By Emil Danielyan, Ruzanna Stepanian and Astghik Bedevian
A senior Armenian prosecutor and seven pro-government lawmakers broke ranks to publicly back former President Levon Ter-Petrosian Friday as tens of thousands of people continued to demonstrate in central Yerevan against what they see as fraudulent official results of Tuesday’s presidential election.
In a further sign of serious cracks emerging within the country’s leadership, Deputy Prosecutor-General Gagik Jahangirian delivered a fiery speech at the rally, saying that the vote was blatantly rigged and referring to Ter-Petrosian as its rightful winner. The extraordinary move came on the heels of reports that two top army generals serving as deputy ministers of defense threw their weight behind the opposition presidential candidate.
Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian was quick to ask President Robert Kocharian to dismiss Jahangirian, citing an Armenian law that bars law-enforcement officials from engaging in political activities.
“I have seen and dealt with many elections,” Jahangirian told the massive crowd in the city’s Liberty Square. “But the scale of fraud, violence, beatings, intimidations perpetrated in these elections was unprecedented.”
“Each of you must reclaim your votes,” he said. “We must at last establish the rule of law in this country.”
Jahangirian also joined Ter-Petrosian in implicating Kocharian and Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, the official election winner, in the deadly October 1999 attack on the Armenian parliament. Jahangirian accused the two men of obstructing the criminal investigation into the parliament shootings led by himself. “I promise you that if you help the elected president, if you help me, we will solve the case,” the controversial prosecutor said.
In another significant development, seven deputies of the National Assembly affiliated with the governing Republican and Prosperous Armenia parties also joined the rally and voiced support for Ter-Petrosian. “We found it necessary to be with the people and help find a peaceful way out of this situation,” one of them, Manvel Ghazarian, told RFE/RL.
Ter-Petrosian welcomed the defections. “That means our popular movement has a power faction in the National Assembly,” he told supporters. “This square is already part of the state authority.”
“Furthermore, the middle and lower echelons of the police, the National Security Service and ministry staffs are people like us,” he said. “We have serious proposals from them, we have assurances that they are standing by us.”
Among the defecting lawmakers were a nephew and a close associate of Lieutenant-General Manvel Grigorian, one of the two deputy ministers of defense who have reportedly pledged allegiance to Ter-Petrosian. The latter said on Thursday that they will make sure that Armenia’s Armed Forces are not used for suppressing the ongoing street protests in the capital. “I am confident that the entire army command will join them,” he claimed.
The Armenian Defense Ministry swiftly denied this. However, Ter-Petrosian allies close to Grigorian, who is also the deputy chairman of the influential Yerkrapah Union of Armenian war veterans, stood by the ex-president’s claims on Friday. “If most members of the Yerkrapah Union are with the people and are demanding justice, where else could Manvel Grigorian be?” said Miasnik Malkhasian, Yerkrapah’s deputy chairman.
In an interview with RFE/RL, Malkhasian also did not deny Ter-Petrosian’s assertion that the two generals are “negotiating” with the chief of army staff, Colonel-General Seyran Ohanian, to keep the military in the barracks. “Everyone is interested in a fair solution to this issue in order to avoid unnecessary clashes,” he said. “This is what all Armenian officers and generals want.”
“Manvel Grigorian never retracts what he says. I am absolutely sure about that,” said Aram Sarkisian, the assassinated prime minister’s brother who leads the opposition Hanrapetutyun party.
“Standing alongside the people is the holy duty of every state official, and Manvel Grigorian has said on many occasions that he stands alongside the people,” he added.
Sarkisian was speaking to RFE/RL in the early hours of the morning as about two thousand opposition supporters maintained an overnight vigil in Liberty Square as part of a campaign of “non-stop” demonstrations announced by Ter-Petrosian on Thursday. The mood was festive and bullish despite freezing temperatures, with the demonstrators dancing in circles, setting off fireworks and warming themselves in tents and around bonfires. Ter-Petrosian made two brief appearances in the sprawling square to keep up their morale. He was greeted with “Levon! Levon!” chants.
“We are not electing an individual,” said Armen, a 40-year-old resident of Yerevan. “We are electing freedom. Today must be the final day of our fight. Enough is enough.”
Many other protesters arrived from other parts of the country. “We want to get rid of this rascals, this dictatorial regime,” said Sarkis Zasian, a middle-aged man from Ashtarak, a town 20 kilometers west of Yerevan. “I will spend the nights here until our victory.”
“We are ready for everything,” said Artyom, a 41-year-old farmer and war veteran from the southern Armavir region. “I won’t leave this square even at the gunpoint.”
The crowd expanded to its usual size by the time the rally resumed early in the afternoon. Ter-Petrosian was for the first time joined on the podium by Raffi Hovannisian, a popular opposition leader whose Zharangutyun party endorsed the ex-president’s candidacy. The gathering went ahead despite a police statement warning that it is illegal and may be forcibly broken up.
Many of the protesters were university students who heeded Ter-Petrosian’s calls to boycott classes and join his movement. At the urging of the organizers, the students split from the crowd nd marched through the city center later in the day. They briefly stopped and chanted anti-government slogans outside the Office of the Prosecutor-General surrounded by riot police.
The students turned up for the protest in large numbers despite apparent government efforts to keep them from boycotting classes. Police vans could be seen parked outside the main university buildings in Yerevan in the morning. Students of the Physics Department of Yerevans State University told RFE/RL that police officers would not let them leave the campus.
“We tried to explain that they have no right to force us to attend classes,” said one one of them. “They began jostling, hitting and even kicking students. And so the students moved back into the building.”
Police also detained two students of the Armenian Medical University as they marched to Liberty Square. Both young men were set free four hours later.
Students at the nearby Agricultural Academy said they were warned to steer clear of the opposition demonstrations or face dismissal. “The entire university is ready for a boycott,” said one of them.
But a senior university official, Smbat Daveyan, denied this. “We are not talking about punishments,” he told RFE/RL. “We just want to tell the students that they must think about lectures in the first instance.”