By Emil Danielyan and Hrach Melkumian
The Armenian authorities appeared to have again restricted provincial residents’ access to Yerevan ahead of a major opposition rally on Tuesday, setting up police roadblocks around the city and effectively cutting it off from at least one major region.
Commuters from the southern Ararat region were unable to enter Yerevan in the afternoon as the movement of buses and minibuses ground to a halt under the watchful eyes of police officers. Scores of them were deployed on the approaches to the Armenian capital in the morning.
Despite the unusually strong police presence on the roads, public transport communication between the city and the rest of the country seemed largely unimpeded in the morning. But in Artashat, a town 35 kilometers south of Yerevan, and elsewhere in Ararat the situation began to change by early afternoon.
Commuter minibuses, the principal means of public transport in Armenia, stopped leaving Artashat for Yerevan from around 1 p.m. local time, leaving dozens of people stranded at the local bus station guarded by several police officers. Some of them had already boarded an old bus which due to head for Yerevan.
“They don’t let me go,” its elderly driver told RFE/RL. “I have a daily plan [of tax payments], I don’t know how I am going to raise the money. They just don’t let us work.”
“On my way into Artashat they told me not to go back [to Yerevan],” the driver added. “If I do go back they’ll impound the bus.”
Those inside the bus were also angry and frustrated. Most of them were women. “We have jobs in Yerevan, how are we going to get there?” asked one of them. “If we miss a single day of work they will pay us 4,000 drams ($9) less. But we have children to support.”
Another woman said, “Do they think they can save the president by closing the roads? We are sick and tired of this.”
Meanwhile, the minibuses returning from Yerevan were refusing to take any passengers and stood empty on the station’s car park.
A police officer at the scene claimed that he is doing his routine job of “maintaining public order” as he was asked for comment by an RFE/RL correspondent. The officer then promptly approached two plainclothes men sitting in a nearby car with tinted glass. One of them immediately got out of the car and tried to eavesdrop on the reporter’s conversations with local residents.
There were police posts even on a narrow country road connecting villages that lie between Artashat and Yerevan. An officer at one of them said they are only looking for several cars allegedly stolen in the area the previous night. “There have never been so many car thefts here in a single night before,” he said.
The traffic on the road was largely one-way in the afternoon with buses seen only speeding away from Yerevan. A driver shuttling between Yerevan and another Ararat town, Masis, said the police let him through because his van was empty on its way into the capital. A similar story was told by a minibus driver from Vedi, about 30 kilometers further to the south.
However, the situation appeared different in some other parts of the country with buses seen entering Yerevan from the central Kotayk province as well as the northern Shirak and Lori regions at least by 3 p.m. local time. Drivers arriving from there said the police stopped them and inspected their passengers on the highways.
“They have eased the transport restrictions since the first opposition rallies [in early April],” a representative of a bus company in Abovian, about 15 kilometers north of Yerevan, said in the morning. He said the company received no orders to remove its minibuses from the route later in the day.
The Armenian authorities have routinely blocked the Yerevan roads over the past month in an apparent attempt to reduce attendance at the opposition rallies. The practice was implicitly criticized by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe which urged Yerevan to “guarantee freedom of movement within Armenia” in a resolution adopted last week.
(RFE/RL photo: The bus stranded in Artashat.)