Armenia’s opposition protests to demand president’s resignation

Armenia’s opposition protests to demand president’s resignation



An estimated 6,000 protesters gathered in Armenia’s capital on Friday
to call for the resignation of President Robert Kocharian, defying a
government ban on opposition protests in the poverty-stricken former
Soviet republic.

The protest was a show of strength by Kocharian’s opponents, after
police used water cannon and stun grenades to break up the last mass
demonstration earlier this week.

Opposition parties in Armenia, a nation of three million people in the
Caucasus mountains, have been staging a wave of protests, drawing
comparisons with last year’s “rose revolution” which ousted the
leadership in neighbouring Georgia.

There is widespread discontent in Armenia over low living standards
and flawed elections, but analysts say Kocharian is too strong, and
the opposition too weak, for the Georgian scenario to be repeated

The atmposphere in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, was tense on Friday,
with many people fearing a repeat of the clashes with police earlier
this week which left dozens of people injured.

There was only a handful of police in evidence at the protest, in a
park at the end of Mashtots Avenue, Yerevan’s main thoroughfare.

But outside the nearby government compound, which houses the
parliament building and Kocharian’s office, there were busloads of
interior ministry troops, military ambulances and trucks carrying
rolls of razor wire.

The compound was the scene of this week’s clashes with police and
Kocharian has warned the area is strictly off limits to protesters.

Protesters at Friday’s rain-soaked rally chanted “Kocharian out!” and
waved placards claiming the 50-year-old Armenian president was at the
head of a military junta.

“There is no place for Robert Kocharian any more in Armenia’s
political life,” said opposition party leader Artashes
Geghamian. “What sort of leader is he if he can only talk to his own
people from behind police barricades?”

The wave of protests has been fuelled in part by opposition claims
that Kocharian rigged a presidential election last year to secure a
second term in office.

“I came here to defend my rights and to help remove this illegitimate
leader,” said Ayk Mkhrtchian, a 23-year-old unemployed man. He had
come to the protest with a European Union flag, because, he said:
“Europe stands for humam rights and so they are on our side.”

The protests’ leaders said they would not be calling on their
supporters to march on the government compound this time but they
promised another mass demonstration for next Wednesday.

Kocharian has called the opposition protests “extremist” and vowed to
take firm action. But he has been chided by the US State Department,
which has said the police’s strong-arm tactics are “not conducive to

Armenia’s economy is almost crippled by an economic blockade imposed
by two of its neighbours, Turkey and Azerbaijan, because of historical

Although Kocharian has won plaudits for some economic improvements
during his time in office, critics say he has trampled on democratic
freedoms and surrounded himself by corrupt cronies while ordinary
people struggle in poverty.

Kocharian’s supporters meanwhile, say the opposition is recklessly
trying to provoke a confrontation to revive its flagging popularity.

“Of course there are problems and people are not living as well as we
would like,” Tigran Torosian, the pro-government deputy speaker of
Armenia’s parliament, told AFP. “But… holding protests is not going
to improve peoples’ lives.”

Armenia, the world’s first state to adopt Christianity, has a history
of political violence. The speaker of parliament and prime minister
were killed in 1999 when gunmen burst into the parliament chamber.

Western governments are anxious to see stability in the region. The
Caucasus is becoming a strategic crossroads for oil exports from the
landlocked Caspian Sea to western markets.