By Emil Danielyan, Astghik Bedevian and Ruzanna Stepanian
Tens of thousands of people thronged the streets of Yerevan for the seventh consecutive day Tuesday, ignoring Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian’s calls to come to terms with his victory in Armenia’s disputed presidential election.
Sarkisian argued that the February 19 vote has been recognized as mostly democratic by the international community as he addressed a separate rally held in the city’s main Republic Square in response to daily street protests staged by his main challenger, Levon Ter-Petrosian.
But that did not prevent Ter-Petrosian from holding his biggest rally so far in the nearby Liberty Square. Groups of people bused to Republic Square could be seen joining the opposition crowd even before the simultaneous start of both gatherings. Some of them handed Sarkisian’s white campaign flags to opposition leaders. Ter-Petrosian mockingly thanked Sarkisian for swelling the ranks of his supporters protesting against the official vote results.
“I am grateful for your vote of confidence,” Sarkisian told roughly 10,000 people who gathered in the sprawling square opposite the main government building in Yerevan. “I swear that I will do everything to live up to your trust … I assure you that you will not regret voting for Serzh Sarkisian.”
Sarkisian expressed readiness to cut power-sharing deals with his “constructive” opponents. “Let us cooperate, including by forming a coalition cabinet,” he said. “One of my aims is to use all constructive forces for the sake of Armenia’s development.”
The offer hardly applied to the Ter-Petrosian camp which Sarkisian accused of defying “the opinion of the majority” and dividing the nation. But he did try to reach out to tens of thousands of opposition supporters rallying several hundred meters away, referring to them as “our brothers and sisters.”
“I am convinced that they were driven to Freedom Square by a desire to have a better Armenia,” said Sarkisian. “But alas, they are not allowed to notice how they have unwittingly become tools of a few individuals’ political ambitions and penchant for revenge.”
“I know just how outraged you have been in the last few days,” he continued, appealing to the opposition protesters. “I know just how numerous are people ready to take to the streets to take care of their votes. I know that very well. But please, restrain your emotions.”
The appeal clearly fell on deaf ears as the massive opposition crowd marched to an empty Republic Square two hours later, waving clenched feasts and chanting “Levon! Levon!” and “Serzhik, go away!” outside the prime minister’s office guarded by hundreds of riot police. Addressing the crowd before the march, Ter-Petrosian again demanded a re-run of “the most disgraceful election in Armenia’s history” and the release of his allies arrested in recent days. He also called on Sarkisian and outgoing President Robert Kocharian to resign.
“Robert and Serzh, come to your senses,” Ter-Petrosian said after demonstratively dancing to traditional Armenian music on the podium. “Understand what is going on in this country … Announce your resignation from here and leave this country.”
The most ardent of the ex-president’s supporters, meanwhile, were preparing to spend another night in a tent camp that was built in the square on February 20. At the urging of Ter-Petrosian, more than a dozen of them ended a hunger strike which they began last week in protest against the alleged rigging of the presidential ballot. One of them, a resident of the northern town of Vanadzor, went as far as to sew up his mouth.
Both the rallies and night vigils have not been sanctioned by the Armenian authorities. Kocharian went on state on Tuesday to warn that law-enforcement bodies could use force to clear the square.
Sarkisian likewise said in his speech that he will not allow Ter-Petrosian supporters to “paralyze life in the capital.” “I defend and will defend [citizens’] right to protest, but the right to protest does not mean that the other constitutional rights of our citizens can be breached,” he said, promising to take “the most resolute steps” to restore “law and order” in Yerevan.
The Armenian authorities have already arrested in recent days several top allies of Ter-Petrosian, including former Deputy Prosecutor-General Gagik Jahangirian, on charges that are still not clear. Two other Ter-Petrosian loyalists leading a small opposition party, Garnik Markarian and Samvel Harutiunian, were detained on Tuesday morning but set free several hours later without any explanation.
In a related development, Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS) said it arrested Sunday a 36-year-old man who planned to storm and seize Armenian state television and radio together with several other Ter-Petrosian supporters. The NSS also claimed to have detained several other supporters of the ex-president and confiscated large quanities of weapons illegally owned by them. None of those men was identified by the security agency, however.