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Armenia: Political Tensions Grow

Opposition coalition organises protests in an attempt to bring about a "rose revolution" of its own.
By Tigran Avetisian

Armenia's opposition is threatening to stage mass rallies in an attempt to bring down President Robert Kocharian's government, despite a warning from the authorities that disorder will not be tolerated.


Stepan Demirchian, leader of the Justice Bloc, and Artashes Geghamian, chairman of the National Accord party, announced this week that they would join forces in a series of street protests starting on April 9. The goal, they said, was "to change power in Armenia".


A taste of what may lie ahead came shortly after the April 5 announcement when National Accord protestors took to the streets in the capital Yerevan.


Police overruled an earlier agreement and blocked the protestors from congregating in a square in front of the Matenadaran building. Traffic was blocked as the demonstrators moved on to a nearby location.


Unidentified persons in civilian clothes then attacked journalists and smashed their cameras. The police observed but did not interfere. Various objects, including eggs, were thrown at the speakers from surrounding buildings and there were reports of some participants being beaten up.


Geghamian announced that "violence was committed by guards of those oligarchs who are closest to Robert Kocharian".


The president had previously stressed that any attempt to drive him out of office would not be tolerated. In a special television address, he said, "If the opposition attempts to overthrow the government by violent means, the legal system of the country, acting within the framework of its lawful opportunities, will resist such actions, thus protecting the constitutional order and stability in the country."


This was widely perceived as a warning that the authorities were prepared to use force - a prediction that came true after dozens of activists were arrested at the April 5 protest.


Some in the opposition say that Armenia could now undergo something similar to the "rose revolution" in neighbouring Georgia, where huge crowds gathering in Tbilisi forced the resignation of then president Eduard Shervardnadze following disputed parliamentary elections.


But others believe that the situation in the two republics is markedly different, and that such predictions cannot be made.


Republican Party member Galust Sahakian, part of the governing coalition, described the previous Georgian authorities as weak, "while in Armenia they are resilient". Demirchian also said that comparisons were inappropriate as "the political situation is different".


At the heart of growing crisis in Armenia are the results of the presidential election in February and March 2003 in which Kocharian defeated Demirchian in the second round.


The opposition claimed mass violations and received some backing from the OSCE and Council of Europe, whose observer missions said the elections failed to meet international requirements.


The government acknowledged that some violations had taken place, but said these were committed by both sides. This view was supported by observers sent from the ex-Soviet states in the CIS, who noted, "Incidents and violations that took place during the elections did not substantially alter the results."


Demirchian initially led demonstrations after the election, but the opposition then decided to attack the results through the constitutional court.


The court ruled the elections valid but admitted that there were violations and suggested that given the atmosphere of mistrust the national assembly should amend the law on referenda and hold a plebiscite on confidence in the authorities within a year - a ruling many found ambiguous.


Kocharian publicly criticised the decision, while Vahan Hovanesian, from the Dashnaktsutiun party, which is also in the ruling coalition, said, "The constitutional court had no right to exceed its authority and propose a referendum."


Following this decision, an attempt by the Justice Bloc and National Accord to introduce a bill on amendments to the law on referenda failed.


"Thus, the opposition had all channels of continuing its struggle within the framework of the constitution closed for it," said Demirchian. "This forces us to take more radical steps."


The various opposition parties decided to boycott parliament, then put their differences aside to form a single bloc, which began to organise demonstrations across the country.


After violence broke out at a protest in the country's second city Gumri, the prosecutor general's office accused the Justice Bloc of staging illegal demonstrations, insulting the authorities and seeking the "violent overthrow of government and change of the constitutional order in the Armenia", adding that criminal cases have been opened against those detained in Gumry.


The Justice Bloc responded by declaring that "criminal cases have been opened against the whole nation". The official statement continued, "Meetings [we have held with] the population demonstrate that a change of power is inevitable in Armenia. [The authorities] are using illegal actions to try to block popular demands for Kocharian's resignation."


The pro-government Dashnaktsutiun party recently called on the two sides to negotiate, but opposition leaders say it is too late. Justice Bloc member Viktor Dallakian said, "The best kind of accord now would be to hold a referendum."


Tigran Havetisian is a reporter for Aravot newspaper.


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