In what he called a “last warning,” the top leader of the opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK) also presented President Serzh Sarkisian with a long list of other demands, including the release of all jailed opposition members. He gave Sarkisian two weeks to accept at least “a considerable part” of those demands and start negotiating with the HAK over the conduct of pre-term presidential and parliamentary elections.
“From now on, rallies held by the Armenian National Congress are turning from current political actions into a sort of forum for the public’s self-rule, which will have the full authority to make decisions and put them into practice,” Ter-Petrosian said.
The HAK began on February 18 a new campaign of anti-government protests with its biggest demonstration in nearly three years. Tuesday’s rally drew an even bigger crowd. Ter-Petrosian claimed that it was attended by 50,000 people, while the Armenian police put the number of participants at between 9,000 and 10,000.
The rally was timed to coincide with the third anniversary of the bloody suppression of Ter-Petrosian’s massive 2008 protests sparked by a disputed presidential election.
The demonstrators marched to the scene of the March 1-2, 2008 clashes between opposition protesters and security forces, which left ten people dead and more than 200 others injured. A candlelight vigil was held there earlier in the day.
The opposition bloc also demanded sharp rises in the official minimum wage and pensions as well as the scrapping of several unpopular government decisions made in recent months. Among them is the introduction of mandatory car insurance and a controversial ban on street trade in Yerevan.
Ter-Petrosian urged supporters to gather again on March 17 to discuss the authorities’ response to the demands. He stressed that a “practical dialogue” between the HAK and the Sarkisian government could only center on election preparations.
“This is our last warning to the authorities,” Ter-Petrosian declared. “Sober up. I have nothing else to tell you.”
“The path of political dialogue is still open for Serzh Sarkisian,” said Levon Zurabian, Ter-Petrosian’s right-hand man coordinating the HAK’s day-to-day activities. “He still has time, but it is rapidly running out,” added Zurabian.
Zurabian repeated Ter-Petrosian’s earlier warning that Sarkisian will meet the fate of the recently deposed rulers of Egypt and Tunisia if he continues to oppose snap elections.
The Ter-Petrosian-led opposition has been clearly buoyed by the wave of anti-government uprisings that has swept through the Arab world. Increased attendance at its rallies indicates similar sentiment among many Armenians unhappy with the government.
Ter-Petrosian, who had served as Armenia’s first president from 1991-1998, did not specify just what he and his bloc will do in the likely event of Sarkisian rejecting or ignoring his demands. It is still not clear whether he is prepared to launch the kind of non-stop street protests which he staged in 2008.