By Emil Danielyan
Former President Levon Ter-Petrosian sounded a cautious note about his forthcoming fresh push for regime change on Tuesday, saying that both the Armenian authorities and his opposition movement are “in deadlock” after months of bitter political confrontation.
He also publicized what appear to be copies of official documents that will raise further questions about the legality of the government’s harsh crackdown on the opposition launched following last February’s disputed presidential election.
Ter-Petrosian and his Armenian National Congress (HAK) alliance are scheduled to hold yet another rally in Yerevan on September 12 which they say will mark the start of a new opposition campaign for snap presidential and parliamentary elections. Some opposition leaders have spoken of unspecified “decisive” actions, raising expectations of a repeat of non-stop street protests organized by Ter-Petrosian in the wake of the February 19 vote.
However, Ter-Petrosian made clear that he will not be seeking to stage the kind of “color revolutions” that the toppled the ruling regimes in Georgia and Ukraine. He implied that the opposition is preparing for a more prolonged and “civilized” struggle against the “criminal” administration of President Serzh Sarkisian.
“For me the main slogan or the essence of our activity is the strengthening of the movement, the development of the [Armenian National] Congress, which will automatically lead to regime change and Serzh Sarkisian’s resignation,” he told a news conference. “We don’t think we can simply demand and he will resign. Nobody resigns in that way.”
“Only God knows whether or not we will succeed,” said Ter-Petrosian. “I’m a modest person. I have never overestimated my power. I’ve set a goal. If we achieve it, that will be fine. If we don’t, that won’t be the end of the world.”
The charismatic leader further declared that the six-month standoff between Armenia’s leadership and main opposition force has reached an impasse. “I know that the authorities have problems and are even in deadlock,” he said. “They have trouble communicating with the public, not with us, and becoming more acceptable to the public.
“To be honest, we have problems too. If there is deadlock, there is deadlock on both sides. Seventy-six of our comrades remain in prison. This is tolerated by the international community.”
Ter-Petrosian added that various small-scale protests staged by the opposition since the March 1 unrest in Yerevan and the ensued mass arrests of opposition supporters were a forced diversion from the key goals of his movement. “Did we really need these sit-ins, hunger strikes, protests taking place during trials?” he said. “Not at all. They do not stem from the essence and goals of our movement. The movement was meant to be a much more serious political movement that should fight against the authorities with programs.”
Both rival Armenian camps have been under international pressure to defuse their country’s worst political crisis in nearly a decade through “dialogue.” The government camp backed the idea until recently. However, Sarkisian stated in July that he is only prepared for a “dialogue between the state and the public, rather than a dialogue between the president of the republic and some individual.”
The opposition, for its part, has said that it is ready to negotiate with the authorities only after the release of dozens of its leaders and supporters remaining in prison. Ter-Petrosian reaffirmed this precondition on Tuesday. “As long as the hostages are not freed, no dialogue is possible with [Sarkisian,]” he said.
That at least some of the detainees are political prisoners is acknowledged by the Council of Europe and major Western governments. The head of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) warned recently that failure to release them by mid-September would endanger Armenia’s continued membership in the Strasbourg-based organization. In resolutions adopted in April and June, the PACE also demanded the full restoration of civil liberties restricted by the Armenian authorities following the deadly post-election clashes in Yerevan between security forces and opposition protesters.
Ter-Petrosian released to journalists purported documents that could make it harder for the authorities to justify the crackdown both at home and abroad. One of them is an apparent copy of a hitherto unknown court ruling that allowed the National Security Service (NSS) to not only wiretap phone conversations of Ter-Petrosian’s election campaign chief, Aleksandr Arzumanian, but to bug his offices and apartment and to place him under a round-the-clock surveillance.
According to that document, the Yerevan court ruled on February 19, the election day, that the former Armenian branch of the Soviet KGB has “sufficient grounds” to suspect that Arzumanian is intent on “destabilizing” the political situation in order to “effect government change by unconstitutional means.” Arzumanian was arrested in March and remains in custody on controversial coup charges which he strongly denies.
“On February 19, it was still not known who will win [the election,]” Ter-Petrosian said, commenting on the “illegal” ruling. “Therefore, a question arises. Why would Aleksandr Arzumanian attempt to change the government by unconstitutional means on that day?”
The other document disclosed by Ter-Petrosian is a purported copy of a decision by the head of Armenia’s Special Investigative Service (SIS), Vahagn Harutiunian, to open a criminal case in connection with the March 1 break-up of the opposition tent camp in Yerevan’s Liberty Square. The use of force triggered more serious clashes elsewhere in the city center later in the day, which left at least eight civilians and two police officers dead.
The law-enforcement authorities maintain that they decided to disperse hundreds and possibly thousands of people camped in the square only after Ter-Petrosian and other organizers refused to let them search it for weapons. However, the decision signed by Harutiunian, says that security forces arrived at the scene to “forcibly stop” a protest not sanctioned by the municipal authorities.
The Armenian government was already put on the defensive in July with the disclosure of a written directive sent by the SIS chief Andranik Mirzoyan in early March to the chief prosecutor of the southern Vayots Dzor region. The latter was ordered to round up local participants of the post-election rallies in Yerevan, wiretap their phones and interrogate their neighbors. The SIS insists that the order was legal and justified.