Authorities in Armenia again seriously restricted transport communication between Yerevan and surrounding regions ahead of a major opposition rally in the capital on Friday.
In what has become a pattern, police deployed patrols and public buses and minibuses were a rare sight on all approaches to the city throughout the day. Similar scenes could be observed before just about every major demonstration staged by the country’s largest opposition force since the beginning of 2008.
The only difference this time around was that there appeared to be no restrictions on travel to Yerevan from more outlying regions of the country. RFE/RL correspondents in the northern cities of Vanadzor and Gyumri found no signs of disruption in local bus services or heightened police presence on highways.
The situation was markedly different in Nor Hajn, a small town about 15 kilometers north of Yerevan. Catching a bus or van bound for the capital was all but impossible for local residents in the morning.
“As always, It’s ordinary people like me who suffer,” lamented one woman. “I have important court business in Yerevan today but am unable to go there.”
“I’m going home because we are not working today,” said the driver of a rare minibus filled with passengers. “I’ll just drive people to the [nearby] gas station and then go back.”
Just outside the town, police put up a roadblock to randomly stop cars and especially public transportation vehicles heading to Yerevan. Sarkis Baghdasarian, the deputy chief of the Nor Hajn police, attributed the operation to cattle theft which he said was committed in the area earlier this week. “We were here yesterday and the day before yesterday,” he told RFE/RL, denying any link with the rally planned by the opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK).
Police patrols could also be seen outside the nearby town of Abovian. Anushavan Dilakian, an officer at the scene, claimed that they are only looking for drugs and weapons. “We often take such measures here,” he said.
Police presence on highways south of Yerevan was just as strong. Two RFE/RL correspondents faced a less than friendly reception when trying to interview and videotape police officers manning a checkpoint near the town of Masis. “Turn off the camera,” snapped one of them. “Go home and film your courtyard.”
Another policeman was annoyed by a question about whether he has the right to use his private car while being on duty. “Who are you to ask me about my rights?” he yelled. “Get out of here.”
Police officers also guarded Masis’s main bus station. As one of them explained, “We are maintaining public order here. We want to make sure we can quickly step in if, for example, those two guys try to beat and insult each other.”
HAK leaders are certain to insist, however, that the main purpose of the extraordinary security measures was to lower attendance at their rally.