By Emil Danielyan
Tens of thousands of people defied Sunday a government ban to hold yet another demonstration in Yerevan in support of Stepan Demirchian, the main opposition candidate in the Armenian presidential race. They again marched through the city center, demanding the release of dozens of opposition activists arrested in the wake of the previous rally on Friday.
Demirchian, who is due to face incumbent Robert Kocharian in the March 5 run-off, branded the arrests “illegal” and again accused authorities of manipulating Wednesday’s first round of voting.
“They should realize that they have infringed on the people’s dignity,” Demirchian told the enthusiastic crowd. “That’s why we gather here. The people are demanding justice.”
The protest went ahead despite not being sanctioned by the city authorities. Kocharian on Saturday accused the opposition of disrupting "public order" and threatened to take "very serious and strict" measures against its leaders. In a separate statement, the Armenian military also threatened to step in if the opposition actions endanger “state order.”
The warnings were brushed aside by Demirchian and other opposition leaders. “All orders issued by Kocharian are illegal, and the law-enforcement authorities must disobey them,” said Aramazd Zakarian of the opposition Hanrapetutyun (Republic) party.
Another Hanrapetutyun leader, the outspoken former Prime Minister Aram Sarkisian, claimed that Kocharian ordered the military to mass troops around the capital, but was rebuffed by its General Staff.
Armenian police say they detained between 40 and 50 Demirchian activists for committing “hooligan acts” during Friday’s unsanctioned opposition march. Most of them were promptly sentenced to 15 days in jail. Opposition sources say their brief trials were held behind the closed doors.
Also addressing the rally in a show of defiance were two other major opposition candidates: Vazgen Manukian and Aram Karapetian. Manukian accused the authorities of seeking to create a “feudal system” in Armenia.
Demirchian’s campaign manager, Grigor Harutiunian, attacked the Central Election Commission, labeling its chairman Artak Sahradian as a “criminal.” He claimed that the CEC is thwarting opposition efforts to recount ballots cast in the February 19 first round of voting.
The CEC has delayed until next Tuesday the publication of the final results of the February 19 vote, citing lawsuits filed against it by the Demirchian campaign. According to its preliminary results, Kocharian won just under 50 percent of the vote, failing to pass the threshold required to win outright. Demirchian was put in second place with about 28 percent. The opposition leader claims that he did much better.
Speaking on state television late on Saturday, Kocharian said he is “satisfied” with the official results of the first round and believes he will sweep to a “convincing victory” on March 5. He said the opposition should challenge the official figures in court, instead of rallying supporters.
The state-run Armenian Public Television and major private channels supporting the incumbent have renewed their verbal attacks on Demirchian, seeking to portray him as an inexperienced politician who draws political capital only from his late father’s popularity and is very dependent on his more radical entourage. They also stress the fact that political allies of Armenia’s unpopular former president, Levon Ter-Petrosian, support Demirchian.
Demirchian responded to that by describing the Kocharian government as illegitimate. “Only a president elected by the people can fight corruption and establish the rule of law in our country. A president held hostage by some forces can not do that,” he said.
(RFE/RL photo: Demirchian supporters dancing during the rally.)