Significant Stride for Opposition: Police step aside as mass crowd enters Liberty Square

Significant Stride for Opposition: Police step aside as mass crowd enters Liberty Square


(Updated: 9:45 p.m.)
At 7 p.m. today 10s of thousands of opposition sympathizers led by Levon Ter-Petrosyan and bolstered by a two-day hunger strike by opposition Heritage party founder Raffi Hovannisian stood down a ring of police in riot gear, to enter without incident into Liberty Square from which they have been banned by authorities for nearly a year.

By 7:20 p.m. police, who had formed a barricade at 3:45 p.m. around the one-block-square perimeter of the Opera House (Liberty Square) had boarded buses and were leaving the grounds to the jubilant crowd – the biggest gathering the opposition has amassed since 2008.

Once inside the square, supporters flocked to greet Hovannisian.
As word of mouth news traveled through the center of Yerevan, scores of people from streets adjacent to the famed public gathering spot begin streaming to the scene.

Ter-Petrosyan’s Armenian National Congress estimated the crowd, which first gathered at Matenaderan Institute of Ancient Manuscripts at 100,000. In reality, the number is more likely half that or less, but still enough to overflow the grounds on which they rallied for the first time since March 1, 2008, when police stormed their makeshift camp there and started a day of clashes that resulted in 10 deaths. (Later, in a press release, the Armenian police put the rally turnout at 9,000).

Explaining the decision to allow protesters into the square, Yerevan Chief of Police Nerses Nazaryan told ArmeniaNow that "we have held a normal negotiation with the opposition and this time it seems that people are more conscientious and can behave normally."

The rally begin at 5 p.m., and after an hour Ter-Petrosyan deputy Levon Zurabyan called on the crowd to move down Mashtots Boulevard “and regain the square".

Stopping a few times along the way Ter-Petrosyan and other opposition figures appeared to be contemplating their movements, before turning down Tumanyan Street and entering the square from the Northern Avenue side.

Hovanissian, Armenia's first Minister of Foreign Affairs under Ter-Petrosyan's presidency, has spent the past two days and nights on a public bench in the square, after announcing a hunger strike. His action is a revolt against what he calls an illegitimate government, and specifically against a memorandum of agreement signed by the ruling coalition in which three parties agreed to cooperate in expanding their already-overwhelming dominance in the National Assembly and in President Serzh Sargsyan's cabinet, and also against keeping the opposition out of Liberty Square.

Once inside the square, supporters gathered around the bench where Hovannisian, appearing tired, told followers that the turn of events is a "victory", but that he will continue his strike indefinitely.

Today's symbolic victory by the opposition comes as the capital is visited by Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe co-rapporteurs, a coincidence that may have had bearing on whatever decision was taken by authorities that resulted in police stepping aside.

For about an hour the crowd waited while a public address system was brought the surreal scene in which a sea of protesters mostly in black was broken up by the colorful and odd-for-the-occasion inflatable children amusements that are fixtures on the grounds since the square was renovated and reopened last May.

In addressing the crowd Zurabyan talked about a "velvet" or bloodless revolution.

While waiting, some in the crowd chanted "hima, hima" (now, now) calling for immediate action, as Zurabayan shouted for restraint and for peace to be maintained.

Senior ANC member Aram Manukyan urged people to "trust" Ter-Petrosyan and said it was the first victory, but only the beginning. "Believe us, we have calculated everything," said Manukyan.

The crowd was also energized by news that two "political prisoners" -- arrested in connection with the 03/08 riot had been released today, one of whom addressed the crowd.

The release of those still being held on charges from three years ago was one of 15 conditions Ter-Petrosyan read out at the opposition's latest rally, March 1. He had said then that whatever decisions affecting today's rally would be made in response to how authorities react to his demands, which President Sargsyan's ruling Republican Party of Armenia called an unacceptable "ultimatum".

At around 9 p.m. Ter-Petrosyan began his address to the crowd saying that over the past two years, Yerevan Municipality has more than 100 times (and by three different mayors) rejected ANC applications for permits to hold meetings in the square, adding that their refusal violated the need for dialogue between a society and its leaders.

He said that another application will be filed seeking approval to hold the next opposition rally April 8 in the square. "Let them refuse the request of 100,000 people," he challenged.

Concluding his remarks after about 20 minutes, Ter-Petrosyan repeated his demand for release of prisoners, and called for authorities to produce details of the killings that took place March 1, 2008.

Following Ter-Petrosyan's speech, Hovanissian made a statement, saying: "This entrance (into the square) symbolizes the future of our nation, which is freedom. This victory comes not because of the first president, not because of me, but by the will of the people."