By Emil Danielyan
Armenia’s main opposition alliance launched at the weekend what appears to be a new campaign of street protests against the “illegitimate” ruling regime when it rallied supporters in a working-class suburb of Yerevan.
Stepan Demirchian and other leaders of the Artarutyun (Justice) bloc indicated that they will hold a series of similar gatherings across the country in the coming weeks to drum up public support for their idea of a “referendum of confidence” in President Robert Kocharian. Some of them warned that the authorities’ failure to hold such a vote could set off the kind of popular rebellion that toppled the president of neighboring Georgia.
“A referendum of confidence is a civilized way of solving the problem of the government’s legitimacy in Armenia,” Demirchian told a crowd of over a thousand people who gathered in the city’s southern Shengavit district. “If that possibility is not used, full responsibility for further developments will fall on the authorities.”
“We will step up our meetings with people,” he added.
“The Artarutyun bloc is calling on the people to actively participate in such activities, and we assure you that with joint efforts we will rid our country of a non-elected president, an evil,” said Victor Dallakian, a senior member of its parliamentary faction. “Robert Kocharian must go. The sooner the better.”
Artarutyun still refuses to recognize the legitimacy of Kocharian’s controversial reelection in the February-March presidential elections, insisting that they were rigged by the authorities and that Demirchian was their rightful winner. The vote, criticized as deeply flawed by the international community, was followed by a series of opposition demonstrations in Yerevan that failed to unseat the incumbent.
The opposition, including the National Unity Party of Artashes Geghamian, has since been trying to use the idea of the referendum, floated by the Armenian Constitutional Court in April, as a rallying point for its activities. Many oppositionists are clearly buoyed by last month’s “rose revolution” in Tbilisi that followed a parliamentary election also denounced as undemocratic by Western observers.
Demirchian claimed, though, that the Georgian uprising has no bearing on Armenian politics. “We have never linked and do not link our actions to events taking place in other countries,” he told journalists. “We have our own path to follow.”
However, his close allies did not deny that they have drawn inspiration from last month’s bloodless overthrow of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze. One of them, Albert Bazeyan, said: “What happened in Georgia affected our public’s mood, and the people saw that there is a possibility of regime change.”
Many of the protesters agreed. “We too must rise up,” said Rafik, an elderly resident of Shengavit.
“If the Georgian scenario is repeated here, I will only give the thumbs-up,” said Kristine, a history teacher.
The possibility of such a course of action appears to have also alarmed Kocharian who went on state television in the immediate aftermath of Shevardnadze’s ouster to dismiss any parallels between the political situations in the two South Caucasian neighbors. He warned his opponents against attempting to replicate their Georgian counterparts.
Kocharian and his allies have repeatedly ruled out the possibility of a national vote of confidence in the Armenian president, saying that the Constitutional Court did not have the authority to make such proposals. They also argue that while European and U.S. monitors strongly criticized the authorities’ handling of the presidential ballot, they never explicitly challenged its outcome.
The current Armenian parliament is dominated by Kocharian’s loyalists and is unlikely to accept the opposition demands for the referendum. Still, its majority was tricked by veteran lawmakers from Artarutyun, notably Dallakian, into inadvertently including the issue on the parliament agenda last month.
The National Assembly, according to its statutes, must discuss the issue in February at the latest. But its leaders have already made it clear that they will use legal loopholes to delay the debate indefinitely.
Artarutyun leaders, mindful of the lack of opposition influence on the legislature, are threatening to surround the parliament building with thousands of their supporters when the matter comes up again. “The Artarutyun faction will appeal to the people for support during those discussions,” Dallakian.
Bazeyan elaborated on the threats, saying: “We may have to stand there for three days, five days, or a week, and bring about manifestations of disobedience to the regime’s illegalities so that the situation spins out of control, so that Kocharian’s subordinates think twice before carrying out his illegal orders.”
The opposition alliance, which holds only 14 seats in the 131-member parliament, may get a strong boost from a highly unpopular increase in the price of electricity and other utilities planned by the Armenian government for the beginning of next year. Not surprisingly, social issues figure more and more prominently in the discourse of its leaders.
Many of those who turned up for the opposition rally in Shengavit work at the nearby Hayelektro factory that used to employ thousands of people in Soviet times but has struggled for survival in the past decade. Incidentally, the former engineering giant was managed by Demirchian’s late father Karen from 1991 until his election as parliament speaker in 1999. The sprawling factory has largely stood idle for the last two years, laying off more staff and failing to pay remaining employees.
Kocharian personally pledged to breathe a new life into it at a pre-election rally in Shengavit last February. However, there have been no signs of recovery there yet.
Marieta, a middle-aged woman who has worked at Hayelektro for over 30 years, angrily showed off what she presented as a written notification of her dismissal. She told RFE/RL that the company owes her over 220,000 drams ($390) in back wages for her two-year work and refuses to pay up.
“When Kocharian was speaking right here during the election campaign he said that Hayelektro will work,” she said. “What happened to his promise?”