By Irina Hovannisian and Ruzanna Stepanian
Armenian authorities threatened on Thursday to prosecute organizers of the previous night’s opposition demonstration in Yerevan that was marred by violent clashes between some of its participants and security forces and heightened political tension ahead of Saturday’s parliamentary elections.
The violence broke out when thousands of supporters of Armenia’s most radical opposition groups approached the Yerevan headquarters of the National Security Service (NSS) to demand the release of a prominent opposition politician arrested by the former KGB earlier this week. Eyewitnesses said riot police used batons and tear gas to keep the crowd from moving too close to the NSS building and its basement jail whether the politician, Aleksandr Arzumanian, is being kept. Several opposition activists and police officers were reportedly injured in the melee that underscored the potential for post-election unrest in the country.
Witnesses said the police briefly detained at least one demonstrator on the spot but had to release him to avoid a more serious confrontation with the angry protesters. Chanting “Victory!” and “Freedom!” the crowd then continued its march through the city center which ended in a brief rally in Liberty Square. The organizers of the protest, the opposition Hanrapetutyun (Republic) and Nor Zhamanakner (New Times) parties and the Impeachment bloc, urged supporters to assemble in the same place on Sunday for what they hope will be a campaign of sustained anti-government protests.
“Victory is not achieved at once,” said Nikol Pashinian, a firebrand Impeachment leader. “Victory is achieved step by step. Today we took a very important step towards our victory. Well done.”
The deputy chief of the Armenian police, Major-General Ararat Mahtesian, charged the next morning that the clashes were deliberately instigated by radical opposition leaders and Pashinian in particular. “Several participants led by Nikol Pashinian provoked an incident with police, dashed to the National Security Service entrance, and when police tried to stop their movement, scuffles broke out,” he told a news conference.
“We have video of disobedience and collective hooligan acts committed by participants of the march,” Mahtesian said, adding that three of his officers needed medical treatment afterwards.
Mahtesian also said state prosecutors “preparing materials to give the incident a legal evaluation.” He emphasized the fact that the opposition march, which followed a rally held by Hanrapetutyun, Nor Zhamanakner and Impeachment in another downtown Yerevan square earlier on Wednesday, was not sanctioned by city authorities.
However, the opposition leaders blamed the police for the incident, saying that they never intended to storm the NSS building. “If nobody had stood in our way, we would have stopped by the building, read out our declaration in support of Alik Arzumanian, and told the people to go home,” said Hanrapetutyun’s Aram Sarkisian.
“As soon as I started shouting [at the police,] ‘Stop doing that, pull back, and let us peacefully lead the people away,’ I was sprayed with tear gas and punched in the nose,” said Aram Karapetian, the Nor Zhamanakner leader. Karapetian’s right hand was apparently hit by a police truncheon and looked swollen.
Another Nor Zhamanakner activist, Rafik Khostikian, had a deep cut on his nose and blood all over his hands. He said he was toppled to the ground and kicked by several police officers.
The police actions were also condemned on Thursday by other, more moderate opposition parties. “I have repeatedly said that beatings, intimidations are condemnable,” said Artur Baghdasarian, the leader of the Orinats Yerkir Party.
Baghdasarian was particularly concerned about a newspaper report which claimed that special police units from Nagorno-Karabakh were also involved in the violence. “I find that unacceptable,” he said.
“We call on everyone and the Armenian authorities in the first instance to refrain from further attempts to resort to mass repressions,” said Vartan Khachatrian of the Zharangutyun party. He said Zharangutyun would respond to such attempts with unspecified actions “commensurate with the extent of repression.”
Mahtesian admitted that tear gas was used during the clash but implicitly claimed that it was sprayed by oppositionists. “In that turmoil we were not able to ascertain whether tear gas was used by police officers or civilians,” he said. “Police officers themselves suffered from tear gas. It was sprayed in their direction.”
The police general went on to warn the radical opposition against staging similar demonstrations in the wake of the elections. “Any manifestation of unlawfulness will be prevented and decisive measures will be taken against those who will try to destabilize the situation,” he said.
President Robert Kocharian issued a similar warning late last month.