By Anna Saghabalian and Tatevik Lazarian
The Armenian opposition postponed on Friday its upcoming rally in Yerevan because of a landmark football match which the governments of Armenia and Turkey could use for improving bilateral relations.
The Armenian National Congress (HAK), the country’s main opposition force, was due to kick off a fresh campaign of anti-government protests by rallying supporters on September 5. The planned opposition protest would have come one day before Armenia’s and Turkey’s national football teams will play each other for the first time ever as part of their qualifying campaign for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
President Serzh Sarkisian has invited his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gul to visit Yerevan and watch the match with him. The invitation reflects a recent thaw in the strained Turkish-Armenian relations.
In a written statement, the HAK said it has decided to postpone the rally by one week and to stop the ongoing opposition sit-in on Yerevan’s Northern Avenue on Sunday to enable the Armenian authorities to take adequate security measures in and around the more than 50,000-seat Hrazdan stadium. The 16-party alliance said it is concerned with Armenia’s international reputation and wants to contribute to the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations.
Citing the anticipated arrival of a large number of Turkish soccer fans, the Armenian government instructed the police last week to significantly tighten security in the capital from September 2-10.
While describing the move as “unconstitutional,” the HAK said it understands the “need to take additional security measures to maintain public order in this special case.” “Our goal is not to stir up tensions during this quite serious event that could attract thousands of Turks into Armenia,” Levon Zurabian, an HAK leader, told reporters.
Another senior opposition figure, Suren Sureniants, argued that “internal political problems must not hinder foreign policy.”
The HAK’s top leader, former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, has long championed a Turkish-Armenian rapprochement. Ter-Petrosian said last week that the war in Georgia, which seriously complicated Armenia’s transport communication with the outside world, underscored the importance of having an open border with Turkey. “That must force [the authorities] to take positive steps to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and settle Turkish-Armenian relations,” he told the A1Plus.am news service.
“The one-week delay will have no impact on the spirit of our movement,” said Zurabian. “Furthermore, in a sense, it’s a good opportunity for everyone to have rest.” The opposition will detail its plan of further actions at the September 12 rally, he said.
The Ter-Petrosian-led alliance has repeatedly demanded that the authorities hold fresh presidential and parliamentary elections and free more than 70 opposition members arrested in the wake of last February’s disputed presidential ballot.