By Emil Danielyan
Public transport communication between Yerevan and the rest of Armenia was again brought to a virtual halt by the authorities on Friday as the opposition prepared for a key street protest in its campaign for regime change.
The move was apparently aimed to reduce the attendance for the rally which was due to be jointly held by the Artarutyun alliance and the National Unity Party late in the afternoon.
Police deployed additional officers and patrol cars on the roads leading to the capital. Traffic at the two main highways was dominated by personal cars and commercial trucks. Many of them were stopped for identity checks.
There were practically no minibuses, the principal means of communication between Yerevan and the regions. Thousands of people use them to commute to work and studies every day. Minibus drivers inside the city said their provincial colleagues have been banned from working on Friday.
Senior officials from the Armenian Police Service said earlier this week that they are tightening road security to “control crime.” They denied any link between the extraordinary measure and the opposition bid to oust President Robert Kocharian.
Police officers at a big roadblock west of Yerevan strongly objected when this correspondent took its picture. They let him go only after making sure that the picture was deleted from his digital camera.
Some opposition supporters did manage to pour into the city. Rafik Saharian, an elderly supporter of National Unity leader Artashes Geghamian from the city of Vanadzor, arrived in a van which he said was repeatedly stopped by traffic police during the 120-kilometer journey. He said its driver was forced to write an “explanation” at a police checkpoint outside Yerevan.
“The driver signed a written explanation on what his passengers talked about during the trip and whether there are any oppositionists among them,” Saharian told RFE/RL, adding that there were “many policemen” at the bus station in Vanadzor.
Mikael Sarukhanian, another Geghamian supporter, came from Sevan, 50 kilometers to the north, in a friend’s car. “The police told us not to pick up anyone on the way,” he said.
Another man claimed to have walked 15 kilometers with friends to reach the capital from the town of Lusakert. “There is no public transport today,” he said.
Some opposition leaders themselves tried to bring in people from nearby regions. Aram Sarkisian of Artarutyun rallied about a hundred people in the southern town of Artashat for a march to Yerevan. The crowd was reportedly stopped and dispersed by police outside Artashat.
“My car is being impounded and they want to take me to a police station,” Sarkisian told RFE/RL from the scene. “I want to go to Yerevan on foot.”
Friday’s rally was not sanctioned by the authorities which said it would disrupt “the city’s normal life.”