Thousands of people led by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian marched through central Yerevan on Friday to mark the 11th anniversary of the breakup of post-election protests in Armenia’s capital which left ten people dead.
The crowd silently walked from the city’s Liberty Square to the site of violent clashes between security forces and opposition protests which broke out on March 1, 2008. Pashinian laid flowers there, as did many other demonstrators.
“Today, on March 1, 2019, I want to make it clear that the return to the past is impossible in our country,” Pashinian declared in an address to the nation aired earlier in the day. “Armenia will not return to corruption, political persecutions, political violence and abuse.”
Pashinian urged Armenians to join him in paying respects to the victims of the worst street violence in Armenia’s history and “all political killings” committed since the country’s independence.
The 2008 unrest resulted from a disputed presidential election which formalized the handover of power from outgoing President Robert Kocharian to his preferred successor, Serzh Sarkisian. The main opposition presidential candidate, Levon Ter-Petrosian, refused to concede defeat, alleging serious fraud.
Ter-Petrosian supporters held nonstop rallies in Liberty Square until they were forcibly dispersed by riot police early on March 1, 2008. Thousands of them gathered and barricaded themselves elsewhere in the city center later on that day. Pashinian, then a newspaper editor, was among Ter-Petrosian associates who addressed them there.
Eight protesters and two policemen died in ensuing clashes. Citing the violence, Kocharian declared a state of emergency and ordered army units into Yerevan late on March 1, 2008.
The former Armenian authorities accused the Ter-Petrosian-led opposition of organizing the “mass disturbances” in a bid to seize power. Dozens of Ter-Petrosian allies, including Pashinian, were jailed on charges strongly denied by them.
Armenia’s Special Investigative Service (SIS) completely changed the official version of events shortly last spring’s “velvet revolution” which brought Pashinian to power. It now says that Kocharian illegally used the military against the protesters.
Kocharian was arrested in December five months after being charged with overthrowing the constitutional order. The ex-president denies the accusations as politically motivated, alleging a “vendetta” waged by Pashinian.
The SIS has also indicted but not arrested three retired Armenian generals. They and Kocharian could go on trial already this spring.
In his statement, Pashinian condemned the former regime for using “illegal force” against the protesters but did not mention Kocharian or any other suspects by name. He read out the names of the ten victims of the bloodshed instead. “The shots fired on the victims of March 1 were targeted at each of us,” he said.
Ter-Petrosian’s Armenian National Congress (HAK), from which Pashinian split in 2013, welcomed the premier’s decision to organize Friday’s march. The party’s deputy chairman, Levon Zurabian, and other senior members participated in it. But Ter-Petrosian himself did not show up.
Zurabian hailed the criminal charges brought against Kocharian and the generals. “Everything is clear,” he told reporters. “The constitutional order was overthrown and the army was used against the people.”
Unlike the HAK, the two opposition parties represented in the current Armenian parliament, Prosperous Armenia (BHK) and Bright Armenia (LHK), declined to join the Pashinian-led demonstration. Some of their senior representatives accused the premier of using the unrest anniversary for political purposes.
The BHK and LHK leaders laid flowers at an unofficial memorial to the March 2008 victims earlier on Friday.