By Emil DanielyanThousands of people were locked in a potentially violent standoff with security forces in downtown Yerevan late Monday as the Armenian opposition’s campaign for President Robert Kocharian’s resignation appeared to reach its climax.
Hundreds of police and interior troops in heavy anti-riot gear stopped the opposition supporters from approaching Kocharian’s official residence, ready to use water cannons, tear gas and stun grenades. The two sides faced off through two rows of barbed wire unrolled across Marshal Baghramian Avenue, about two hundred meters away from the heavily guarded presidential palace. Other streets leading to it were also blocked.
Opposition leaders vowed to keep the supporters on the street until the authorities cave in. “Dear people, we are going stay here together with the soldiers until Kocharian resigns,” Aram Sarkisian of the Artarutyun alliance told the crowd. “We think he will be sensible enough to resign under popular pressure without bloodshed and upheavals.”
“We are only meters away from victory,” declared fellow oppositionist Victor Dallakian.
There was no immediate reaction to the latest protest from Kocharian who has repeatedly rejected the opposition demands. A statement by the presidential office said the Armenian leader met with Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian to discuss among other things his upcoming visits abroad. There was no word about the domestic political situation.
Artarutyun and its ally, the National Unity Party (AMK) made no attempts to break through the formidable security barrier, with opposition marshals at pains to hold the people back from the barbed wire. The opposition leaders made only emotional appeals to the security forces not to protect the ruling regime.
“You are protecting someone who violated the constitution. Please open the way. We will take no illegal actions,” AMK Artashes Geghamian screamed, climbing on top of a van that carried opposition loudspeakers.
“You are blocking the future of Armenia.” “We have only peaceful intentions. “Do not carry out unconstitutional orders.”
Several opposition lawmakers were then sent to meet with parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian but were denied entry into the nearby National Assembly building. The organizers also demanded a meeting with the national police chief Hayk Harutiunian and live airtime on television. The authorities were unlikely to meet the demands.
Meanwhile, the mood among the protesters turned festive as folk music blared through the amplifiers, setting off spontaneous performances of the traditional Armenian circle dance. A group of young men sat down on the ground to sing popular songs to a guitar accompaniment.
Some protesters said they are ready to stay there for days. “I’ve brought my coat, have food in my pockets and am going to spend the night here,” said scholar Sergey Martirosian.
“They will surrender without a fight,” claimed an elderly man who arrived from a village in the central Aragatsotn region.
The march was preceded by yet another rally in the city’s Freedom Square attended by an estimated 15,000 people. Opposition leaders hope that their ranks will swell as the protests drag on. Dallakian in particular pledged to attract more supporters from the provinces that have effectively been cut off from the capital in recent days.