Thousands of Armenians again rallied on a street leading to President Serzh Sarkisian’s offices on Tuesday evening just 15 hours after riot police forcibly unblocked it and arrested scores of activists protesting against electricity price rises.
Sarkisian, meanwhile, renewed his offer to meet the protest leaders and discuss their demands.
Phalanxes of riot police deployed on Marshal Bagramian Avenue again stopped them from approaching the presidential palace, setting the stage for potential fresh clashes between the two sides. A senior police officer at the scene tried in vain to convince the crowd to demonstrate elsewhere in the city center.
As the demonstrators reached the scene of the violent dispersal of the previous protest, Valery Osipian, a deputy chief of Yerevan’s police department, announced that all 237 or so individuals detained early in the morning have been released from custody. Those included the leaders of the No To Plunder movement leading the vocal campaign against the price hikes.
Some of those leaders were able to join the several thousand protesters in nearby Liberty Square shortly before they marched to Marshal Bagramian Avenue. They received a hero’s welcome there.
“We will keep fighting with the same demands till the end,” one of the No To Plunder leaders, Maxim Sargsian, told the crowd.
“Their water cannons won’t scare us. We will be creating problems for them every day,” said another leader, Vaghinak Shushanian.
Osipian met with angry reactions from these and other organizers when he approached them in an attempt to persuade them to avoid another march. The young civic activists were furious with what they see as heavy-handed police actions that ended the overnight standoff. It was not immediately clear whether they planned to spend another night on the blocked street section.
As Osipian argued with the No To Plunder leaders in Liberty Square, a female protester grabbed his hat and ran away. Police officers accompanying him failed to catch her.
Speaking to RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) afterwards, Osipian defended the use of force in the early hours of the morning. He insisted that the police on the contrary displayed “disproportionate tolerance” in its handling of the protesters.
According to law-enforcement authorities, at least 25 people, among them 11 policemen, were injured during the violence. Some of those protesters received medical aid in hospitals.
A deputy chief of the national police, General Hunan Poghosian, signalled a significant shift in the Armenian authorities’ response to the protests when he met with the No To Plunder leaders at the scene later in the evening. He assured them that security forces will not again forcibly disperse the crowd provided that it avoids violence and other “provocations” against his servicemen.
Moments later, Poghosian urged them to again consider Sarkisian’s offer to meet and discuss the energy tariff issue.
The activists rejected this offer on Monday but seemed, at one point, ready to accept it this time around. However, after a heated debate among themselves they eventually refused to hold talks with the president.
Armen Mkrtchian, one of the protest leaders, said the decision was backed by the majority of their supporters. He stood by their demands for Sarkisian to ensure that the energy tariff rise is annulled by Armenia’s Public Services Regulatory Commission.
Sarkisian has made no public statements on the price hikes and the resulting protests so far.
Shortly after midnight, the mostly young protesters were joined by three dozen former and current opposition deputies, Education Minister Armen Ashotian, prominent Armenian artists and other public figures. They stood in between the protesters and security forces armed with batons and shields.
One of the opposition lawmakers, Nikol Pashinian, said the “human shield” is meant to prevent fresh violence. “If somebody wants to perpetrate violence they can do that only over our bodies,” Pashinian told reporters. “We believe that renewed violence is inadmissible.”
Ashotian’s presence infuriated some protesters. With offensive chants, they demanded that he leave the scene. The minister, who is also a senior member of Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), looked untroubled by the hostile reception and refused to budge.