By Emil DanielyanThe Armenian opposition shed more light on its plans to use Sunday’s constitutional referendum for another attempt at regime change, announcing over the weekend that its campaign of street protests in Yerevan will begin on voting day.
Leaders of a coalition of two dozen opposition parties campaigning against the proposed constitutional changes urged supporters in the southern Ararat region to boycott the vote and converge on the capital Sunday for what they hope will be the beginning of an anti-government “revolution” in Armenia. One of them revealed that the opposition intends to stage the kind of demonstration that was violently dispersed by security forces last year.
“Dear people, only a revolution can bring change to this country and that revolution is imminent,” the most radical of the opposition leaders, Aram Sarkisian, told several hundred opposition supporters who gathered in Artashat, the region’s administrative center.
“We know that a certain part of the people is scared,” Sarkisian said in a trademark passionate speech. “But fear and revenge are brothers. A scared person always seeks revenge. Our people squeezed that revenge into a tin. Once it is opened, many, many individuals [in government] will suffer. Beware of that, government guys. That day has come.”
“We will stand by our vote in Yerevan. We will gather in Yerevan and say [to the government]: ‘You have rigged the constitutional referendum and you must go.’”
Sarkisian admitted that the opposition continues to draw inspiration from the successful popular uprisings in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, stressing the fact that all of them were triggered by rigged elections. “Remember how [deposed Georgian President Eduard] Shevardnadze’s hands trembled? Your are going to see something like that on [Armenian] TV.”
Aram Karapetian, another outspoken oppositionist, said success of the “revolution” bid hinges on a “critical mass” of opposition supporters willing to take to the streets and resist riot police. “Once that critical mass is there, we will immediately lead people to Baghramian Avenue [in central Yerevan] and [President Robert] Kocharian’s residence,” he said. “Join and stand by us on November 27. Give us the critical mass and see how we go to the end and win.”
Such a demonstration, attended by up 3,000 people, was already held by the opposition outside the presidential palace and violently dispersed by security forces on the night from April 12-13, 2004. It marked the climax of an ill-fated opposition drive to topple Kocharian. The opposition’s failure to pull larger crowds was a key reason for the fiasco.
Stepan Demirchian, who apparently remains the most popular opposition leader, alluded to this fact in his speech at the Artashat rally. “Every citizen of the country must realize that something depends on himself as well,” he said, implying that disaffected Armenians should attend anti-government protests in larger numbers.
Demirchian, who is more cautious than his radical allies, avoided any mention of the planned Yerevan rallies. He instead accused the authorities of planning to rig the referendum and defended the opposition decision to call for its popular boycott. “Boycott is a political step that will contribute to the removal of this illegitimate regime,” he said.
Sarkisian and other leaders of the opposition coalition have been campaigning across the country in motorcades made up of dozens of cars. On Saturday they drove through villages in the wine-growing area south of Yerevan, dropping leaflets and making brief stops in some of them before holding rallies in Artashat and the nearby town of Ararat. Demirchian, who campaigned on his own until last week in a sign of persisting friction with Sarkisian, joined the procession in Artashat. However, the two leaders again avoided talking to each other in public.
Artashat and surrounding villages are seen as the de facto fiefdom of Hovik Abrahamian, Armenia’s influential minister for local government who has extensive business interests in the area. The opposition holds him responsible for the beatings of several of its activists in 2003 and 2004.
The Artashat rally was marked by unusually high-level police presence. Several police officers, including three lieutenant-colonels, were already at the scene about two hours before its start. Their actions were apparently coordinated by a police colonel with a walkie-talkie who watched the proceedings from a car parked nearby. A cameraman seated in another police car filmed the opposition motorcade as it left the town. By contrast, a handful of police officers present at the opposition gathering in Ararat, Sarkisian’s hometown, were mostly sergeants.
Meanwhile, officials at the regional branch of the pre-referendum “Yes” campaign sounded upbeat about their chances of winning popular support for Kocharian’s Western-backed constitutional changes. “I have no doubt that 70-75 percent of local voters will take part in the referendum,” its deputy head, Volodya Mazmanian, told RFE/RL, predicting a record-high turnout in Armenia’s post-Soviet history.
Similar percentage figures have also been forecast by other regional “Yes” campaign managers. Opposition leaders claim such statements expose vote rigging targets set by the authorities. “The illegitimate regime that rigged the presidential and parliamentary elections of 2003 and used violence against the people in 2004 is now trying to ensure a desired outcome of the referendum with its much-loved illegal methods,” charged Demirchian.
But representatives of the government camp insisted that public awareness of and support for the proposed constitutional reform has risen significantly in recent weeks. “A lot of work has been done to inform the local people,” said Susanna Ghazarian, a local leader of Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian’s Nig-Aparan organization. “People do take an interest in the issue.”
The “Yes” campaign headquarters in Artashat has a room where a group of lawyers are supposed to explain the essence of the constitutional draft to local residents. One of the lawyers told RFE/RL that less than two dozen people visited it in recent days and most of them asked for legal counseling on personal problems. There were no visitors there on Saturday afternoon.
There is visibly less public interest in the referendum than in the 2003 elections. Attendance at opposition meetings is now significantly lower, and the “Yes” campaign holds similarly small indoors gatherings mostly attended by public sector employees.
(RFE/RL photo: Residents of Artashat attending the opposition rally.)