By Ruzanna Stepanian and Karine Kalantarian
The Armenian opposition said on Wednesday that it will not defy a government ban on its planned next demonstration in a major Yerevan square and will instead rally supporters in a smaller location in the city center.
The opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK) planned to hold the rally outside the Matenadaran Institute of Ancient Manuscripts on Friday. The Yerevan municipality has refused to authorize it, citing a cultural event scheduled to take place there on the same day.
It suggested two alternative venues for the gathering located outside the city center. The HAK rejected the offer. The mayor’s office had sanctioned the most recent opposition rally staged outside the Matenadaran on September 15.
Arman Musinian, an HAK spokesman, told RFE/RL that although the opposition alliance considers the ban unconstitutional, it has decided to relocate the protest to the city’s Northern Avenue. “We will not shy away from exercising our constitutional rights,” he said.
Northern Avenue can accommodate fewer people than the hillside Matenadaran square. The pedestrian boulevard has been the scene of daily small opposition gatherings since the lifting of emergency rule imposed following the deadly post-election clashes in Yerevan.
“Friday’s rally is not sanctioned,” the chief of the Armenian police, Major-General Alik Sargsian, warned on Wednesday. “At this point we have no clear information on whether or not they [the opposition] have decided to hold the rally.”
Sargsian would not say whether the police will try to disperse opposition supporters if they gather in the Matenadaran square or elsewhere in downtown Yerevan. “You will find out about police actions later on,” he told journalists.
The HAK’s top leader Levon Ter-Petrosian and his associates had said that the September 15 demonstration would kick off a fresh opposition campaign of “decisive” actions aimed at toppling the administration of President Serzh Sarkisian. But addressing thousands of supporters during the rally, they indicated that the opposition has opted for a more prolonged and less confrontational struggle.
David Shahnazarian, a close Ter-Petrosian associate, said in his speech that the opposition will steer clear of “drastic actions” for the moment because of serious external challenges facing Armenia in the aftermath of the Russian-Georgian war. “We must move forward with cold calculations, rather than the principle of ‘Freedom or death,’” he said.
Opposition speakers also announced that the HAK’s immediate objective is to secure its candidate Ararat Zurabian’s victory in Sunday’s local election in Yerevan’s central Kentron district. Zurabian, who was arrested in the Armenian government’s crackdown on the Ter-Petrosian-led opposition last March and released from jail in July, is challenging Gagik Beglarian, Kentron’s incumbent pro-government mayor.
In a statement issued on Wednesday, the HAK said victory in the Kentron election would give an “important psychological” boost to the opposition and change “the balance of forces” in its standoff with the ruling regime. It said the vote will therefore be the main theme of Friday’s rally on Northern Avenue.