By Ruzanna Khachatrian and Shakeh Avoyan
Parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian criticized on Friday the Armenian government’s continuing crackdown on the opposition and made what appeared to be a last-ditch attempt to avert another violent confrontation between the two mutually hostile camps.
“You just can’t open a criminal case against a political party. I don’t know what opposition actions provoked it,” Baghdasarian, referring to the ongoing criminal investigation into the opposition Artarutyun bloc’s campaign for President Robert Kocharian’s resignation.
Several senior members of the alliance, including former Defense Minister Vagharshak Harutiunian, have been arrested and charged with calling for a “violent overthrow of constitutional order” and “publicly insulting” senior government officials as part of the inquiry.
“The guillotine is not the best means of treating dandruff,” Baghdasarian said. He specifically denounced police raids on the offices of major opposition parties following the violent dispersal of the April 13 overnight street protest in Yerevan.
The 35-year-old speaker, whose Orinats Yerkir Party is represented in Armenia’s coalition government, did not explicitly condemn the police actions on that night, but noted that “innocent people” suffered during the break-up of the rally.
Baghdasarian is the first senior Armenian official to publicly question the authorities’ tactics of dealing with the opposition challenge. And unlike other top allies of President Robert Kocharian, he has refrained from branding the opposition actions as a coup attempt.
Baghdasarian renewed his calls for a dialogue between the two sides, suggesting that leaders of “all political forces” gather in the Armenian parliament on Monday evening to discuss ways of bridging their differences. “Let us discuss the existing situation at the round table,” he said.
Such a discussion would take place the day before what the opposition says will be another “decisive” rally aimed to unseat Kocharian. Thousands of opposition supporters are expected to again march towards the presidential palace, setting the stage for another clash with security forces.
Dialogues offers have already been jointly made by Orinats Yerkir and its two coalition partners, the Republican Party and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun). Opposition leaders say a dialogue could only focus on ways of holding a referendum of confidence in Kocharian, an idea rejected by the coalition.
“We are ready to discuss the issue of the legality of such a referendum,” Baghdasarian said, urging the opposition to drop its preconditions. He suggested that experts from the Council of Europe be asked to present a judgment on the highly contentious matter.
Opposition leaders, however, remained unconvinced. “All talk of dialogue is just a gimmick,” said Grigor Harutiunian, a parliament deputy from Artarutyun. “It can not sound convincing to the public because they say one thing but do the opposite.”
Another Artarutyun lawmaker, Albert Bazeyan, argued that the coalition parties have little say in government affairs despite holding about a dozen ministerial posts. “Our country ostensibly has a semi-presidential system of governance,” he said. “But in fact, this is a super-presidential system.”