A court in Yerevan on Wednesday allowed law-enforcement bodies to keep an opposition activist in jail for two more months as the Armenian authorities showed no signs of bowing to sustained pressure from the country’s leading opposition force.
Representatives of the ruling coalition reiterated that they will not negotiate with the opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK) until it ends nonstop demonstrations in central Yerevan.
“They should decide whether they want to hold rallies or engage in dialogue,” said Eduard Sharmazanov, the spokesman for President Serzh Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK).
“You can’t hold two water melons in your hands. You’ll drop one of them,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
Sharmazanov spoke shortly before a district court in the Armenian capital extended by two months the pre-trial arrest of Tigran Arakelian, a leader of the HAK’s youth wing charged with hooliganism and assault. Arakelian’s lawyer, Vahe Grigorian, condemned the court ruling as “baseless.”
Arakelian was one of seven young HAK activists who were arrested on August 9 after clashing with police in disputed circumstances. He is facing up to ten years in prison. The six other youths, who were set free pending investigation are facing less serious accusations.
The HAK repeatedly condemned Arakelian’s prosecution before suspending in late August its negotiations with the ruling coalition aimed at easing political tensions in Armenia. The bloc said the talks will resume only if the activist is released from jail.
HAK leader Levon Ter-Petrosian essentially dropped this precondition last Friday as he began a new campaign of round-the-clock protests in Yerevan’s Liberty Square. Ter-Petrosian also implied that his opposition movement is ready to stop demanding fresh elections in return for other government concessions.
The coalition made clear, however, that the talks will not resume unless the HAK ends the “illegal” protests.
The HAK responded on Tuesday by declaring further dialogue with the Sarkisian administration “pointless” and pledging to step up its campaign. It said the dialogue could resume only if the opposition bloc receives a relevant formal request from the authorities.
“They have grown a bit detached from reality,” said Sharmazanov.
Vartan Bostanjian, a parliament deputy from the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), a junior coalition partner, also laughed off the opposition conditions. “We are not kids,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
The HAK reaffirmed on Wednesday its plans to intensify the protests. “It’s meaningless to negotiate with these authorities and the only way out is to make the people more active, which is what are going to do,” its central office coordinator, Levon Zurabian, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
Zurabian did not specify just how the HAK will seek to step up pressure on the government. It also remained unclear how long the Liberty Square protests will continue.
Nevertheless, the mood among hundreds of people camped out in the square remained buoyant. “Our cause is just. We’ll fight till the end,” said one middle-aged man.
“We must definitely achieve pre-term elections,” said another protester standing next to one of more than 60 tents pitched there.
There were some indications that the authorities continue to restrict travel between Yerevan and the rest of the country in an apparent effort to keep more people from taking part in the HAK rallies.
Karine, a resident of central Aragatsotn province, claimed to be unable to reach the capital from her Kuchak village. “Police officers are turning away many cars and buses. We don’t know how long this will continue,” she told RFE/RL’s Armenian service by phone.
A police spokesman insisted that all roads leading to Yerevan are open to traffic.