By Ruzanna Stepanian
Citing the need to prevent traffic jams, the Yerevan municipality has indicated that it will ban presidential candidates from having their supporters march through the city center in the run-up to and in the aftermath of next month’s election.
The move was defended on Thursday by Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian’s campaign team but denounced by representatives of his main challengers as an illegal restriction of freedom of assembly.
In a statement late on Wednesday, the Yerevan mayor’s office said it considers street marches “inexpedient” because they would disrupt the already congested traffic in the city center and restrict “citizens’ freedom of the movement.” Political organizations and individual citizens should therefore refrain from organizing such actions, the statement said.
“This is a technical issue,” said Eduard Sharmazanov, a spokesman for the Sarkisian campaign and the governing Republican Party of Armenia. “There are no political motives involved.”
However, the campaign headquarters of one of the opposition candidates, Levon Ter-Petrosian, claimed the opposite, saying that the move came just days after the former Armenian president made clear that he will urge supporters to take to the streets of Yerevan if the vote is falsified by the authorities. “This is yet another obstacle to the political movement led by Levon Ter-Petrosian,” said Nikol Pashinian, a Ter-Petrosian campaign coordinator.
Pashinian told RFE/RL that the Ter-Petrosian campaign will file a complaint to the election observation mission already deployed in Armenia by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. “Since observers and the public are not necessarily familiar with Armenian legislation, we will do our best to inform them that the decision of the mayor’s office is illegal,” he said. “Under Armenian law, the mayor of Yerevan has no authority to find demonstrations expedient or inexpedient.”
Under Armenia’s law on rallies and demonstration, the mayor’s office can ban street protests only on a case-by-case basis and only after receiving a written notification from their organizers.
Also slamming the de facto ban was the campaign manager of Vahan Hovannisian, the presidential candidate of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), the HHK’s junior coalition partner. “Maybe we should also avoid campaigning,” Armen Rustamian suggested tartly.
“I don’t think this statement is right now that Armenia is entering a pre-election period,” said Rustamian. “All officials must understand that political forces must be able to fully exercise their rights defined by the constitution and laws. The opposition already doesn’t have that many freedoms.”
Heghine Bisharian, the campaign chief of another opposition candidate, Artur Baghdasarian, agreed. “We believe that presidential candidates must face no obstacles in staging marches and rallies,” she told RFE/RL.