By Emil Danielyan and Karine Kalantarian
About 20,000 people marched through central Yerevan on Wednesday as the Armenian opposition pledged to launch a fresh “decisive” offensive against President Robert Kocharian next week.
The protest, not sanctioned by the authorities, was another show of force by the opposition Artarutyun alliance and the National Unity Party (AKM) indicating that their two-month campaign for regime change is regaining momentum after last week’s tough government crackdown. Their leaders told supporters to gear up for another, more important rally next Tuesday.
“On April 27 we will begin our decisive meeting,” Artarutyun’s Aram Sarkisian said in a speech delivered before the march. “All Armenia should gather for that rally. People should join us even on foot. We must put an end to these unlawfulness and Kocharian must go.”
“There will be not just a demonstration. We have planned actions and must implement them together with you,” said another Artarutyun leader, Albert Bazeyan.
The rally organizers were reticent about details of their next move. Speaking to RFE/RL, Bazeyan did not deny that they will again lead supporters toward Kocharian’s official residence.
“Everything will depend on the situation,” he said. “Our plans are not a dogma, so changes are possible. As you can see, the drastic government response has not restrained us.”
“That day will be a good one,” AMK leader Artashes Geghamian said vaguely.
The first opposition march along Marshal Baghramian Avenue leading to the presidential palace was stopped and violently dispersed by riot police in the early hours of April 13. That was immediately followed by mass arrests of opposition activists and police raids on the main opposition offices. Kocharian and other senior government officials have warned that further opposition attempts to “thwart the normal functioning of government bodies” would meet with the same response.
The protesters, visibly larger in numbers than last week, steered clear of Marshal Baghramian Avenue this time around, demonstrating on other major city thoroughfares. Some of them had been badly injured by police truncheons and stun grenades on April 13. They said they are not scared of another clash with security forces.
“I will go even if they hold me back with a gun, for the sake of justice and my children’s future,” said a young woman from a village in the southern Ararat region. “We work hard all year but can not feed them. Electricity, water, education and other things are so expensive.”
“I have never attended opposition rallies before because I had lost faith in politicians,” said another woman. “I took to the streets today because people were beaten up last week. Shame on those who ordered that.”
Addressing the crowd, the opposition leaders again poured scorn on the ruling regime. Most of them were particularly angered by Kocharian’s derogatory comments on Tuesday that compared them with naughty children who refuse to listen to their parents.
“Our slogan remains the same: ‘Robert, go away!’,” said Victor Dallakian. He went on to present a long list of preconditions for a proposed dialogue between the opposition and Armenia’s three governing parties. It included the release of all “political prisoners,” an end to the government “repressions” against the opposition, and the sacking of Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian and Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian.
The demands were rejected by representatives of the ruling coalition. “We find ludicrous a dialogue with such preconditions,” deputy parliament speaker Tigran Torosian representing the Republican Party (HHK) told RFE/RL earlier in the day. “If their sole goal is regime change, a dialogue will not resolve anything. There are no political or legal grounds for regime change in Armenia.”
But senior members of the HHK’s junior partner, Orinats Yerkir, were less downbeat. Samvel Balasanian, who heads the party’s parliament faction, said the opposition simply has to “step back a little bit.” “I think possibilities for a dialogue have not been exhausted,” agreed another Orinats Yerkir leader, Mher Shahgeldian.