By Ruzanna Stepanian
Former President Levon Ter-Petrosian and his opposition allies reaffirmed on Tuesday their intention to defy a possible government ban and hold on June 20 their first major rally since the post-election clashes in Yerevan.
In a written statement, Ter-Petrosian’s Popular Movement, an umbrella structure uniting more than two dozen opposition groups, offered to cooperate with the municipal authorities and the Armenian police in maintaining public order during the planned rally.
A top aide to Ter-Petrosian, Levon Zurabian, said that the organizers will formally ask the Yerevan mayor’s office to authorize the gathering. But he made it clear they will urge supporters to converge on the city’s Liberty Square even if the application is rejected by the authorities.
The planned demonstration will come just three days before the start of the June session of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) that will discuss Yerevan’s compliance with its recent resolution on the political situation in Armenia. One of the key demands of the resolution is a repeal of controversial legal amendments that enable the authorities to ban anti-government street protests practically at will.
The authorities have been keen to thwart such protests since the March 1 deadly clashes between security forces and thousands of Ter-Petrosian supporters protesting against official results of last February’s disputed presidential election. The violence left at least ten people dead and nearly 200 others injured, leading to the imposition of a 20-day state of emergency in the capital.
The authorities maintained their de facto ban on opposition protests after the end of emergency rule by enacting controversial amendments to Armenia’s law on public gatherings. Bowing to Western pressure, the Armenian parliament passed in the first reading last month a bill easing those restrictions. Council of Europe officials have welcomed the move.
However, the Ter-Petrosian camp insisted on Tuesday that the changes are “cosmetic.” Its statement said the administration of President Serzh Sarkisian has also failed to meet other demands of the PACE resolution such as the launch of an independent inquiry into the March 1 violence and the release of political prisoners.
Speaking at a news conference, Zurabian would not say what the Ter-Petrosian-led opposition will do if the police again cordon off Liberty Square and surrounding streets in the city center. He said only that the opposition would hold the authorities responsible for violent incidents that could occur on June 20.
In a related development, Ter-Petrosian’s movement praised Western observers on Friday for significantly revising their initial, largely positive, assessment of the Armenian government’s conduct of the February 19 election. The final election report released by the observers representing the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe concluded that serious irregularities witnessed by them after the closure of the polls “devalued the overall election process.”
“Thus the OSCE has effectively abandoned its previous evaluations legitimizing Armenia’s recent presidential elections, something which was demanded by the Popular Movement,” the opposition said in a statement.
The statement said the observers’ initial conclusion that the presidential ballot was administered “mostly in accordance” with democratic standards only emboldened the authorities to use lethal force against opposition protesters. “Had the evaluations been objective right from the beginning, the regime would not have dared to take the criminal step of slaughtering its own people,” it claimed.