By Astghik BedevianIn what was the first opposition rally authorized by the Armenian government in two months, thousands of people assembled in Yerevan at the weekend to voice support for former President Levon Ter-Petrosian and his imprisoned loyalists.
It was also the largest gathering held since the deadly March 1 clashes between security forces and Ter-Petrosian supporters and the resulting declaration of a 20-day state of emergency in the Armenian capital. The authorities effectively banned anti-government demonstrations after the end of emergency rule with legal amendments strongly criticized by the West.
The Yerevan municipality unexpectedly sanctioned Saturday’s protest but made sure that it is held not in Liberty Square, the scene of Ter-Petrosian’s massive post-election demonstrations, but a small public located elsewhere in the city center.
The rally proceeded peacefully, with participants chanting “Levon!” and “Freedom!” and demanding the release of more than 100 opposition activists arrested as part of the ongoing government crackdown on the opposition. Ter-Petrosian, who was President Serzh Sarkisian’s main election challenger, did not join the protest officially organized by a pro-opposition women’s group. But his wife Lyudmila was in attendance.
Most of the speakers were the wives of some of the jailed oppositionists. “We will rally here, on Northern Avenue and Liberty Square until our husbands, brothers, fathers, sons and friends are freed, until our country is freed,” said Melissa Brown, the wife of Aleksandr Arzumanian, Ter-Petrosian’s election campaign chief accused of plotting a coup d’etat and organizing “mass riots.”
The calls were echoed by Suren Sureniants, a senior member of the opposition Hanrapetutyun (Republic) party who was arrested on February 25 and released from jail pending trial last week. “I want all of us to demand freedom for our comrades,” Sureniants said in his speech.
Also addressing the boisterous crowd was the wife of Nikol Pashinian, an outspoken newspaper editor and Ter-Petrosian associate who has been in hiding since March 2. “I want to tell you on behalf of my husband Nikol Pashinian that our struggle is continuing,” said Anna Hakobian. “Serzh Sarkisian must understand that with [the use of force on] March 1 not only did the authorities fail to intimidate the people but actually took fear out of them.”
The rally came to an abrupt end after a senior police officer told organizers that the two hours requested by them for the protest have expired. The latter asked for an extra 30 minutes only to have electricity powering their loudspeakers cut off moments later.