By Ruzanna Khachatrian, Karine Kalantarian and Shakeh Avoyan
The three political parties represented in Armenia’s coalition government extended on Tuesday the olive branch to the increasingly bullish opposition in a bid to stave off its promised popular uprising against the ruling regime.
Opposition leaders, however, said they remain determined to try to oust President Robert Kocharian with sustained street protests planned for the beginning of next month.
“There is still time and political forces must display the will to address the country’s problems through dialogue, through political mechanisms,” said Samvel Nikoyan, a senior lawmaker from Prime Minister Andranik Markarian’s Republican Party (HHK). “We are prepared to shoulder responsibility for organizing such a dialogue.”
“I call on all political forces to sit at the round table and refrain from making calls disseminating hatred and hostility,” said Samvel Balasian, the parliamentary leader of the Orinats Yerkir Party, the HHK’s junior coalition partner.
The apparently coordinated calls, endorsed by the third coalition party, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), came at a special session of parliament during which factions and individual deputies are able to read out their statements on any issue. The statements are fully broadcast by state television.
The opposition lawmakers, who have been boycotting regular National Assembly sessions for more than a month, showed up this time around to take the opportunity to spread their tough anti-Kocharian message. They were quick to dismiss the coalition offer. “We are ready for dialogue with any political force provided that Kocharian resigns,” said Victor Dallakian of the Artarutyun (Justice) alliance.
Dallakian added that Artarutyun and the opposition National Unity Party will jointly start “the process of toppling Kocharian’s regime” before April 13. “Together we are united and determined to fulfill the people’s will, restore constitutional order and form a legitimate government in Armenia,” he said.
A Dashnaktsutyun representative, Hrair Karapetian, countered that the Armenian government is legitimate and will fight back attempts to “disrupt law and order.” Karapetian said most Armenians voted for Kocharian and his allies in last year’s presidential and parliamentary elections which the opposition dismisses as fraudulent.
For his part, Preisdent Robert Kocharian warned through a spokesman that opposition threats to force him into resignation with street protests are unconstitutional and will be dealt with accordingly. “The opposition has adopted a baseless and aggressive position,” the presidential press secretary, Ashot Kocharian, told RFE/RL. “The opposition actions carry elements running counter to criminal legislation. In particular there are calls for a violent regime change.”
“Unsanctioned rallies are fraught with criminally punishable actions directed against public order,” the spokesman warned.
The opposition has promised a campaign of demonstrations outside the presidential palace and parliament building in Yerevan similar to the November “revolution of roses” in neighboring Georgia. “Kocharian may not resign, but he will be unable to control the situation and govern the country de facto,” said another Artarutyun leader, Albert Bazeyan.
Armenia’s leading businessmen have expressed concern at the mounting political tensions. In a joint statement issued late Monday they effectively sided with the authories, saying that a destablization of the political situation would have negative effects on the struggling Armenian economy. The statement was read out by Arsen Ghazarian, chairman of the Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs.
“I myself see no danger in [peaceful] rallies,” Ghazarian said. “That is the constitutional right of our citizens. I only hope that that will done in accordance with the law and the constitution.”
The first signs of the feared instability emerged at the weekend when an opposition rally in the northwestern city of Gyumri was marred by violence and the arrest of nine Artarutyun activists who clashed with plain-clothes police. The regional prosecutor, Hamlet Hovsepian, told RFE/RL that four of them have already been jailed for up to 15 days under the Soviet-era Code of Administrative Offences, while the others will face more serious, criminal charges of “hooliganism.” He also said three local women have been fined for allegedly throwing eggs at the Artarutyun leaders.
The latter insisted on Tuesday that eggs were also hurled by plain-clothes police officers present at the rally. Some of them were injured in a fistfight with the detained oppositionists. Dallakian, who was among the organizers of the Gyumri protest, again accused the local police of deliberately provoking the violent incidents – a charge denied by the regional prosecutor.