By Shakeh Avoyan and Anna Saghabalian
Opposition leader Raffi Hovannisian regained control over the headquarters of his Zharangutyun (Heritage) party on Monday only to be forced to resist fresh eviction orders from the government a few hours later.
Hovannisian and a group of his loyalists were refusing as of late evening to accept bailiffs’ orders to vacate the state-owned premises from which they were controversially evicted three months ago.
Zharangutyun was locked out of them on March 4 on the grounds that it failed to sign a new lease agreement with the Armenian government’s Department on State Property Management. Its leader has leased a section of the property located in a building belonging to the Hakob Paronian State Comedy Theater for nearly 15 years. It housed Hovannisian’s think-tank, the Armenian Center for National and International Studies, until Zharangutyun creation about three years ago.
Hovannisian and other Zharangutyun leaders have denounced the eviction as politically motivated, saying that the authorities are thereby retaliating against his harsh attacks on President Robert Kocharian. The theater management and senior government officials have denied the charges.
Hovannisian sued the theater management and succeeded on April 14 in securing a court injunction that obligated the latter reopen the Zharangutyun offices pending the outcome of the litigation. However, Justice Ministry bailiffs took more than 40 days to implement the order. And even as they removed new locks on the office doors, they declared that neither side to the dispute can have access to the property in the interim.
The bailiffs seemed to have relented after strong protests Hovannisian and party activists. But they returned to the Zharangutyun office a few hours later. “The bailiffs have come back and are demanding that we get out,” an aide to Hovannisian, Mamikon Sargsian, told RFE/RL by phone. “They want to seal off the office.”
“Raffi Hovannisian is not going to leave the office because their actions are illegal,” he said, adding that the popular oppositionist is ready to spend the night in his office.
Relations between Hovannisian and the Armenian authorities seriously deteriorated last December after he sent an open letter to Kocharian which effectively implicated the Armenian leader in high-profile political murders and vote falsifications. Hovannisian accused the authorities earlier on Monday of systematically harassing Zharangutyun activists across Armenia and hampering the party’s activities.
“Both the police and National Security Service exert pressure on us, threatening to strip our members of their jobs, arrest and imprison them. That is having a certain psychological impact on people,” he told RFE/RL, adding that at least dozen of them have left Zharangutyun as a result.
Hovannisian, who is expected to be a major player in next year’s parliamentary election, also called for a “consolidation” of Armenia’s divided opposition. He indicated his readiness to team up with the Orinats Yerkir Party of former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian that pulled out of Kocharian’s governing coalition this month.
“As the first state official [in Armenia] who resigned over serious policy issues, I know that it was not an easy step,” said the U.S.-born former foreign minister. “I welcome [Orinats Yerkir’s exit from government] and hope that it will have a systemic continuation.”
(Photolur photo: Raffi Hovannisian.)