By Ruzanna Stepanian and Anna Saghabalian
Former President Levon Ter-Petrosian and his leading political allies on Friday reaffirmed their stated readiness to engage in “dialogue” with Armenia’s leadership but said it is conditional on an end to the ongoing government crackdown on the opposition.
The two dozen opposition parties aligned to Ter-Petrosian again urged the authorities to fully accept the European Union’s proposals for ending Armenia’s grave post-election crisis.
In two separate statements issued early this month, the EU’s Slovenian presidency said that in order to defuse the crisis, the Armenian government should lift the state of emergency, negotiate with the Ter-Petrosian-led opposition, release all political prisoners and allow an “independent investigation” into the March 1 clashes in Yerevan.
The administration of outgoing President Robert Kocharian has since lifted the state of emergency but continued to arrest opposition leaders and activists. It has also effectively rejected the EU’s calls for an independent inquiry into the unrest.
Citing the continuing arrests and a de facto ban on opposition rallies in Yerevan, the opposition parties said in a joint statement that emergency rule essentially remains in force. They also claimed that the crackdown is only “deepening public hatred and anger” towards Kocharian and his incoming successor, Serzh Sarkisian.
“The regime can not carry on with these methods,” said Levon Zurabian, a figure close to Ter-Petrosian. “We are going to prove that.”
“This tough course adopted by the authorities has no prospects,” he told RFE/RL. “It is coming under both external and internal pressure. I will fizzle out one day and pave the way for a much more influential [opposition] movement. That is a matter of days or perhaps months.”
Zurabian said the Ter-Petrosian camp will continue to apply for government permission to resume its rallies in Yerevan but would not say what it will do if those continue to be rejected by the authorities. The statement by the opposition parties also did not specify if the former Armenian leader is ready to stage unsanctioned street protests.
Zurabian admitted that the opposition is hamstrung by the fact that more than a hundred of its senior and active members are currently under arrest on charges mainly stemming from the March 1 violence.
One of them, Hovannes Harutiunian, who was a Ter-Petrosian proxy on election day, was tried and sentenced on Friday to 18 months in prison for illegally buying and possessing bullets. A district court in Yerevan dismissed Harutiunian’s arguments that the bullets were purchased for his hunting rifle registered with the police. His lawyer, Vartan Zurnachian, dismissed the accusation as unfounded and politically motivated.
Another arrested opposition supporter, Seryozha Siradeghian, walked free in court after being handed a suspended two-year jail term earlier this week. The 73-year-old resident of a village in northern Armenia is the elder brother of Vano Siradeghian, Ter-Petrosian’s former interior minister who fled the country in 2000 to avoid prosecution on murder charges.
It also emerged that state prosecutors have formally charged Arshak Banuchian, the deputy director of the Matenadaran museum of ancient Armenian manuscripts who actively campaigned for Ter-Petrosian’s victory in the February 19 presidential election. Banuchian is accused of not only organizing illegal rallies and “mass riots” but also handing out vote bribes to residents of the southern Vayots Dzor region on election day.