Thursday, February 21, 2008
Ter-Petrosian Claims Military Support; Permanent Protests Begin
By Marianna Grigoryan: 02/21/08

As thousands of protestors gathered in Yerevan on February 21 for a second day of demonstrations against Armenia’s presidential election results, lead opposition candidate and former President Levon Ter-Petrosian declared that two key senior military officials have opted to support his movement. The government and the ruling Republican Party of Armenia have denied the claim.

According to Ter-Petrosian, who officially lost to government candidate Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian in Tuesday’s presidential election, two deputy defense ministers -- General Manvel Grigorian, leader of a prominent Nagorno Karabakh war veterans group, and General Gagik Melkonian -- support his call for the results to be thrown out. Ter-Petrosian gained 21 percent of the vote compared with 52.8 percent for Sarkisian, according to the latest official figures.

"Manvel Grigorian and Gagik Melkonian have declared that they stand next to people and will defend the candidate who has deserved people’s trust," Ter-Petrosian told the crowd gathered outside of Yerevan’s Opera House in Liberty Square. "They have also declared that they won’t allow the army to interfere in politics and be used against its own people."

Without elaborating, Ter-Petrosian added that negotiations are being conducted between the two deputy defense ministers and Chief of the General Staff Seyran Ohanian. The former president expressed confidence that the whole army command would join the two deputy ministers.

The two deputy defense ministers have not yet made a public statement, but the defense ministry has categorically denied the news.

One close associate of Grigorian who said that he had attended the discussions between the general and Ter-Petrosian, affirmed the information, however. "If the people are with Levon, he is with the people," the associate, who asked not to be named, said in reference to Grigorian. "The general has always taken the side of the people."

The source has told EurasiaNet that the two generals plan to address the opposition rally on February 22.

If it occurs, such a move could arguably bring considerable dividends to the Ter-Petrosian campaign and encourage other groups to sign on board. Deputy Defense Minister Grigorian heads the Yerkrapah Union of veterans from the Nagorno Karabakh war with Azerbaijan. Already, one member of the governing Republican Party of Armenia, one member of the party’s parliamentary faction, and five members of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation have joined the Ter-Petrosian camp out of sympathy with other groups of Karabakh war veterans. [For details, see the Armenia: Vote 2008 archive]. An additional Republican Party member, parliamentarian Hakob Hakobyan, has also switched sides.

Some form of movement appears to be occurring in other opposition groups, as well. At the Thursday rally, Heghine Bisharian, the campaign manager for rival opposition candidate Artur Baghdasarian, urged protestors to "fight to the end" against falsified election results. Alliance talks between Baghdasarian and Ter-Petrosian had earlier failed.

In a separate development, the Central Election Commission has reportedly begun vote recounts for several polling stations.

For now, neither the government nor the ruling Republican Party of Armenia is giving any public sign of disturbance at the announcement about the deputy defense ministers’ reported decision. As has the defense ministry, a traditional Sarkisian stronghold, the prime minister’s Republican Party of Armenia has dismissed the claims.

"As he has before, now as well Mr Ter-Petrosian bases his campaign and actions on spreading misinformation," commented senior Republican Party of Armenia member Armen Ashotian. "These statements have no prospect and are made solely to stir people’s emotions. There is no logic in what the opposition has been doing."

The campaign on February 21 announced the start of "non-stop protests" in Liberty Square.

The opposition demands cancellation of the election results, the arrest of individuals who committed election fraud within 24 hours, and that public television provide live coverage of the rallies. Opposition leaders’ comments and speeches and the rallies in central Yerevan have not been broadcast since the February 19 election.

"If our requests are not met, we will do what we should do," senior Ter-Petrosian supporter Nikol Pashinian commented to EurasiaNet.

For now, the plan of action appears to be construction of a tent city in front of the Opera. With syncopated Armenian music blaring from loud speakers, protestors began to set up tents, heaters and grills on Thursday night. Roughly half a dozen had been erected by mid-evening, with protestors -- and the occasional opposition leader -- often breaking into traditional dance. Amidst frigid temperatures, a growing crowd of sympathizers and curiosity seekers milled around, listening to speakers or watching the tent construction.

On the square, police were non-existent; a small detachment of police vans and riot police, however, had taken up position a few blocks away.

A huge portrait of Serzh Sarkisian -- painted onto the side of a bus parked across from the Opera House -- surveyed the scene.

In a Republican Party statement released earlier on February 21, the prime minister noted that "everyone has the right to free speech and expression of their own opinions," though cautioned that "disturbances, provocation of instability and violence have no place in a democratic country." Law enforcement forces, however, will interfere with the protestors only if necessary, the statement said.

Editor's Note: Marianna Grigoryan is a reporter for the weekly in Yerevan.