By Emil Danielyan
The British embassy in Yerevan sponsored on Monday a rock concert which it said is aimed at encouraging young Armenians to take part in this week's constitutional referendum.
An Armenian opposition leader condemned the initiative as an interference in the country’s internal political affairs. But a senior embassy official defended it, saying that local rock bands chosen by the organizers were asked not to endorse or reject constitutional amendments put to the referendum.
According to Richard Hyde, deputy head of the British mission, the idea of holding the concert was floated by an unspecified “group of young Armenians who expressed a concern that there is not enough political activism and participation by the young people in the constitutional amendment process.”
“We thought this was a great idea and we offered our support for the concert on the basis of supporting and facilitating young people's involvement in the political process,” Hyde said in written answers to RFE/RL questions. “We specifically asked the organizers to encourage young people to vote, but not how to vote.”
One of the musicians who performed at the concert, titled “Rock the Referendum,” confirmed this. But a source close to another band said the organizers warned its members not to wear anything orange lest it could be interpreted by the audience as a call to replicate Ukraine’s “orange revolution” in Armenia.
Asked to comment on this, Hyde said: “The bands said they would try to avoid colors that could be considered partisan, and that was their initiative, not ours.”
The British diplomat said the performers, among them two of Armenia’s most popular rock bands, were paid to play before some 300 young who packed a small theater hall in the city center. “The amount paid for the concert is between us and the organizers of the concert,” he added.
According to one spectator who asked not to be identified, several officers of Armenia’s National Security Service were present at the live performance. He said one of them told him that they were sent there after being warned that opposition activists might disrupt the event. It proceeded without any incidents though.
Suren Sureniants, a leader of the opposition Hanrapetutyun party, said by promoting a high voter turnout the British government is effectively taking sides in the ongoing battle between Armenia’s leadership and its political opponents who have called for a popular boycott of the referendum. “We deplore any interference in Armenia’s domestic affairs,” he told RFE/RL. “Armenians themselves should decide whether or not to participate in the referendum without any external interference.”
Britain, which holds the European Union’s rotating presidency, and other EU member states have endorsed the constitutional amendments. “We believe that the existing draft embodies democratic freedoms, values, safeguards which would bring Armenia closer to the European Union and to Europe as a whole,” London’s outgoing ambassador in Yerevan, Thorda Abbott-Watt, said last August.