By Ruzanna Stepanian
The Armenian Communist Party (HKK) on Thursday blamed the government for the deadly post-election violence in Yerevan and condemned its ongoing crackdown on opposition forces led by former President Levon Ter-Petrosian.
The HKK voiced the criticism as it rallied more than a hundred mostly elderly supporters in the capital to mark May Day, a public holiday in Armenia. In a statement adopted at the gathering, the once influential party demanded that the authorities stop restricting freedom of speech and assembly, release all political prisoners and conduct a “fair” investigation into the March 1 clashes between security forces and Ter-Petrosian supporters.
The HKK event, authorized by the Yerevan municipality, was expected to involve a traditional march through the city center. The party leadership cancelled the march, citing a continuing “atmosphere of mourning” reigning in the country since the March 1 unrest which left at least ten people dead. The demonstrators observed a minute of silence in memory of the victims.
“It’s not up to me to look for the guilty, but I strongly believe that the clashes would not have occurred had the authorities really wanted that,” Ruben Tovmasian, the HKK first secretary, told RFE/RL. “They could have been more patient, they could have prevented provocateurs from entering [the scene of the protest,] they could have tried to understand what those [protesting] people want, instead of opting for a confrontation.”
The authorities maintain that the clashes were part of Ter-Petrosian’s plot to use the February 19 presidential election for staging a coup d’etat and returning to power. Dozens of his supporters have been arrested and are awaiting trial on relevant charges.
Tovmasian, whose party had been in opposition to the Ter-Petrosian government and did not support his bid to return to power, insisted, however, that the unrest was a “popular outburst” against poverty, corruption and other government abuses. Echoing the ex-presidents’ statements, he described the detainees as political prisoners.
“We had declared in late March, even before the Council of Europe resolution, that it is necessary to immediately free prisoners who made some bitter statements against the authorities,” said Tovmasian. “How can they jail someone for freely speaking out? The country is full of trials. We’ve become a country of trials.”
The May Day gathering was a rare reminder of the existence of a party that governed Armenia in Soviet times and polled an average of 10 percent of the vote in national elections held in the 1990s. The HKK has gone through a series of internal splits and lost much of its influence since then.