By Emil Danielyan, Ruzanna Khachatrian and Armen Zakarian in Strasbourg
The Armenian opposition on Tuesday postponed until next week its promised “decisive” offensive against President Robert Kocharian, saying it is giving the authorities the last chance to hold a referendum of confidence in him.
Holding yet another rally in Yerevan, opposition leaders also attributed the move to the decision by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) to discuss the political situation in Armenia on Wednesday. Earlier in the day they called a halt to their talks with the governing coalition which were aimed at finding a compromise solution to the crisis.
“We are showing the good will and giving the authorities seven days’ time. If they don’t respond accordingly, they will get a powerful blow on April 4,” Aram Sarkisian of the Artarutyun (Justice) alliance told several thousand people in the city’s Freedom Square.
The rally proceeded peacefully and ended without a march towards Kocharian’s heavily guarded residence which was implicitly promised by the opposition leaders last week. The planned PACE debate, welcomed by the opposition, seems to have played a major role in the delay. Two prominent opposition figures, including Artashes Geghamian of the National Unity Party (AMK), are currently in Strasbourg, seeking the organization’s support for the two-month campaign for regime change in Armenia.
Artarutyun’s top leader, Stepan Demirchian, was anxious to boost his supporters’ morale, assuring them that the opposition remains determined to “form a legitimate government” in the country. “I do understand that many of you are impatient and want to see regime change as soon as possible,” he said. “But rest assured that we will win.”
The de facto opposition ultimatum contains ten demands, including the referendum of confidence, an end to the government crackdown and the release of all “political prisoners.” They were presented to leaders of the three pro-Kocharian parties making up Armenia’s coalition cabinet late on Monday. The talks resumed Tuesday only to end in half an hour. Opposition representatives said they are freezing the “political consultations” because the authorities have already rejected two of their demands by again blocking all roads leading to Yerevan and passing a controversial law on rallies.
“We demand that the National Assembly take appropriate steps to address our demands. After that we will be prepared to take part in political consultations,” one of them, Victor Dallakian, said.
But parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian claimed that the talks were suspended by the two sides “so that the [coalition] parties can discuss the submitted proposals.” He also complained that he lacks the powers to make sure that Armenians’ constitutionally guaranteed freedom of movement inside their country is respected.
The authorities have routinely blocked transport communication between Yerevan and the rest of the countries to prevent provincial residents from attending the street protests held in the capital this month. Opposition sources claimed that Tuesday’s transport blockade was the worst to date.
The Armenian parliament, in which the governing Dashnaktsutyun, Orinats Yerkir and Republican parties hold a majority, approved the law on rallies in the second reading despite strong objections voiced by experts from the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. In an interim report, the Council’s legislative watchdog, the Venice Commission, concluded that the legislation runs counter to the European Convention on Human Rights of which Armenia is a signatory.
The main author of the law, Justice Minister David Harutiunian, dismissed the criticism, denying that it restricts freedom of assembly guaranteed by the Armenian constitution. The lawmakers are expected to pass it in the third, final reading on Wednesday.
Dallakian argued that Harutiunian could have easily delayed the vote pending the negotiations with the opposition. “The coalition can not or does not want to affect his actions. Either way we have a fait accompli,” he said.
In Strasbourg, meanwhile, a PACE commission monitoring Armenia’s compliance with its membership obligations discussed a statement which will be put before the 45-nation assembly for debate on Wednesday. Geghamian and his Armenian colleagues representing both the opposition and the pro-Kocharian camp attended the meeting, seeking to have their views reflected in the document.
The text of the draft statement was due to be made public later on Tuesday. According to Shavarsh Kocharian, the second opposition member of the PACE, it will likely warn that the Armenian authorities will face political sanctions if they don’t stop arresting opposition activists and blocking the roads.
One of the detained oppositionists, Armenian-born U.S. citizen Artur Vartanian, was effectively deported from Armenia early in the morning. Vartanian, who was a top bodyguard of Demirchian, was put on a plane at the Yerevan airport just one day after being put under two-month arrest on for “actively participating” in the opposition drive to force Kocharian from power. Prosecutors dropped the charges against him, citing “a change of the situation.”
Vartanian received U.S. citizenship in 2002. Officials said Kocharian formally stripped him of his Armenian citizenship immediately after he was taken into custody on Friday. The Armenian constitution bans dual citizenship.