By Ruzanna Stepanian and Anush Martirosian
Opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian rallied thousands of his supporters again in Yerevan on Monday in what was the first opposition rally to have been authorized by the city’s authorities in months.
The recently established Armenian National Congress (ANC) suspended its large-scale protests over a crucial Armenian-Turkish summit in Yerevan about two weeks ago. It also decided to postpone the rally originally scheduled for last Friday after learning that Yerevan’s municipality would authorize its gathering on September 15.
Organizers of the rally appeared reluctant to estimate the number of their supporters who had turned out for the event near Matenadaran, an ancient manuscripts museum in central Yerevan. Meanwhile, police put the rally attendance figure at some 6-7,000 people.
Police officials warned the organizers against attempting to stage a post-rally march, saying that no such follow-up was authorized by the municipality. First President Levon Ter-Petrosian confirmed to RFE/RL that they would not attempt to organize a subsequent march.
Since June when the opposition resumed its mass gatherings after more than three months of keeping low-profile in the aftermath of an unprecedented government crackdown on its leading members, all major protest actions in Yerevan, including three rallies, had been effectively banned by Yerevan’s municipality.
In doing so, the city authorities cited police concerns over the security of rally participants and unconcerned citizens, an opportunity provided to them by the amended law on public assemblies. The amendments were hastily adopted by lawmakers in the period after the deadly breakup of ten-day street protests of the Ter-Petrosian-led opposition disputing the outcome of the February presidential vote.
Senior opposition Hanrapetutyun party member Suren Sureniants, who moderated the rally, criticized the authorities for passing legal amendments through parliament that effectively ban the return of two currently closed TV stations, A1+ and Noyan Tapan, to the air for the next two years. But he said that the law would not be valid because “we won’t have such authorities till 2010.”
Among those addressing the rally were also leader of the opposition Nor Zhamanakner (New Times) party Aram Karapetian and opposition Zharangutyun (Heritage) party representative Armen Martirosian.
Martirosian, the head of the Zharangutyun faction in parliament, also spoke about the problem of A1+ and Noyan Tapan, calling it “another conspiracy” of the authorities. Meanwhile, he added, it is the return of these two stations to the air that could kick-start a public dialogue between the government and the opposition. Martirosian also spoke in defense of his three fellow parliamentarians currently in pretrial detention for their alleged roles in the post-election unrest.
Senior ANC representative David Shahnazarian addressed the opposition concerns that “the authorities have failed to make progress in the matter of releasing political prisoners.” He also spoke about the recent presentation of Council of Europe commissioner for human rights Thomas Hammarberg made to the PACE monitoring committee in Paris, calling it “quite reassuring”. Shahnazarian also added that at the end of this month Hammarberg will submit a written report on Armenia, which, according to him, will be “more than realistic.”
Other prominent opposition leaders, including Levon Ter-Petrosian, were also expected to address the rally late on Monday.
The presence of police and law-enforcers was noticeable in the city center as the opposition rally was in progress. RFE/RL’s reporter witnessed water canons and police vehicles with barbed wire deployed in a central Yerevan street in close proximity to the rally venue.
Still in the afternoon, Ter-Petrosian spokesman Arman Musinian told RFE/RL that while formally roads leading to the capital remained open, various ploys had been used in provinces to keep people away from travels to Yerevan.
“Orders have been given to minibus and taxi drivers not to drive to the capital,” Musinian claimed. “Visually it may be unseen, but administrative resources have been used.”