By Emil Danielyan, Ruzanna Stepanian and Ruben Meloyan
Tens of thousands of people again took to streets of Yerevan on Thursday as former President Levon Ter-Petrosian and his allies announced a campaign of non-stop demonstrations against the official results of Armenia’s disputed presidential election.
The opposition leaders rejected as fraudulent the official election results, which gave victory to Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, and demanded the vote be re-run before pitching tents for an overnight sit-in in the city’s Liberty Square.
“We are building a tent camp and we expect our legitimate demands to be met,” Nikol Pashinian, a leading member of the Ter-Petrosian camp, told RFE/RL. “Thousands of people will spend the night here.”
The rally there went ahead to the accompaniment of “Levon! Levon!” and “Victory! Victory!” chants despite not being sanctioned by the authorities. Senior police officers at the scene warned organizers that their actions are illegal and could have “unpredictable” consequences.
Addressing the crowd, Pashinian dismissed the warnings and said the opposition protests will have a “permanent” character. He said they could also take the form of street processions, pickets and even “blockades” of key government buildings. Ter-Petrosian, for his part, urged university students in Yerevan to boycott classes and join his “popular movement” in larger numbers.
"Our actions will be peaceful as long as all we have not exhausted all legal methods of struggle,” said Pashinian. “We are prepared for any scenario.” He at the same urged the crowd to be “restrained” and “patient.”
“We will be demonstrating as long as this ruling gang has not resigned,” said Aram Sarkisian (no relation to Serzh), the leader of the radical opposition Hanrapetutyun party.
According to the Central Election Commission, Serzh Sarkisian won Tuesday’s election with 52.8 percent of the vote, while Ter-Petrosian came in a distant second with 21 percent. The Armenian authorities say the election was democratic, a view largely shared by Western observers. Ter-Petrosian and another major opposition candidate, Artur Baghdasarian, insist, however, that the vote was rigged.
Zoya Tadevosian, one of the two opposition members of the CEC who refused to endorse the official results, spoke at the rally, calling the authorities’ handling of the election an “organized crime against democracy.” “Your votes have been stolen in the most shameful way,” Tadevosian told supporters of the ex-president. “Levon Ter-Petrosian won in the first round,” she claimed.
Also addressing the rally was Baghdasarian’s campaign manager, Heghine Bisharian. She again alleged “numerous falsifications” such as ballot stuffing and vote buying but made it clear that Baghdasarian that will not join the protests for now. “We will wait until the recounting of ballots is over before drawing conclusions,” said Bisharian.
In anticipation of the rallies, the authorities deployed interior troops and riot police around key government buildings in Yerevan immediately after the vote. The departing President Robert Kocharian said on Saturday that law-enforcement authorities will not hesitate to use force if post-election protests turn violent.
Sarkisian likewise warned late Wednesday that security forces are ready step in to “restore law and order.” “In our country everyone has the right to express their view,” he said. “However, riots and violence have no place in a democratic country.”
In his speech at Thursday’s rally Ter-Petrosian claimed to have secured the backing of Manvel Grigorian and Gagik Melkonian, two top army generals serving as Armenia’s deputy defense ministers. Grigorian is also the chairman of the influential Yerkrapah Union of veterans of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh.
“Manvel Grigorian and Gagik Melkonian are saying that they will not allow the army to meddle in politics and be used against their people,” said Ter-Petrosian. “Manvel Grigorian and Gagik Melkonian consider themselves the guarantors of the security of the Armenian people.”
“I am confident that the entire army command will join them,” he added.
Yerkrapah declined to deny or confirm the information. The organization did not officially support any of the presidential candidates, even though some of its senior members openly endorsed Ter-Petrosian.
The Armenian Defense Ministry, meanwhile, denied Ter-Petrosian’s claims later in the day. “I officially refute that information,” the ministry spokesman, Seyran Shahsuvarian, told RFE/RL.