By Emil Danielyan and Karine Kalantarian
Leaders of Armenia’s main opposition forces refused on Monday to recognize the official outcome of the constitutional referendum which they said raised the country’s post-Soviet culture of electoral fraud to new heights.
All but one of those parties jointly rallied several thousand supporters in Yerevan and pledged to step up street protests in the comings days in a bid to bring down the Armenian government. But their leaders admitted that they need to pull larger crowds to be able to threaten the ruling regime.
“What happened is a crime against the Armenian people which can not fall under the statute of limitations,” the opposition Artarutyun (Justice) said in a statement read out to the protesters by one of its senior members, Victor Dallakian.
Dismissing the official vote results, Dallakian thanked the electorate for “boycotting [President Robert] Kocharian and his regime.” “The unelected president is trying to impose an unelected constitution on the people,” he charged.
“The people boycotted the referendum,” said another Artarutyun leader, Aram Sarkisian. “The polling stations were so empty yesterday that you could hear the buzz of flies.”
“It is obvious that on November 27 the authorities staged an unconstitutional coup d’etat in the Republic of Armenia,” the other opposition group represented in parliament, the National Unity Party (AMK), said in a separate statement.
“The referendum brought us even closer to the collapse of this illegitimate regime,” it concluded.
The AMK’s outspoken leader, Artashes Geghamian, has campaigned against Kocharian’s constitutional amendments on his own and so far refused to join the opposition rallies. By contrast, Artarutyun, has teamed up with a dozen other parties. The leader of one of those parties, Raffi Hovannisian, referred to the disputed referendum as a “new shameful page in our modern history” in an emotional speech at the rally.
“The people standing here and those who will come here tomorrow and after that will not let you turn Armenia into a land of fraud because Armenia is a homeland of truth, hope, light, law and justice,” he said, appealing to the country’s leadership.
The rally was opened by Artarutyun’s top leader Stepan Demirchian who denounced the referendum as a “farce.” “We don’t care about their numbers because everyone saw what happened in reality,” he said.
“We thought the 2003 presidential elections could not have been more fraudulent, but the referendum set a new sad record,” claimed another opposition speaker, Artak Zeynalian.
It was the largest opposition gathering since the start of the referendum campaign a month ago. Still, the size of the crowd clearly fell short of opposition expectations. Opposition leaders and Sarkisian in particular hope that popular anger at the perceived vote rigging will spark the kind of pro-democracy movement that swept away the ruling regimes in other ex-Soviet republics.
Sarkisian indicated that the opposition coalition has a “clear plan of action” and will stage a bigger protest on Tuesday. He admitted that it has yet to gather a “critical mass” of protesters ready to resist security forces.
Sarkisian revealed that the opposition will try to mobilize greater support in Yerevan and bus supporters from other parts of the country into the capital. “All those citizens of the Republic of Armenia who do not accept this impudent fraud must start gathering here tomorrow at 3 p.m.,” he said. “Those who have cars must protest by honking their horns. Their sound must resonate all over Yerevan.”
The call prompted a stern warning from the police. “Some representatives of the police called on participants of their rally to resort to actions that involve violation of public order,” a police spokesman told RFE/RL. “The police are determined to counter any attempts to disrupt public order and make sure that those have legal consequences.”
Later in the day, employees of the Armenian Center for National and International Studies, a think-tank controlled by Hovannisian, told reporters that they were visited by two police officers and warned not to take part in the opposition rally planned for Tuesday.
(Photolur photo: Hovannisian speaking at the rally.)