A relatively strong turnout at a rally in Armenia on March 1 indicates the political temperature in the South Caucasus country is rising.
Thousands of people took to the streets of the capital Yerevan in support of the Armenian National Congress (ANC), the main opposition group to President Serzh Sargsyan’s administration. They were ostensibly commemorating the third anniversary of a violent clash in Yerevan connected to the disputed results of the 2008 presidential election. But marchers also were eager to show their displeasure with the Sargsyan administration’s handling of the economy.
The ANC, which is seeking to breathe new life into its opposition efforts, sought to tie mounting public discontent in Armenia to the protests that erupted in recent weeks in Arab states and North Africa. Rally participants carried portraits of Sargsyan along with those of disgraced and embattled North African leaders, including Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi, ousted Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak.
“I hope that something will be changed in our country; people are disappointed,” a young participant of the rally told EurasiaNet.org. Opposition supporters put the turnout total at 50,000 while law-enforcement officials asserted that there were no more than 10,000 protesters on the streets. Before the rally began, opposition activists complained that authorities implemented measures to hinder people from traveling to Yerevan from surrounding areas.
Former president Levon Ter-Petrosian, who leads the ANC, predicted that opposition support would continue to swell. “We are sure the forthcoming rallies will gather twice or three times more people,” Ter-Petrosian said. Addressing the March 1 crowd, Ter-Petrosian urged rally participants to create “a sort of forum for the public’s self-rule that will have the full authority to make decisions and put them into practice.”
Ter-Petrosian outlined a 13-point political agenda, which included a call for talks with Sargsyan administration representatives on early presidential and parliamentary elections, as well as the release of what the opposition considers to be political prisoners. Ter-Petrosian also urged measures to protect the most economically vulnerable segments of the population, including raising the minimum wage and a reversal of a ban on street vendors.
“This is our last warning to the authorities,” Ter-Petrosian said.
Ter-Petrosian and other opposition leaders in Armenia clearly feel emboldened by the protest movements that have overturned the status quo in the Muslim world, said political analyst Armen Badalian. Deepening economic hardships are helping to fuel public discontent, Badalian added. “The Armenian nation is emotional; people look at the [Muslim] world, and the events happening there produce a PR effect,” he said. “It is hard to predict future developments [in Armenia], but one can see that the [opposition] rallies have become increasingly crowded and very active.”
Hovhannes Sahakian, an MP from the governing Republican Party, derided Ter-Petrosian, asserting that the former president was not genuinely interested in opening a political dialogue. “Authorities have always voiced their readiness to start a dialogue, but proposing early elections as a key idea is not a dialogue but a demand,” Sahakian told Eurasianet.org. He also downplayed the notion that popular protests could threaten the government. “The problems are not so deep [as] to lead people to a social revolt,” he said.
Yervand Bozoyan, an independent political analyst, maintained that inflation and other forms of economic pressure had the potential to create a volatile situation. “There is not a single social [segment] in Armenia that can be pleased [with the current situation],” Bozoyan said. “An uncommon situation has emerged where, if the opposition makes the right move, it might lead to an explosion.”
Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter based in Yerevan and the editor of MediaLab.am.