Armenia: Opposition Supporters Remember 2008 Violence in Yerevan
Shouting "Punish the March 1 criminals," supporters of former president Levon Ter-Petrosian gathered March 1 to commemorate the one-year anniversary of clashes between security forces and opposition protestors that left at least 10 individuals dead. Police, water canons, and barbed wire fences filled Yerevan on March 1 this year, but the rally passed without incident. Many residents watched from their balconies, some joining in the protestors' chant -- "We will win!" Banners called for the release of political prisoners or an end to "tax terror," a reference to recently introduced income taxes for small-business owners. Police reported a turnout of 10,000; opposition members, questioning the police's math skills, claimed 100,000. One opposition claim, however, could be confirmed. Some inter-city bus drivers who travel from Armenia's north to Yerevan told EurasiaNet that the police warned them against working on March 1. The area contains some of Armenia's largest towns and a relatively political active population. "Some were stopped and sent back, although most people had no plans for going to the rally. But police would not allow them to come to the capital," according to one driver on the Gyumri-Yerevan line, who declined to give his name. Police had lined the road into Yerevan, he added. One police officer working on the highway northeast of Yerevan cited security as the reason for the heavy security presence. "We stop the cars that seem suspicious to us. We check the trucks -- mostly for the presence of weapons -- to keep the rally from escalating into mass disorder," said the officer, who declined to give his name.Only one bus arrived on March 1 at the Yerevan bus station servicing Armenia's northern provinces, station workers said. The usual schedule calls for buses to arrive each hour. "I can't say they have been prohibited from bringing people," commented station worker Nelli Tadevosian in reference to bus drivers. "People may have avoided coming themselves. The buses will not operate if there are no passengers." In a 50-minute address to rally participants, Ter-Petrosian took issue with the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe for not holding the government accountable for its alleged failure to meet the requirements of the three PACE resolutions on Armenia passed in 2008. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. No progress in addressing human rights issues has been made in the year since the 2008 protest crackdown, he said. "During a whole year, the authorities have done nothing to reveal the real culprits -- the murderers, the people who set fires, or the shop looters. On the contrary, they have spared no effort to cover their crimes up," Ter-Petrosian alleged. "If some international structures claim the opposite and are willing to believe there is, nevertheless, some progress in that matter, that's their business." The criticism follows on the heels of two reports that chastised Armenia for the March 1 violence. In its annual human rights report, the US Department of State noted that 2008 saw "significant setbacks for democracy in Armenia, including the worst post-election violence seen in the Caucasus in recent years." Meanwhile, a report issued on February 25 by the New York-based Human Rights Watch termed the clashes one of Armenia's "most serious civil and political rights crises since independence."Armenia's worsening economic problems could lead to stronger protests, Ter-Petrosian warned, adding that Armenia could again face the economic crisis of the 1990s -- a period that, ironically, coincides with Ter-Petrosian's own 1991-1998 presidency. "There are even harder times ahead fraught with the dangers of social and even humanitarian disasters," he predicted. "So the [Armenian National] Congress now needs to work with more caution and with a greater feeling of responsibility not to worsen the already bad situation."The Ter-Petrosian movement plans to hold its next Yerevan rally on May 1. Meanwhile, relatives of victims of last year's clashes are still struggling to make sense of the tragedy, which grew out of a contested election in February 2008. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]."My son was killed by the police, but no one has been punished yet for that. What was my young son's guilt? He only had the courage to protest!" said Alla Hovhannisian, stroking a photo of her 23-year-old son, Tigran Khachatrian, who Hovhannisian said was shot with a Cheryomukha-7 gas-powered gun. The weapons killed three people during the March 1, 2008, demonstration. The prosecutor's office has stated that it knows the names of the police officers who had the weapons, but cannot identify who fired the shots. Members of Armenia's three-party governing coalition marked the day by attending a mass held at Etchmiadzin, the seat of the Armenian Apostolic Church. In Yerevan's main cathedral, President Serzh Sargsyan lit 10 candles in memory of the 10 people killed during the 2008 violence."We were victims as well," Alik Sargsyan, Armenia's police chief, told reporters in reference to the government. Using mass protests to change Armenia's government is "not possible," he added.Some rally onlookers only hope for an end to the ongoing tit-for-tat accusations between government and opposition. "We are tired of it. We witnessed the bloodshed, and the authorities and the opposition are equally guilty for that," complained neighborhood resident Milena Sargsyan. "Let them leave us alone!"
Gayane Abrahamyan is a reporter for the online weekly ArmeniaNow in Yerevan.
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