“Condemning violence”, “concern” and “political dialog” are the most popular words in political life in Armenia this week, with dozens of statements made by diplomats, international institutions and politicians commenting on the government’s crackdown of the pro-oppositional demonstration early this week.
Coalition and opposition look for calm after Tuesday's storm.
While the country’s leadership called the opposition’s actions “political extremism” and speak of necessity of “constructive dialog” the oppositional parties qualified the April 13 events in which State force was applied as a “repression against people” and promised to renew calls for the President’s resignation.
The pro-oppositional rally organized by the Justice Bloc and National Unity party resulted in skirmishes between demonstrators and law enforcement bodies early Tuesday morning on Bagramian Avenue.
An estimated crowd of 10,000 demonstrators marched up Bagramian – one of the capital’s busiest thoroughfares – at about 6 p.m. Monday (April 12). They were met by a blockade outside the Presidential Residence and were ordered to disperse.
Many had left by about midnight, but some 2,000-3,000 stayed, transforming the rally into something of a festival, dancing and singing and chanting for President Robert Kocharyan to give up his position.
After almost a seven hour confrontation law enforcement bodies broke up the demonstration using water canons and percussion grenades. Hundreds of people were injured during the clash, including police officers, journalists and rally participants.
The night skirmish was followed the next day by the arrests of opposition leaders and search of their apartments and offices. Over 100 people were arrested. Seventy were released within 24 hours, including members of the opposition parties, and 12 were sentenced to 15 days in prison.
Local and international human rights organizations sharply criticized the country leadership for the crackdown of the rally by using water canons and percussion grenades and called to punish those police officers who were involved in beatings.
In response the police stated that its action was adequate to aggressive and uncontrollable behavior of the protesters that endangered lives of simple citizens as well as police officers.
Hovaness Kocharyan, deputy head of one police department, argued that the crackdown on the demonstrators did not go beyond the boundaries. Citing a clause from the law, the police officer said police have the right to use physical force when arresting a suspect or preventing a crime, but admitted that in some cases innocent people may suffer.
Dancing turned to running when police intervened
However two journalists of a daily pro-opposition newspaper and a veteran cameraman of ORT Russian popular TV channel say they were wittingly beaten by police who also broke their cameras. Oppositional newspaper reporter Hayk Gevorgyan from “Haykakan Zhamanak” says he identified himself as a journalist, but police continued to beat him.
Commenting on journalists beatings, Minister of Defense Serzh Sargsyan called for reporters to carrying proper identification during such events as the political rallies. “Just because someone has a camera or Dictaphone, it doesn’t mean he or she is a journalist,” Sargsyan said.
In a televised statement, Kocharyan said that the current political opposition actions are strange to the Armenian people.
“During the last year the opposition sang seven songs and all of them are about seizure of power,” he said, adding that if such behavior is continued a change of opposition will take place and not a change of power.
“Probably the opposition’s goal is to shed blood and accuse the authorities of an ‘anti-people regime’. People have to understand that “it’s not their fight,” he added.
The united opposition who claimed that the results of 2003 presidential elections are false blamed the ruling coalition in their contribution to their “indifference towards political crisis in Armenia.”
The coalition member parties said that the disagreements between the opposition and authorities erupted after the parliament majority refused to put on its agenda an opposition motion calling for a referendum on confidence in the president.
Thursday (April15) the coalition members (the Republican Party of Armenia, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation and the Orinats Yerkir party) put forward proposals in their joint statement.
The coalition said it is willing to jointly adopt key sections of constitutional amendments, to adopt some key articles of the Constitution, to make some alterations to Electoral Code, to work-out ways of the opposition participation in anticorruption campaign.
The statement said that the political coalition is ready to discuss the possibility of including the opposition's other proposals to the agenda of challenges the country faces and is inviting the opposition political forces to start the political process of dialogue any time in the National Assembly.
Opposition leaders, however, said dialogue would produce little effect. National Unity leader Artashes Geghamyan finds it senseless to start dialogue with the coalition, as he treats it as a powerless entity which has no role in decision-making processes.
Authorities made sure demonstrators could only go so far
Meanwhile a number of Western institutions released statements condemning the mass arrests of people and calling both government and opposition to enter into dialog.
The office of Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Yerevan said it would pay particular attention to the conditions of those who suffered injures during the police operation.
“The police action in the very early morning of April 13 aimed to forcefully disperse the citizens and journalists is of serious concern of us,” said Ambassador Vladimir Pryakhin, the head of the OSCE Office in Yerevan.
In his words, the violence against journalists became a separate issue of concern.
Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly President Peter Schieder wrote to the Speaker of the Armenian Parliament, Artur Baghdasaryan, asking for detailed information on recent events in Armenia, including the disruption of a regular session of parliament.
"Armenia has recently made considerable efforts to honor the obligations and commitments it undertook on joining the Council of Europe. But you are also aware of our concerns about the remaining shortcomings and the Assembly's decision in January this year not to end the current monitoring procedure until further progress has been made in this respect," Schieder says in his letter.
The United States called both sides to refrain from violence and expressed concern about the “sharp escalation” in tensions between Armenian government and opposition.
“Physical assaults, raids on political party offices and widespread arrests and detentions of opposition activity by the police do not contribute to creating an atmosphere for political dialogue,” Richard Boucher, State Department spokesman said in a written statement.