Boycotting the Boycott?: Friday rally attendance short of “mass protest”

In response to calls from Armenia’s opposition parties, rallies are being held in Yerevan this weekend, encouraging citizens to boycott Sunday’s referendum on a new Constitution.

(Likewise, the pro-government alliance has used state television and other media for their propaganda, and are sponsoring a pop music concert tonight, November 25.)

Today, while on-stage rehearsals for the pro-government concert took the larger portion of “Freedom Square” on the sunny side of the Opera House, a group of about a couple hundred huddled in the cold shade around composer Aram Khachataryan’s statue to hear former Minister of Foreign Affairs Raffi Hovannisian rally them to “make the authorities return the power to the people”.

(Earlier this week, Hovannisian threw the support of his Heritage party to the opposition coalition’s call for voters to boycott. See “Lashing Language”.)

Hovannisian’s message echoed earlier sentiments raised in a Thursday protest in the Malatia-Sebastia district of Yerevan, where popular opposition leaders Aram Sargsyan, Aram Karapetyan and (former opposition Presidential candidate) Stepan Demirchyan encouraged voters to not vote.

Eighteen oppositional parties have united in the boycott campaign, led by former Prime Minister Vazgen Manukyan, who says that the boycott is a strategic move, intended to make it more difficult for pro-government forces to “rig” Sunday’s vote. (See “Yes” “No” “Neither”.)

“I want to stress than the boycott is not a sign of protest or walkout from the referendum,” he told a news conference. “On the contrary, it is the most effective means of struggle, about which we spoke months ago.”

These days of mass rally (though today’s turnout hardly defines “mass”) are the first public oppositional movement since April of 2004, when police and special forces used brutal force to disperse a rally outside the Presidential Residence. During the night of April 11 a large number of arrests were made, many injuries were reported and journalists were beaten. International agencies condemned Armenian authorities for allowing the attack by law enforcement.

Initial turnout indicates that opposition sympathizers are not only boycotting the vote, but the rallies as well. Still, the United States Embassy in Yerevan sent out a warning to its citizens here, to stay away from protest sites.

During Thursday’s protest, one opposition figure was reported injured by police special forces, who say the man was resisting arrest. (See