By Ruzanna Khachatrian, Karine Kalantarian and Gevorg Stamboltsian
Armenia’s two main opposition groups announced Monday that their long-anticipated joint campaign to topple President Robert Kocharian will get underway this Friday, defying an apparent government crackdown on scores of their activists.
Making a rare public appearance together, the leader of the Artarutyun (Justice) bloc, Stepan Demirchian, and the leader of the National Unity Party, Artashes Geghamian, vowed to join forces to ensure the “departure of the illegitimate regime” and “resotration of constitutional order in Armenia.” They issued a declaration urging opposition supporters to take to the streets of Yerevan for “mass protest actions” which they hope will effect regime change.
The two leaders, who have had uneasy relations over the past year, refused to disclose details of the planned protests, saying that they want to keep the authorities guessing about their tactics. It thus remained unclear whether Friday’s rally will be an ordinary one or will continue “day and night” as was promised by some Artarutyun leaders. Nor is it known how the opposition will respond if the authorities block the city’s main square and the street leading to Kocharian’s official residence.
In a further sign of rising tensions, a senior member of Artarutyun was arrested and another one beaten up Sunday.
The Office of Prosecutor-General confirmed on Monday reports that Suren Sureniants of the Hanrapetutyun party, a leading Artarutyun force, was detained the previous night in connection with an official criminal investigation into the ongoing opposition rallies held across the country. Officials there said that no charges have been brought against him yet.
According to a Hanrapetutyun spokesman, Artak Hakobian, plainclothes police took Sureniants to the prosecutor’s office in Yerevan from the nearby village of Parakar where he was visiting a friend’s relatives. He said the oppositionist was allowed to call the party office and ask it to send a lawyer two hours later.
“The police told him that he was held because of the rallies,” Hakobian told RFE/RL.
The prosecutors claim that the opposition protests, launched by Artarutyun and the National Unity Party in February, are accompanied by calls for a “violent overthrow” of the ruling regime and offensive language directed at senior government officials. Their decision last week to open a criminal inquiry is widely seen as a threat to arrest opposition leaders.
Sureniants’s attorney, Robert Grigorian, said the opposition leader is being held in connection with his emotional speech at a rally held by Hanrapetutyun on February 28. Grigorian disputed the prosecutors’ claims that his client “insulted” Kocharian and other Armenian leaders. “There are no calls for a violent overthrow of the authorities in the transcript of the speech,” he said.
Also on Sunday a leading member of the People’s Party of Armenia (HZhK), another major Artarutyun force, was attacked and beaten up outside his house in the southern town of Artashat. Aramayis Barseghian, also known for his tough anti-Kocharian rhetoric, heads the local chapter of the HZhK. Speaking to RFE/RL, he said four men knocked him to the ground and kicked him without any explanation. Barseghian, who is a former member of the Armenian parliament, said he does not know any of the attackers but believes that the beating was linked to his political activities.
The violence came amid reports that about two hundred Artarutyun and National Unity activists have been rounded up by the police in Yerevan and other parts of the country. Opposition representatives say the crackdown began on Thursday.
“People are summoned or forcibly brought to police stations for questioning,” Hanrapetutyun’s Hakobian said. “Some are allowed to go, while many others are kept in custody. This is a large-scale operation.”
“There is no official information, the authorities avoid talking to us,” the deputy chairman of National Unity, Sarkis Muradkhanian, said. “We have information that the represssions will continue today and tomorrow.”
Leaders of the governing coalition justified the crackdown, effectively accusing the opposition of plotting a coup d’etat. “The authorities have to take necessary measures to isolate people transporting illegal weapons and other instruments that could be used in possible clashes,” said Vahan Hovannisian of the governing Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun).
Tigran Torosian, a leading member of Dashnaktsutyun’s senior coalition partner, the Republican Party (HHK), indicated that the detentions will end if the opposition gives up its attempts to force Kocharian and his cabinet into resignation.
But both opposition leaders said they are undaunted by the tough government response, with Demirchian repeating his view that the authorities are “in their death throes.” Geghamian agreed, saying: “Recent years’ experience has shown that you need to spend at least a few days in jail to come to power.”