By Marianna Grigoryan
Shouting “A free, independent Armenia!” and “Now, now!” thousands of protesters streamed into Yerevan’s Freedom Square on March 17, holding the first opposition rally on the site since a 2008 confrontation when security forces left at least 10 people dead.
The square, which has been off limits to opposition rallies for the past three years, has symbolic importance for both the government and its critics, something underscored by opposition leader Raffi Hovhannisian’s decision to launch a hunger strike March 15 at the venue. The opposition’s return to the square fostered a mood of triumphalism among rally organizers, who are seeking to harness widespread public anger over galloping inflation to increase pressure on President Serzh Sargsyan’s administration.
“I have no doubt that the events in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere will happen in Armenia as well,” declared former president Levon Ter-Petrosian, the leader of Armenia’s largest opposition party, the Armenian National Congress (ANC), before moving into the square from the nearby Museum of National Manuscripts.
Ter-Petrosian quickly qualified his comments to stress that opposition demonstrators would adhere to non-violent tactics. “Authorities will eventually yield to the people’s will,” he said. “Armenia will manage it [political change] effortlessly, without any upheaval.”
While calling on supporters to stay calm and organized, senior ANC member Levon Zurabian held talks with police to allow protesters to enter Freedom Square. Hundreds of riot police with shields had earlier encircled the area, blocking access.
The opposition hailed the agreement with law-enforcement officers to permit the rally to proceed on the square as a victory. “We are making the history of Armenia at this moment,” shouted ANC supporter Aram Manukian, board president of the All-Armenian National Movement. “We no longer tolerate these authorities.”
Ter-Petrosian, 66, at one point danced jubilantly with other opposition leaders on a platform to celebrate the opposition’s entrance into the square. Protesters seemed to feed off the confidence exuded by opposition leaders. “I will never forget this moment; we will win!” said one middle-aged woman, her voice trembling with excitement.
While Ter-Petrosian put the turnout at an eye-popping 100,000 protesters, police estimated the crowd at 9,000.
Where the opposition goes from here remains uncertain. During the March 17 rally, Ter-Petrosian repeated earlier calls for the release of remaining political prisoners, as well as seeking a guarantee that the opposition will be allowed to use Freedom Square for its next rally, scheduled for April 8.
While Ter-Petrosian is noted for his oratorical skills and powers of persuasion, many analysts said authorities’ decision to let protesters into Freedom Square had more to do with the presence in Yerevan of OSCE Chairman-in-Office Audronius Ažubalis, along with envoys from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), than with the opposition leader’s charisma. During a March 17 meeting with Sargsyan, PACE co-rapporteur John Prescott assured the Armenian president that notice had been taken of a recent administration pledge of tolerance for opposition rallies.
On March 17, authorities released two of the more than dozen jailed individuals that the opposition characterizes as political prisoners. The releases occurred before the start of the opposition rally, and thus were being interpreted by observers as a good-will gesture toward the visiting OSCE and PACE dignitaries, rather than a concession to the opposition. It was unclear whether the day’s turn of events represented a major twist in Armenia’s political drama, or was simply a tactical maneuver on the part of the administration. Government officials did not have any immediate comment on the protests.
Suren Surenyants, an independent political analyst who was formerly a senior ANC member, said Hovhannisian’s hunger strike may have spurred Ter-Petrosian to adopt a more active protest position. Many people slipped past police officers to visit the opposition leader during his two-day open-air hunger strike in Freedom Square.
“If it were not for his hunger strike, the opposition would not be so decisive today, perhaps,” commented Suren Surenyants. “The idea of Freedom Square is overestimated, and it’s a bit difficult to predict future developments.”
Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter in Yerevan and editor of MediaLab.am.