By Emil Danielyan
Opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian said he will not seek to stage an anti-government “revolution” as thousands of his supporters rallied in Yerevan to mark the first anniversary of Armenia’s deadly post-election unrest on Sunday. He also claimed that the country will soon face the kind of economic collapse that it suffered in the early 1990s when he served as its first president.
In a protest not sanctioned but tolerated by the Armenian authorities, demonstrators marched through the site of the March 1, 2008 clashes between security forces and opposition protesters that left ten people dead and more than 200 others injured. Leading the march, Ter-Petrosian laid a wreath at a pedestal from which some of his close associates (currently in jail or on the run) addressed thousands of people who barricaded themselves outside the Yerevan mayor’s office following pre-dawn the break-up of non-stop opposition protests in the city’s Liberty Square. Hundreds of Armenians lit candles and placed flowers there on Saturday night.
The crowd silently filed past the granite plinth following a rally outside the Matenadaran institute of ancient manuscripts. The demonstration took place peacefully, with police officers deployed along its route making no attempts to disperse it. As was the case during the previous opposition rallies, the authorities appeared to have seriously restricted Yerevan’s transport communication with the rest of the country on Sunday in order to lower attendance at the rally.
President Serzh Sarkisian, meanwhile, paid his respects to the two police servicemen and eight civilians killed in the clashes, lighting candles in their memory at Yerevan’s Surp Sarkis church. For his part, Catholicos Garegin II presided over a prayer service for the victims at the main cathedral of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Echmiadzin.
In a 45-minute speech at the Matenadaran rally, Ter-Petrosian again blamed the authorities for the bloodshed. “For a whole year the authorities have done nothing to identify those primarily responsible for the crime -- the murderers, shooters, shop looters -- because all of them are their people,” he charged. “Quite the opposite. They have saved no effort to cover up their crimes.”
“The authorities have drawn no lessons from the March 1 tragedy and have taken no steps to establish democracy and the rule of law as well as to improve the domestic political atmosphere,” he said.
It was the first opposition rally since a moratorium on anti-government street protests in the capital declared by Ter-Petrosian and his Armenian National Congress (HAK) on October 17. Some HAK supporters hoped that it will mark the start of a fresh opposition push for power similar to the massive non-stop rallies held in Liberty Square in the wake of the February 2008 presidential election.
Ter-Petrosian, who had touted his 2008 campaign as a “classic bourgeois-democratic revolution,” made clear on Sunday that he is now against attempts to effect “immediate regime change” and favors instead a “prolonged struggle” with the Sarkisian administration. “The old-fashioned ideas of revolution or uprising must be finally driven out of our country’s political agenda,” he said. “As long as that hasn’t happened, Armenia can have no chance of becoming a rule-of-law and democratic state. History knows virtually no revolutions that engendered democracy and welfare.”
“Any regime change must take place through solely constitutional means. Namely, by means of legal elections, which is the only guarantee of establishing a democratic state. And we will achieve such legal elections,” added the former president.
The remarks clearly did not strike a chord with sections of the crowd that burst into “Now! Now!” chants when Ter-Petrosian uttered the words “uprising” and “revolution.” He drew only tepid applause from them after finishing the speech.
Ter-Petrosian acknowledged that many of his supporters are craving for a repeat of the post-election rallies and assured them that he is ready to take “decisive actions” when the situation becomes “much more favorable” for the opposition. “When conditions are ripe, the Congress will not hesitate to exercise that right,” he said.
The HAK leader went on claim that Sarkisian and his four-party governing coalition “will destroy themselves” in the next few months after failing to prevent a “drastic fall in living standards” which he said will result from the global economic crisis. “I am deeply convinced that the country is simply descending into an abyss,” he said, predicting an impending collapse of the Armenian dram, skyrocketing unemployment, price hikes, massive cuts in government spending and other catastrophic socioeconomic consequences.
“Thousands of shops and other services firms will shut down,” claimed Ter-Petrosian. “The class of small and medium-sized entrepreneurs will effectively cease to exist. That will lead to a re-distribution of property and its concentration in the hands of monopolists.”
“The current crisis will most probably be more severe and more difficult to overcome than even the crisis of the early 1990s, which occurred in a healthy global economic environment,” he added, referring to the first years of his presidency that saw Armenia’s Gross Domestic Product shrink by more than half amid the bloody wars in Nagorno-Karabakh and elsewhere in the region.
The Armenian government is bound to brush aside this apocalyptic scenario. Sarkisian and other high-ranking officials insist that they have a realistic strategy of minimizing the fallout from the global downturn. The success of that effort hinges, in large measure, to large-scale external assistance. The government has already secured more that $1 billion in assistance pledges from the World Bank and Russia.