While pledging to eventually “reconquer” the square, the Armenian National Congress (HAK) alliance said it will instead rally supporters in another, smaller location in the city on September 17.
The HAK formally notified the Yerevan Mayor’s Office on Monday of its plans to hold the rally in Liberty Square, the main traditional venue for political gatherings in Armenia, for the first time since the March 2008 post-election unrest.
The municipality refused to permit the gathering, saying that it would interfere with preparations for an annual festival held in the Armenian capital in October. It said the opposition bloc led by former President Levon Ter-Petrosian can stage the protest in a hillside square outside Yerevan’s Matenadaran museum of ancient manuscripts. The HAK swiftly condemned the ban as illegal and politically motivated.
“The Armenian National Congress has no choice but to start a process of reconquering Liberty Square for the sake of Armenian democracy,” the alliance said in a statement read out by one of its top figures, Levon Zurabian.
“In order to mitigate the political confrontation as much as possible, we are giving these panic-stricken authorities a chance to settle the issue within the framework of Armenia’s constitution and laws in a reasonable period of time,” he told journalists.
Zurabian made clear that the HAK will hold the September 17 rally outside Matenadaran but “reserves the right” to defy possible bans on its further attempts to demonstrate in Liberty Square. He said it will challenge such decisions in courts and lodge complaints with the Council of Europe and other international human rights bodies.
The square facing the city’s sprawling Opera House was the scene of ten-day non-stop demonstrations that were organized by Ter-Petrosian following the disputed presidential election of February 2008. A pre-dawn police assault on an opposition tent camp there sparked vicious clashes between opposition protesters and security forces elsewhere in central Yerevan on March 1-2, 2008. Ten people were killed and more than 200 others injured in the violence.
Liberty Square was dug up and closed to the public several months later, ostensibly because of the construction of a large underground parking garage by an Italian construction firm. Small groups of HAK activists and supporters have tried unsuccessfully to gather there immediately after it was reopened for public access in late May. More than two dozen of them were detained in scuffles with riot police that lasted for several days.
Despite decrying the police actions, the HAK steered clear of further confrontation with the Armenian authorities. The bloc has held only two major rallies this year, most recently in April.
Speaking at those rallies, Ter-Petrosian dismissed complaints from more radical opposition elements and said staging street protests too often only “lessens their impact.”
He also claimed that President Serzh Sarkisian will eventually have to step down because of what he called mounting infighting within his governing coalition and international pressure over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
According to Zurabian, Ter-Petrosian will make “surprise” statements in his next speech due on September 17. “I think that our struggle will get new impetus after his speech,” he said without elaborating.