By Karine Kalantarian, Ruzanna Khachatrian, Gevorg Stamboltsian and Hrach Melkumian
President Robert Kocharian discussed on Thursday mounting tensions in Armenia with diplomatic representatives of the European Union amid opposition protests against his perceived attempts to “persecute” his political foes.
Kocharian’s leading allies gave a mixed reaction to the authorities’ decision to launch criminal proceedings into the intensifying opposition campaign for regime change. Some of them spoke out against arrests of opposition leaders which were made possible by the move.
A statement by the presidential office said “the domestic political situation” was on the agenda of Kocharian’s meeting with the ambassadors of leading EU member states and a Yerevan-based representative of the EU’s executive Commission. It said the participants of the meeting agreed that “the maintenance of stability” is of utmost importance for Armenia. No other details were reported.
It was not clear who initiated the meeting and what the European diplomats said about Wednesday’s statement by the country’s Office of Prosecutor-General which announced the opening of a criminal case on the nationwide rallies held by the opposition Artarutyun bloc since February. The prosecutors accused unspecified leaders of the bloc of "publicly insulting representatives of government" and threatening to “change constitutional order of the Republic of Armenia.”
Under Armenia’s criminal code the accusations carry up to three years’ imprisonment. As of late Thursday nobody was detained or questioned in connection with the criminal proceedings. Only one Artarutyun activist in the town of Talin was reportedly interrogated by police and prosecutors for several hours.
The opposition National Unity Party, Artarutyun’s main ally, likewise said that police visited the home of the head of its Talin chapter, Ara Chapikian, after he twice ignored their summonses. Chapikian was not at home. Party officials said the police gave him until Thursday evening to show up for a “conversation.”
Leaders of the three pro-presidential parties represented in the government endorsed the government warning to the opposition. “One of the leaders of Artarutyun has repeatedly spoken of the law and order. Now law and order is being established and let them not be upset,” said Vahan Hovannisian of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun).
But Galust Sahakian, the parliamentary leader of the more influential Republican Party, was less categorical. While noting that the prosecutors’ statement “stems from the law,” Sahakian stressed that the arrest of Artarutyun leaders, most of them fellow lawmakers, is “never desirable.” “I think that things haven’t gone so far that they must arrest deputies,” he told journalists.
A senior member of the third coalition party, Orinats Yerkir, also indicated that it would not support such action.
Meanwhile, the Artarutyun leaders again denounced Kocharian’s apparent threats to arrest them as “an unprecedented attempt at political persecution.” “Artarutyun reaffirms its determination to restore constitutional order and form a legitimate government in Armenia,” they said in a statement.
A condemnation was also issued by National Unity leader Artashes Geghamian. “It is hard to imagine greater nonsense,” he said. “All of this once again proves that the Republic of Armenia needs regime change like air and water.”
The two opposition groups have repeatedly announced their intention to launch a campaign of joint anti-Kocharian street protests by April 13. They are expected to try to block a street in downtown Yerevan leading to the parliament building and presidential palace.
The Yerevan municipality made it clear that it is unlikely to sanction the upcoming demonstrations. “The city authorities find unacceptable statements that are made at the [opposition] rallies,” the city’s presidentially appointed mayor, Yervand Zakharian, told a news conference. “If those rallies continue with such statements, the Yerevan mayor’s office will not be able to sanction such demonstrations and marches.”
Zakharian cited a 1997 decree by former President Levon Ter-Petrosian regulating public gatherings. The opposition claims that it contradicts a clause in the Armenian constitution that guarantees freedom of assembly.
The announced launch of the criminal inquiry has rekindled memories of December 1997 when Hovannisian and 29 other members of Dashnaktsutyun, then an opposition party, got prison sentences ranging from three two seven years for “making public calls for a violent overthrow of the government.” Most of them were released from jail shortly after Kocharian succeeded Ter-Petrosian in February 1998. The case was seen by many as politically motivated.
Critics now accuse the Dashnaktsutyun leaders of hypocrisy and double standards, a charge denied by them on Thursday. “Your comparison between the current and former authorities is not correct because we had been arrested for something much less serious than what is going on today,” Hovannisian told a correspondent for a pro-opposition newspaper.
Armen Rustamian, who was also jailed with Hovannisian and now heads the parliament’s foreign affairs committee, agreed: “It is groundless to draw parallels here.”
Hovannisian, Rustamian and the other former Dashnak defendants had been arrested in July 1995 and initially charged with plotting a murderous coup d’etat. The accusations were subsequently changed for lack of evidence.
(Photolur photo: Kocharian shaking the hand of British Ambassador Thorda Abbott-Watt during the meeting.)