By Emil Danielyan, Gevorg Stamboltsian and Shakeh Avoyan
Tens of thousands of people defied a government ban to rally in Yerevan on Friday in what the Armenian opposition described as the start of “permanent” street protests against President Robert Kocharian.
The opposition leaders urged the supporters not to leave the city’s Freedom Square until Kocharian steps down or agrees to a referendum on his legitimacy. And as the enthusiastic crowd chanted “Robert, go away!” and “Victory! Victory!” the three pro-presidential parties represented in Armenia’s government signaled a softening of their opposition to such a vote.
Kocharian as well as the Dashnaktsutyun, Orinats Yerkir and Republican parties until now categorically rejected the idea floated by the country’s Constitutional Court in the wake of last year’s disputed presidential election.
The massive rally began amid fears for a repeat of violent incidents that marred the two most recent gatherings held by the Artarutyun alliance and the National Unity Party. But no one attempted to stir up trouble as the their leaders addressed the crowd for about two hours, pouring scorn the authorities.
“We will carry out these actions on a permanent basis. Freedom Square will mark the beginning of freedom,” Aram Sarkisian said, announcing a round-the-clock sit-in of opposition activists at the square.
“Every day, starting from noon, you will be given information about the situation. Every day, at six o’clock in the evening there will be a rally during which we will tell you what’s going on,” Sarkisian added.
“We will stay here until Kocharian’s junta is removed from power,” declared another Artarutyun leader, Victor Dallakian. He said the opposition has set an April 12 deadline for the authorities to embrace legal amendments that would pave the way for the referendum of confidence in Kocharian.
The opposition leaders and representatives of the governing parties met the previous night for nearly three hours to discuss the increasingly tense situation. The talks continued on Friday.
In a statement issued later in the day, the coalition parties said they are ready to discuss the “legality” of the proposed referendum but only outside the Armenian parliament which they jointly control. They at the same time reiterated that a national vote of confidence in Kocharian “does not stem from the constitution and laws.” The issue was not included on the parliament’s agenda for next week which was approved by its leaders on Friday.
The opposition leaders, meanwhile, remained uncompromising in their insistence on regime change, presenting it as a forgone conclusion. “We now see that our people have not and can not come to terms with the usurpation of power because a penchant for justice is in their mentality,” Artarutyun’s Stepan Demirchian said. “Our people have already won.”
“Having completely exhausted themselves, they showed that their sole support base is thugs and looters,” National Unity leader Artashes Geghamian said, referring to violence that nearly disrupted his party’s separate rally in Yerevan on Monday.
“If police do not prevent provocations the people themselves will establish law and order,” Demirchian warned.
The bullish statements struck a chord with many protesters. “My soul is thrilled to see so many people here,” one woman said. “That means things have reached their climax.”
“I am going to stay here,” said a man.
The rally organizers decided against marching towards Kocharian’s official residence for the moment. Hundreds of riot police and interior troops backed by water cannons were on standby near the street leading to the presidential palace. The deputy chief of the Armenian police, General Hovannes Varian, said his forces will intervene if the protesters try to march through the city center.
Opposition sources said at least eight demonstrators were “kidnapped” by plainclothes police immediately after the rally. They said the police are refusing to provide any information regarding the detainees.
The chief of the police department in the city’s central Kentron district, Hovannes Tamamian, confirmed that “several” opposition supporters were arrested at Freedom Square and will be punished under Armenia’s controversial Code of Administrative Offences. He would not specify the reason for the arrest.
More than a hundred people remained at the square late in the evening, singing songs and listening to folk music.
Speaking on state television late on Thursday, Kocharian again rejected the resignation demands. He denounced his political opponents as an “aggressive minority” that wants to destabilize the country.