By Armen Zakarian and Ruzanna Khachatrian
Leaders of the largest Armenian opposition alliance decided Tuesday to hold more frequent meetings with supporters around the country in a bid to step up pressure on President Robert Kocharian. They also demanded an official inquiry into press reports that Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian has asked Russia to help the Armenian authorities suppress a possible anti-government uprising in Yerevan.
The ruling board of the Artarutyun (Justice) bloc reaffirmed the ongoing boycott of parliament sessions by opposition lawmakers, insisting on its demands for a national confidence vote in Kocharian. However, its members again declined to detail their further actions planned for the coming weeks.
“The political board of the Artarutyun alliance has discussed secret issues that are not subject to publication at the moment,” one of them, Albert Bazeyan, told RFE/RL after the meeting.
Another prominent oppositionist, Shavarsh Kocharian, said only that the bloc will “intensify” its low-key “meetings with the people.” “We have been holding meetings in the regions and also plan to hold them in parts of Yerevan,” he said. “Naturally, all of this will culminate in big rallies.”
Similar action has also been promised by the National Unity Party, another major opposition group which is boycotting parliament sessions together with Artarutyun. The party’s leader, Artashes Geghamian, on Monday mentioned “late April or early May” as a possible day for the start of a campaign of anti-Kocharian demonstrations in Yerevan.
Kocharian and his allies, meanwhile, remain firmly opposed to the idea of a referendum of confidence floated by Armenia’s Constitutional Court in the wake of last year’s disputed presidential election. Some of them have urged the opposition to end the boycott.
Artarutyun leaders rejected the calls, however. “We will not participate in the parliament’s work until its majority announces that it is ready to discuss and accept amendments to the law on referendum,” said Shavarsh Kocharian. “We know that they are not going to do that voluntarily. That is why we are working with the people.”
While avoiding any participation in National Assembly debates, the opposition lawmakers continue to attend its special weekly sittings during which they can make statements that are then broadcast on state television. Artarutyun’s Aram Sargsian used that opportunity on Tuesday to demand an official explanation over a Russian newspaper report saying that the Armenian defense minister was in Moscow last week seeking Russian military support in the event of an opposition-driven campaign of anti-Kocharian demonstrations.
The pro-Kremlin daily “Nezavisimaya Gazeta” cited anonymous Russian Foreign Ministry sources as saying that Serzh Sarkisian asked for a permission to use the Russian military base in Armenia for a possible crackdown on the domestic opposition.
“The defense minister is keeping silent for the fourth day,” the Artarutyun deputy said. “If this report is true, then there are elements of high treason in that action. The defense minister should have either refuted it or provided some explanation.”
He demanded that Armenian prosecutors investigate the “Nezavisimaya Gazeta” claims, saying that at stake is “Armenia’s independence and the dignity of the Armenian people.”
Sarkisian’s spokesman, Seyran Shahsuvarian, reacted to the verbal attack later in the day, telling RFE/RL that the newspaper report is “absurd and ridiculous.” Shahsuvarian argued that the authorities could not have counted on the backing of several thousand Russian troops stationed in Armenia because those are greatly outnumbered by the country’s own army and security forces.