Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
Sunday 28 March 2004
Opposition Rally In Gyumri Disrupted By Violence, Arrests
By Emil Danielyan in Gyumri
An anti-government rally in Gyumri on Sunday was effectively disrupted by
violence and arrests of opposition activists in a further ominous sign of
serious unrest awaiting Armenia.
The demonstration organized by the Artarutyun alliance degenerated into
scuffles between opposition supporters and a handful of other people who
denounced President Robert Kocharian’s foes. A resulting fistfight ended
with four Artarutyun activists in police custody, forcing the organizers to
cut short the protest to try to negotiate their release.
Stepan Demirchian and other leaders of the bloc blamed the “provocation” on
the local authorities and the central government and vowed to continue their
growing attack against the ruling regime.
“Today we are witnessing the agony of this regime,” an uncharacteristically
furious Demirchian told the crowd of more than a thousand people. “The
Armenian people can not tolerate the rule of such thugs.”
The trouble began minutes after the start of the rally when a group of
women, whom many in the crowd described as “prostitutes,” raised banners
slamming the opposition and voicing support for Kocharian. They were
immediately surrounded and jostled by angry opposition supporters trying to
tear up the banners.
The scuffles unfolded to a backdrop of firecracker explosions that were
apparently set off by other government supporters hidden in the crowd. The
noise intensified during Demirchian’s speech, resembling automatic gunfire.
Also, eggs were hurled to the podium from which the organizers addressed the
protesters. One egg hit an opposition lawmaker.
The opposition leaders, struggling to calm tempers, faced a more serious
disruption when electricity powering their loud-speakers was cut off.
Although the power supply was restored 20 minutes later, tension rose
further as a brawl broke out between some opposition activists and a man who
apparently tried to approach Demirchian.
Four of them, including Artarutyun leader Albert Bazeyan’s driver, were then
overpowered and driven away by police officers dressed in plainclothes.
Police said later that the man beaten by the oppositionists was also a
policeman, raising the question of why the security official tried to
interfere with the rally.
The organizers say the local authorities informed them in advance that they
“can not guarantee the security” of the gathering because of staff
shortages. However, the presence of plainclothes police called this
explanation into question.
“It shows that the provocation was organized by the authorities and they
will be held accountable with all the strictness of the law,” charged
another prominent member of the bloc, Victor Dallakian. “It also shows that
Robert Kocharian is pinning his hopes on prostitutes and egg-throwers.”
Dallakian and Bazeyan later met with the police chiefs of Gyumri and the
broader Shirak region to demand the release of their supporters. The lengthy
talks yielded no results as of late evening, with the police chiefs
insisting that the latter be punished for assaulting a law-enforcement
official. The opposition leaders countered that the alleged victim did not
wear a uniform and was trying to disrupt a peaceful demonstration.
“Instead of taking measures to arrest those individuals who provoked all of
this, they punish the opposite side,” Bazeyan complained. “If they want to
open criminal cases, they must primarily target us, the organizers of the
Bazeyan said the violent incident, the worst since opposition rallies in the
run-up to last year’s presidential election, will not deter the opposition
from launching its campaign of street protests outside the main government
buildings in Yerevan. Dallakian mentioned April 12 as the most likely date
for its start.
Artarutyun was given a major boost last week when another major opposition
group, the National Unity Party of Artashes Geghamian, decided to join the
onslaught. Demirchian stressed this fact in his speech.
The government, for its part, has warned that any attempts at an
“unconstitutional” overthrow of Kocharian. The Armenian leader, still
reeling from his controversial reelection in the 2003 poll, has recently
reshuffled his security apparatus in preparation for the opposition