By Ruzanna Stepanian
Opposition leader Raffi Hovannisian struck a defiant note against the Armenian authorities on Monday, saying that he will continue to fight for their ouster despite what he described as a government campaign of intimidation.
Hovannisian suggested that the recent closure of the Yerevan offices of his Zharangutyun (Heritage) party and grave allegations made against his wife by state television may be aimed at forcing his family to leave Armenia.
“Neither the former, nor the current, nor the future governments can expel me and my family from the country or intimidate us with petty, cheap attacks,” he told a news conference. “For us, the homeland is not a place for making profit. It’s a source of pride.”
“Together with thousands of compatriots we are ready to continue our humble, unadvertised activities,” he added.
The U.S.-born oppositionist, who moved to Armenia 16 years ago and served as its first foreign minister in 1992, has had an extremely tense relationship with the authorities since stepping up his political activities late last year. He was at the forefront of rallies staged by the Armenian opposition in protest against serious fraud reported during the November 27 constitutional referendum.
During one of those rallies, Hovannisian launched a uncharacteristically ferocious attack on President Robert Kocharian, implicating him in vote rigging and even political murders. Zharangutyun leaders claim that scores of party activists across the country have since been rounded up by police and bullied into signing statements saying that they were forced to attend street protests staged by Hovannisian.
Zharangutyun, which is expected to be a major opposition contender in next year’s parliamentary election, was controversially locked out of its Yerevan offices owned by a state-run theater on March 4. Zharangutyun and other leading opposition groups have denounced the move as politically motivated. “We consider this to be a flagrant infringement, on the part of the incumbent presidency and its ruling clique, of fundamental civil liberties and political freedoms,” they said in a joint statement released last week.
The theater management denies any political motives behind the office closure, saying that Hovannisian’s party has ignored its repeated demands to sign a new lease agreement with the Armenian government’s Department on State Property Management. Zharangutyun counters, however, that the existing agreement expires only in June.
Hovannisian said on Monday that the party is undaunted by its effective ouster from the premises and will discuss its further actions at a conference later this week. “They may close offices, take away property, my house, my belongings,” he said. “Let them take that away anytime they want. But this is still our country.
“I will defend our rights together with my comrades in strict compliance with the laws and the constitution. All I need in this country is a small tent.”
Hovannisian, who was controversially barred from contesting Armenia’s last presidential and parliamentary elections, also called for the “consolidation” of opposition forces but would not say whether he plans to join any opposition alliances ahead of next year’s vote.