Sarkisian submitted a corresponding draft law to the National Assembly late last week, effectively meeting a key demand of the main opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK).
Addressing the assembly, Justice Minister Hrayr Tovmasian described the bill as a gesture of goodwill and “yet another step to expedite radical changes in the state’s internal life.”
“It is time to understand that Armenia’s population consists not of several mutually antagonistic publics -- the government, the opposition and the people -- but of a single nation with its goals and challenges,” Tovmasian said.
Parliament speaker Hovik Abrahamian reaffirmed his strong support for the president’s initiative, saying that it will help to end a lingering political crisis engendered by the February 2008 presidential election.
“We welcome and attach importance to what is certainly aimed at mitigating tension accumulated in the country and helping to create an atmosphere of tolerance, solidarity and unity,” he said.
Speaking to RFE/RL’s Armenian service, Tovmasian said some 400 prisoners will be immediately released while several hundred others will have their sentences shortened if the amnesty is approved by the parliament. “We are talking about 900-1,000 people to be affected by this,” he said.
Provisions of the bill suggest that all of the several HAK loyalists, who were arrested following the 2008 post-election unrest and remain in jail, will be set free. Davit Harutiunian, the chairman of the parliament committee on legal affairs, confirmed that the most prominent opposition detainee, Nikol Pashinian, will also be freed.
Sarkisian hinted at their impending release as he made a number of concessions to the HAK late last month. Those concessions included the lifting of a de facto government ban on opposition rallies in a key Yerevan square and a renewed investigation into the 2008 unrest.
The amnesty bill was welcomed by other major political groups that are in opposition to the Sarkisian administration but have serious disagreements with the HAK and its top leader, Levon Ter-Petrosian. One of them, Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) called it “overdue but important.”
Still, Artsvik Minasian, a Dashnaktsutyun parliamentarian, sniped at the HAK, saying that the amnesty reflects a “real merger between the street opposition and the current authorities.” “This is one of the manifestations of that,” he said during the parliament debate.
Armenia -- Opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian at an antigovernment rally in Yerevan, 1Mar2011
Minasian’s remarks stemmed from speculation that Ter-Petrosian and Sarkisian have struck a secret deal that will enable the latter to hold on to power. HAK critics claim that Ter-Petrosian will no longer campaign for “regime change” in Armenia and is only seeking government assurances that his alliance will have a solid presence in the next parliament.
Aram Manukian, a senior member of the HAK, rejected these allegations as “offensive.” He insisted that the HAK is ready to negotiate with the government only about a “handover of power” through fresh presidential and parliamentary elections.
“We are going for pre-term elections. We will do everything to hold pre-term national elections,” Manukian told a news conference. He claimed that Sarkisian may well agree to step down and call snap polls.
Eduard Sharmazanov, a senior representative of Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), laughed off this claim. “It is naïve to think that the ruling political force will opt for a capitulation,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “That’s not a dialogue, that’s an ultimatum.”
“If they want to play a major role in the Armenian political scene, they have to participate in the  parliamentary elections,” Sharmazanov said.
In what appeared to be a related development, Ter-Petrosian chaired a meeting of the HAK’s regional leaders and other senior members on Wednesday. In a short statement, the HAK said the meeting discussed preparations for its May 31 rally in Yerevan and a “possible dialogue with the authorities.” It did not elaborate.