Raffi Hovannisian, the leader of the opposition Zharangutyun (Heritage) party, continued his high-profile hunger strike in Yerevan’s Liberty Square on Wednesday amid expressions of support from fellow opposition figures and the Armenian government’s silence.
The U.S.-born politician began what he called a “freedom fast” there on Tuesday, implicitly demanding President Serzh Sarkisian’s resignation and the holding of snap elections.
Braving freezing temperatures and wrapping himself in a blanket, he spent the night on a bench beside an Armenian national flag under the watchful eyes of police officers patrolling the square. Zharangutyun activists said the police did not allow them to pitch a tent there in order to keep their leader warm.
“The police banned that without any legal grounds,” Hovannisian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “The police are often used as tools and become victims of illegal government orders,” he said.
Liberty Square was the scene of massive antigovernment demonstrations and a tent camp organized by another opposition leader, Levon Ter-Petrosian, in the wake of the disputed February 2008 presidential election. The Armenian authorities used force to suppress those protests and have since not allowed Ter-Petrosian to hold rallies there.
Ter-Petrosian’s Armenian National Congress (HAK) has had to rally supporters elsewhere in the city center. It has pledged to eventually “reconquer” the square.
The HAK’s next rally is scheduled for Thursday. Whether or not the opposition bloc will tell supporters to enter the sprawling square is not yet known.
When asked if he will join Thursday’s protest, Hovannisian said he will not leave the square throughout the hunger strike. He also said he is primed for a “long struggle” against the government.
Some prominent HAK figures visited the square to voice solidarity with the Zharangutyun leader on Tuesday night and Wednesday. One of them, former Foreign Minister Alexander Arzoumanian, called the protest action “brave.” “If we sit at home and just calculate which is the most effective way, we had better avoid fighting and wait for somebody to come up and give us our freedom,” Arzoumanian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
Hovannisian, who made on Tuesday the first public appearance without his trademark moustache, was also visited by dozens of ordinary supporters. “I have also heard rebukes and criticisms,” he said. “Some people miss my moustache. Others think my most radical step yesterday was not the hunger strike but the shaving of the moustache.”
“There are also people who say that is not the way to go, that active citizens should act in a different way,” added Hovannisian. “These are also legitimate comments.”