By Emil Danielyan in Gyumri
An anti-government rally in Gyumri on Sunday was effectively disrupted by violence and arrests of opposition activists in a further ominous sign of serious unrest awaiting Armenia.
The demonstration organized by the Artarutyun alliance degenerated into scuffles between opposition supporters and a handful of other people who denounced President Robert Kocharian’s foes. A resulting fistfight ended with four Artarutyun activists in police custody, forcing the organizers to cut short the protest to try to negotiate their release.
Stepan Demirchian and other leaders of the bloc blamed the "provocation" on the local authorities and the central government and vowed to continue their growing attack against the ruling regime.
“Today we are witnessing the agony of this regime,” an uncharacteristically furious Demirchian told the crowd of more than a thousand people. “The Armenian people can not tolerate the rule of such thugs.”
The trouble began minutes after the start of the rally when a group of women, whom many in the crowd described as “prostitutes,” raised banners slamming the opposition and voicing support for Kocharian. They were immediately surrounded and jostled by angry opposition supporters trying to tear up the banners.
The scuffles unfolded to a backdrop of firecracker explosions that were apparently set off by other government supporters hidden in the crowd. The noise intensified during Demirchian’s speech, resembling automatic gunfire. Also, eggs were hurled to the podium from which the organizers addressed the protesters. One egg hit an opposition lawmaker.
The opposition leaders, struggling to calm tempers, faced another disruption when electricity powering their loud-speakers was cut off. Although the power supply was restored 20 minutes later, tension rose further as a brawl broke out between some opposition activists and a man who apparently tried to approach Demirchian.
Four of them, including Artarutyun leader Albert Bazeyan’s driver, were then overpowered and driven away by police officers dressed in plainclothes. Police said later that the man beaten by the oppositionists was also a policeman, raising the question of why the security official tried to interfere with the rally.
The organizers say the local authorities informed them in advance that they “can not guarantee the security” of the gathering because of staff shortages. However, the presence of plainclothes police called this explanation into question.
“It shows that the provocation was organized by the authorities and they will be held accountable with all the strictness of the law,” charged another prominent member of the bloc, Victor Dallakian. “It also shows that Robert Kocharian is pinning his hopes on prostitutes and egg-throwers.”
Dallakian and Bazeyan later met with the police chiefs of Gyumri and the broader Shirak region to demand the release of their supporters. The lengthy talks yielded no results as of late evening, with the police chiefs insisting that the latter be punished for assaulting a law-enforcement official. The opposition leaders countered that the alleged victim did not wear a uniform and was trying to disrupt a peaceful demonstration.
“Instead of taking measures to arrest those individuals who provoked all of this, they punish the opposite side,” Bazeyan complained. “If they want to open criminal cases, they must primarily target us, the organizers of the rally.”
Bazeyan said the violent incident, the worst since opposition rallies in the run-up to last year’s presidential election, will not deter the opposition from launching its campaign of street protests outside the main government buildings in Yerevan. Dallakian mentioned April 12 as the most likely date for its start.
Artarutyun was given a major boost last week when another major opposition group, the National Unity Party of Artashes Geghamian, decided to join the onslaught. Demirchian stressed this fact in his speech.
The government, for its part, has warned that any attempts at an “unconstitutional” overthrow of Kocharian will be countered with tough action. The Armenian leader, still reeling from his controversial reelection in the 2003 poll, has recently reshuffled his security apparatus in preparation for the opposition challenge.