By Satenik Vantsian in Gyumri
Thousands of supporters of former President Levon Ter-Petrosian rallied in Armenia’s second city of Gyumri at the weekend in a rare opposition demonstration sanctioned by the authorities.
The protest, watched by scores of uniformed and plainclothes police, came as a prelude to another big rally which Armenia’s main opposition alliance plans to hold in downtown Yerevan this Friday. Representatives of Ter-Petrosian’s Popular Movement have said it will take place despite being banned by municipal authorities last week.
Addressing the crowd that gathered in Gyumri’s central Theater Square in heavy rain, Ter-Petrosian reiterated that he will not end street protests and negotiate with the government until the latter releases all of several dozen opposition members and supporters arrested following the February 19 presidential election. “As long as there is one [opposition] prisoner remaining in jail, we will not leave the streets and go home and will not stretch our hand to the authorities for dialogue,” he said.
Several of the detainees are the leaders of the Ter-Petrosian-led movement’s chapters in the northwestern Shirak region, of which Gyumri is the capital. Local courts have already sentenced them to between three and six-and-a-half years in prison for allegedly committing election-related crimes during the disputed presidential ballot. The opposition rejects the accusations as baseless and politically motivated.
Ter-Petrosian held up the pictures of two of the jailed Gyumri oppositionists as he walked to the podium to the accompaniment of “Levon!” and “Levon president!” chants from demonstrators. He was clearly buoyed by the size of the crowd that was similar to the one that turned up for his pre-election rally in Gyumri in February.
“We have not come to inspire you,” said Ter-Petrosian. “We have not come to encourage you. We have not come to urge you to be resolute. We know that you don’t need that.
“It’s quite the opposite. We have come to draw inspiration from you, to have you urge us to be resolute.”
The March 1 clashes in Yerevan between security forces and opposition protesters were another major theme of the speech, with Ter-Petrosian declaring that the Armenian police and the army must not be blamed for the resulting deaths of ten people. “The police did not shoot at the people,” he said. “Furthermore, I am sure that the army, which is made up of our sons, did not shoot at the people either.
“The murderers are criminal elements with past criminal records,” claimed the ex-president. “We also know from which circles they are. Some of them are from Karabakh, others are the ‘shaven-heads’ (bodyguards) of our notorious oligarchs.”
Ter-Petrosian also brushed aside the ambitious reform agenda of Armenia’s new President Serzh Sarkisian and his prime minister Tigran Sarkisian, saying that the “kleptocratic” essence of the ruling regime remains unchanged. “I do believe that there are individuals who have just joined the government and may have honest goals: Tigran Sarkisian, [Foreign Minister] Eduard Nalbandian and a couple of other ministers,” he said. “But I don’t believe that these people will be able to take any practical steps because the system will strangle them.”