By Astghik Bedevian, Ruzanna Stepanian and Emil Danielyan
Serzh Sarkisian pledged to effect democratic change and called for national reconciliation and unity on Wednesday as he was sworn in as Armenia’s president amid unusually tight security measures taken by the authorities.
The inauguration took place at a special session of the Armenian parliament held in the national Opera house in Yerevan. It was followed by a military parade in the adjacent Liberty Square, the scene of daily post-election demonstrations staged by Sarkisian’s main challenger, former President Levon Ter-Petrosian.
Meanwhile, thousands of baton-wielding police blocked major streets leading to the square to keep opposition supporters from gathering there. Hundreds of protesters managed to rally elsewhere in the city center and demand a re-run of the February 19 presidential election controversially won by Sarkisian.
After solemnly taking an oath with his right hand lying on the Armenian constitution and a 7th century Bible, Sarkisian delivered a speech in which he pledged to turn Armenia into a democratic state “where everyone shall be equal before the law” and “where mutual respect, love, and tolerance will prevail.”
“I realize the magnitude of the responsibility now, and I shall recognize it every day for the next five years,” he said. “I shall bear with honor the responsibility of being the President of all citizens of the Republic of Armenia.”
Sarkisian sought to reach out to hundreds of hundreds of Armenians who voted for other presidential candidates, including Ter-Petrosian. “A part of our people supported other candidates, and I now appeal to them: it was your right to vote for someone other than me, but I do not have the right not to be your president,” he said. “Even if a wall of misunderstanding stands between us, I urge you to join us in eliminating that wall.”
“Alone, no one can turn Armenia into a country of dreams,” continued Sarkisian. “All structures, various political and non-governmental forces, and civil society need to unite. This is where the President should act as the key actor in uniting the nation.”
The new president spoke of “wounds” inflicted on Armenia by the March 1 clashes in Yerevan between riot police and Ter-Petrosian supporters that left at least eight people dead. “Today, I urge to look forward, together to seek and find the path of reconciliation, that of development for the Armenia of future,” he said. “I am confident that we cannot have real and tangible success, unless we learn lessons from the past.”
One of those lessons, according to Sarkisian, is that there must be “limitations of fundamental rights” of Armenian citizens, notably their constitutionally guaranteed freedom of assembly. Still, he said those limitations “can not be absolute” and pledged to “revisit” soon the recently enacted legal amendments that effectively banned opposition demonstrations.
The authorities were especially keen to prevent such demonstrations in the vicinity of the Opera building on Wednesday, shutting down a large section of central Yerevan for traffic and even pedestrians. Sarkisian’s inauguration took place 40 days after the worst street violence in Armenia’s history. By Armenian tradition the souls of the deceased are remembered on the 40th day after their death.
With this in mind, several hundred Ter-Petrosian gathered at the site of the deadly violence, over one kilometer away from Liberty Square, to remember its victims. Scores of police in riot gear looked on as they lit candles and lay flowers at a granite podium from which opposition leaders addressed a much bigger crowd on March 1. The silent remembrance quickly turned into an anti-government rally, with mostly female participants chanting “Freedom!” and “Levon!”
Senior police officers urged the protesters to go home but refrained from using force. “You are saying anti-state things and turning all this into a rally,” warned one of them.
“I was here on March 1,” Seda, a gray-haired pensioner, told RFE/RL. “The people had only stones and sticks, but they still shot at us. I want Serzh and Kocharian to go and be put on trial. They are responsible for the deaths of innocent people.”
“This election must be annulled and a new, democratic one must be held,” said Shushanik, a doctor. “This is not about Levon. This is about our freedom.”
Among the protesters were relatives of opposition supporters killed by security forces. Alla Hovannisian’s 23-year-old son, Tigran Khachatrian, was one of them. “He didn’t go to rallies,” she said, holding the young man’s picture. “But on that day he heard about the beating of demonstrators [in Liberty Square.] He called someone and then said, ‘Dad, I have to go there.’ I said, ‘Tigran, don’t go, it’s dangerous.’”
(Presidential press service photo)