By Emil Danielyan, Hrach Melkumian and Ruzanna Khachatrian
Armenian police clashed with opposition supporters and shut down much of downtown Yerevan on Wednesday as President Robert Kocharian was sworn in for a second five-year term in office amid unprecedented security measures.
Putting his hand on Armenia’s constitution and a medieval Armenian Bible, Kocharian vowed to defend Armenia’s sovereignty and laws during a special session of the parliament.
Police, meanwhile, sealed off the city’s sprawling Republic Square and blocked other approaches to the venue of the inauguration ceremony as thousands of protesters challenged the legitimacy of Kocharian’s victory in last month’s disputed presidential election.
The demonstration turned violent at one point when its participants, many of them women, attempted to break through rows of riot police and interior troops armed with shields and clubs. Several demonstrators were badly injured in the scuffle. Some were arrested on the spot.
Askanaz Stepanian, an agitated elderly man, had blood-stained injuries all over his balding head. “They hit even women,” he said, pointing to a female protester with a big bruise on her forehead.
The rubber truncheons left ghastly wounds on the hands of the 79-year-old Seda Fanailova. She said she was hit after preventing police officers from arresting a young woman. “I held on to her coat and didn’t let them take her away,” Fanailova said.
Some of the opposition leaders who organized the protest were also hit by the security forces led by police General Hovannes Varian. The clash ended after Varian told the crowd through a hand-held megaphone that it can march towards Republic Square through a different street.
The protesters took his advice, but were later again halted several hundred meters away from the square. “A person who violated our laws and constitution and discredited our state in the outside world has no right to be president,” said Albert Bazeyan, a leading member of the Artarutyun (Justice) alliance headed by Stepan Demirchian, the controversially defeated presidential candidate.
The standoff ended peacefully in about 40 minutes, after the opposition leaders told the Demirchian supporters, drenched with rain, to disperse and again take to the streets of the capital next week. Many of them were furious and ready for another clash with the police.
“This inauguration is illegal; I personally saw irregularities on election day,” said Hayk Torosian, a middle-aged man.
The opposition fury sharply contrasted with the mood inside a conference hall in the government’s main building where Kocharian’s inauguration was taking place. Stepping onto the podium decorated with Armenian national flags, reelected president declared: “Assuming the post of the president of the Republic of Armenia, I swear to fully comply with constitutional requirements; respect human and civil rights and basic freedoms; ensure the republic’s security, territorial integrity and security.”
Kocharian then got a traditional blessing from Catholicos Garegin II, head of the Armenian Apostolic Church. In his ensued acceptance speech, Kocharian accused his political opponents of “irresponsible behavior” that “shatters the foundations of Armenian statehood.”
The ceremony was boycotted by the pro-Demirchian deputies and other opposition lawmakers, including those affiliated with Artashes Geghamian’s National Unity and the Communist Party. Only 83 members of the 131-strong National Assembly showed up for the extraordinary session.
Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian regretted the absence of the opposition deputies. “The phenomenon itself is very negative,” he told RFE/RL. “I wish everybody had been here so that we could show the world that we are a civilized nation. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen.”
Demirchian and his allies refuse to concede defeat, saying that the March 5 second round of the election was rigged by the authorities. Election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe gave weight to the allegations, concluding that the run-off vote was not democratic because of “widespread” ballot box stuffing and other instances of electoral fraud. The United States has endorsed the criticism, saying that it is “deeply disappointed” with the Armenian authorities’ handling of the vote.
Kocharian has admitted “numerous” vote irregularities but insists that they could not affect the outcome of the election.
Incidentally, U.S. Ambassador to Armenia John Ordway was present at the inauguration ceremony along with other top Western diplomats in Yerevan. Correspondents covering the event did not see him approach and talk to Kocharian during the ensued reception. Ordway also pointedly refused to answer journalists’ questions.
President George W. Bush has not yet officially congratulated Kocharian on his reelection.
It emerged that Demirchian too was officially invited to Kocharian’s inauguration. “I did get such an invitation,” Demirchian told RFE/RL. “But of course I can not participate in it as long as the matter is discussed by the Constitutional Court. Besides, our assessment of the elections is well known.”
Demirchian was unable to address his supporters during a rally on another Yerevan square that preceded the opposition march. Just minutes before he was due to speak a nearby neighborhood was cut off from electricity that powered opposition amplifiers. The organizers accused the authorities of sabotage.
“Kocharian is taking an oath not to the people whose votes he stole, but to those clans that brought him to power,” charged Aram Sarkisian.
The Demirchian-led opposition has held regular anti-government rallies in Yerevan since the tense aftermath of the February 19 first round of the presidential election. It was the first protest marred by violence and the opposition leaders braced themselves for more arrests of their supporters. More than a hundred of them have already been given short jail sentences.
According to Dustrik Mkhitarian, an opposition coordinator, at least 20 people were detained following the previous unsanctioned rally held on Monday. “I’m going to my office right now to await more alarming phone calls,” she told RFE/RL after Friday’s demonstration. “I think there will be mass arrests tonight.”