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By Emil Danielyan
Raffi Hovannisian, one of Armenia’s most popular opposition leaders, declared the weekend constitutional referendum illegitimate on Friday as he held his first-ever rally in Yerevan marked by an unusually heavy police presence.

Hovannisian charged that the Armenian authorities have already made a free and fair vote impossible and said only a minority of voters will back their draft constitutional referendum on Sunday.

“We hoped that for the first time in 14 years, we will have a free, clean and transparent vote befitting Armenians,” he told about a thousand people who gathered in central Yerevan. “Unfortunately, we see that two days before the referendum they have placed the referendum process beyond the law by abusing state levers, creating unequal [campaigning] conditions, … pressuring our teachers, doctors and other professionals.”

“The process is already beyond the law but we will present our final conclusion on November 27,” he continued. “We will even protect the rights of a minority that will say ‘yes’ on Sunday. But that ‘yes’ must be the result of civic consciousness, rather than bribes, threats or pressure.”

Hovannisian, who served as independent Armenia’s first foreign minister in 1992, ended the speech with “Freedom! Freedom!” chants picked up the crowd.

The rally came days after the normally reserved U.S.-born ex-minister lashed out at the administration of President Robert Kocharian, saying that it “supports thieves, murderers and corrupt individuals and enjoys their support.” It was scheduled to take place at Freedom Square, the city’s traditional venue for street protests.

However, the Yerevan municipality made that impossible by booking the square for several consecutive days of concerts in support of a “yes” vote. Friday afternoon was reserved for performances by children that were accompanied by recorded songs urging a “yes” vote.

Scores of special police guarded a stage outside the national Opera House from which they sang, danced and played various instruments. About two dozen vans and jeeps filled with police officers and a truck laden with riot gear were on standby in a nearby quiet street. The security forces were personally led by General Hovannes Varian, the controversial deputy chief of the national police who led the brutal dispersal of an opposition rally in April 2004.

Hovannisian arrived at the scene but avoided any confrontation with the police. The young performers were left with virtually no spectators when he led supporters to a much smaller site on the other side of the opera building. He was joined by other opposition leaders shortly afterwards. They also addressed the rally, reiterating calls for a popular boycott of the referendum.

“The authorities keep talking about European values and standards, but in reality they want to turn Armenia into a semi-feudal state,” said Stepan Demirchian, the top leader of the Artarutyun (Justice) alliance.

Another, more radical Artarutyun leader, Aram Sarkisian, repeated his pledge to use the constitutional reform process for trying to bring down the Kocharian administration. “This referendum will bring the end of this regime and we will see it soon,” he declared.

The opposition leaders also announced that their parties will begin a permanent sit-in at Freedom Square as part of the effort. Opposition activists were due to pitch tents there later in the day. The opposition plans to launch a campaign of bigger rallies at the weekend.

(RFE/RL photo)
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