Riot police used force to stop opposition leader Raffi Hovannisian and thousands of his supporters from marching towards the presidential palace in Yerevan on Tuesday at the end of daylong protests against President Serzh Sarkisian’s inauguration for a second term.
Rows of security forces armed with shields and truncheons blocked a major street in the city center leading to Sarkisian’s residence to halt the unsanctioned march against the official results of the February 18 presidential election. They pushed back the crowd led by Hovannisian but did not disperse it despite scuffling with protesters for about 20 minutes. The former presidential candidate was knocked to the ground in the melee.
One of Hovannisian’s close associates, Armen Martirosian, was reportedly detained on the spot. The police did not immediately confirm this, and Martirosian’s whereabouts remained unknown as of late evening.
The police warned the crowd to turn back as it approached Marshal Bagramian Avenue from nearby Liberty Square. Hovannisian defied the warning, saying that he and his supporters only want to walk past the presidential offices to the Armenian Genocide Memorial on Tsitsernakabert Hill. “This is our street, our right, our constitution. I’m moving forward,” he said.
“Don’t create tension, Mr. Hovannisian,” General Nerses Nazarian, chief of the Yerevan police, replied before the security forces confronted the protesters.
Vladimir Gasparian, head of Armenia’s national police service, arrived at the scene moments later to negotiate with Hovannisian. The two men stepped aside to speak tête-à-tête. According to Nazarian, the opposition leader was offered to take another route to Tsitsernakabert.
Hovannisian accepted the police offer and headed to the genocide memorial together with some of the protesters. Interestingly, Gasparian personally escorted the procession. The two men walked side by side and prayed together at the hilltop monument.
Meanwhile, Andreas Ghukasian, another former presidential candidate who also joined the protest, told demonstrators remaining on the Marshal Bagramian Avenue section that he will stage a sit-in there and that they can join him.
A police official again warned the remaining crowd to “sober up” and disperse. Some eyewitnesses said the police detained Ghukasian shortly afterwards. Police officials declined to confirm or refute those claims.
Hovannisian returned to the tense street section later in the evening.
The U.S.-born oppositionist already tried to approach the presidential palace with a smaller group of mostly young supporters earlier in the day. Several of them were detained as a result. A spokesman for the national police, Armen Malkhasian, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) that they were taken into custody for defying police orders. Most
Hovannisian organized the first march through the city center early in the afternoon after rallying thousands of supporters in Liberty Square for what he called “the inauguration of a new Armenia.” The rally began at noon, about the same time as President Sarkisian’s inauguration at a concert arena located several kilometers away from the square.
Addressing the crowd, Hovannisian again rejected Sarkisian’s reelection as fraudulent but, contrary to expectations, stopped short of declaring himself Armenia’s president. He instead took an oath to disobey “false laws” and “illegal orders,” and to continue fighting against the ruling regime. Many demonstrators repeated the oath word for word at his urging.
Hovannisian held another rally in Liberty Square in the evening. In an emotional speech, he initially signaled no plans to stage a bigger march towards the presidential palace. This clearly disappointed many in the crowd who repeatedly interrupted the speech with “Now! Now!” chants.
Hovannisian sparked boos and whistles when he said that he will hold another rally in the square on Friday to discuss, among other things, his newly formed opposition bloc’s participation in the upcoming municipal elections in Yerevan. “Are you whistling at me?” he asked in disbelief.
“Those who want concrete steps now will get a concrete answer from me: I will not allow any Armenian blood to be shed. I will not allow any bloodshed in the Republic of Armenia,” a visibly irritated Hovannisian said before telling the crowd to follow him to Marshal Bagramian Avenue.