By Ruzanna Khachatrian and Karine Kalantarian
The Armenian opposition again rallied thousands of supporters in Yerevan on Tuesday, giving the authorities until Friday to nullify the weekend referendum or face more street protests against its allegedly fraudulent results.
Opposition leaders declined to specify what exactly they will do after the authorities almost certainly reject the ultimatum. Some of them renewed their pledge to force regime change by means of a “democratic revolution.” But they have so far failed to gather what they call a “critical mass” of supporters needed for the success of the effort.
“The Central Election Commission has 72 hours [to make a decision], so do we,” Aram Sarkisian, the most radical opposition leader, told the crowd. “Do we want Robert Kocharian to quit? The first step must be the annulment of the referendum.”
Sarkisian and other opposition leaders reiterated their claims that less than 16 percent of Armenia’s 2.3 million eligible voters participated in Sunday’s referendum. “The people expressed their will by boycotting the vote and saying no to the regime,” said Stepan Demirchian, Kocharian’s main challenger in the last presidential election
“This regime is doomed and we will bring this process to an end,” added Demirchian. But he cautioned that forcing Kocharian into resignation is a “process” that will take some time.
Vazgen Manukian, another prominent oppositionist, similarly spoke of a “ long road” to regime change. “If somebody expects a checkmate with one move, they are wrong,” he said.
The opposition already tried to replicate the 2003 anti-government revolution in neighboring Georgia last year but its campaign of street protests fizzled out due to a lack of popular support and a heavy-handed government response. It hoped to use the referendum for another push for power, but has so far failed to pull large crowds.
Tuesday’s rally went ahead despite being banned by the Yerevan municipality which claimed that opposition leaders’ speeches create a situation threatening “citizens’ life and health.”
“We consider that decision unconstitutional because it restricts citizens’ right to hold demonstrations,” Suren Sureniants of the opposition Hanrapetutyun party told RFE/RL before the gathering. “We are prone to conclude that they are thereby trying to provoke the opposition.”
Opposition parties also said their activists across the country, who took part in the referendum as observers and alleged serious fraud, are being rounded up and questioned by the police. According to a spokeswoman for Demirchian’s Artarutyun alliance, they are warned not to attend the Yerevan rallies.
At least five oppositionists were reportedly summoned to the police station in Ashtarak, a small town 20 kilometers west of the capital, for “prophylactic conversations” with senior law-enforcement officers. A similar incident was reported in the central town of Abovian. A local opposition activist, Vahan Sargsian, said he was taken to a police station early in the morning and kept there for several hours.
“I was a member of the election commission in the Arzni village,” he told RFE/RL. “They did everything to hamper my work and make sure that I do not report illegalities committed during the referendum.”
Sargsian, who is a former senior military police officer, said he was set free after an ambiguous three-minute conversation with the chief of the Abovian police. “I never understood what was the point of keeping me there for so long,” he said.