirchian’s father Karen. The statement alleges that Kocharian remains in power primarily due to the killings.
The authorities have always denied such accusations. They argue that the leader of the parliament attackers, Nairi Hunanian, has repeatedly told prosecutors and the judge presiding over their long-running trial that the decision to storm the assembly was entirely his.