Symbol of freedom or reminder of violence?: Opposition, city authorities continue battle over key Yerevan square

Armenia’s opposition will launch its autumn round of activity on Friday with a public rally near ancient manuscripts museum Matenadaran.

But ex-president Levon Ter-Petrosyan’s Armenian National Congress (ANC) would rather stage its public gatherings in Liberty Square – a site from which it has been banned (though unofficially) since March 2008 when its nonstop demonstrations resulted in clashes with security forces, human deaths and destructions in the city.

ANC’s latest bid to stage a September 17 rally in Liberty Square was rejected by city authorities, who cited preparations for Yerevan Day celebrations in October as the reason. Before that, the square was closed because of construction work on a huge underground parking garage that lasted for nearly a year.

Small groups of opposition activists were denied access to the square even after it reopened to the public in May. Arguments between police and protesters over the square provoked several scuffles in which some opposition activists were detained.

The new political season opening with the September 17 rally is likely to be marked by the opposition’s new “operation” on regaining Liberty Square.

The “square regaining” attempts through opposition activists made since May 28 have so far been unsuccessful. Two activists were detained as a result of clashes with police in the process. David Kiramijyan and Sargis Gevorgyan are charged with hooliganism, disturbing public order in a gross manner and using violence against a representative of the authorities.

This time the opposition uses a new tactic, as on a daily basis it sends notifications to the municipality about a planned ANC rally in Liberty Square for different days. And in what has already become a routinely executed procedure the municipality replies that the square is busy and assigned to another event on that day, rejects the bid and suggests the opposition gather at some other place.

But the opposition insists it will continue to inundate the City Hall with applications and will continue to dispute the rejections in court, going through all judicial instances till the European Court.

“And when we run out of patience, we will announce that we will hold a rally in Liberty Square and we will go and do that,” says ANC coordinator Levon Zurabyan.

After the bloody March 1, 2008 events Liberty Square has been a bone of contention between the government and the opposition. The square, which is a symbol of democracy and victory going back to late Soviet times, was immediately turned into a construction site as the city began to build a huge underground parking garage. After the construction was completed and the square was reopened in May, it turned into a family playground with attractions where children could have their fun while parents waited in the many nearby cafes.

“The authorities are, indeed, concerned that the entry of the opposition into Liberty Square will have the same ending as it was in March 2008. And that’s why they do not allow it access to it. Of course, it is not [legally] justified, but it is understandable,” says Armen Vardanyan, a Yerevan State University lecturer, who in the past participated in the opposition rallies and believes that “wherever a rally is held, if people believe in their leader, he will come anyway.”

Meanwhile, opposition leaders say regaining Liberty Square is not only a matter of “regaining symbols”, but also “restoring justice”.

“If the municipality’s decisions were lawful, we would go and hold our rallies somewhere else. But here we have a question – why should be obey illegal decisions,” senior ANC member Zurabyan told ArmeniaNow.

The municipality, meanwhile, says its decisions not to take notice of the opposition’s dozen or so bids for holding rallies [in Liberty Square] this September have been lawful.

Head of the Municipality’s Management Department Gagik Baghdasaryan says that still after the first notification it was said that Liberty Square would be busy until October 9 in connection with rehearsals for annual Erebuni-Yerevan celebrations.

“Everything is within the law. We had earlier received the notification of the municipality’s department of culture and naturally, as is required by law, the earlier applicant gets a priority,” Baghdasaryan tells ArmeniaNow.

Meanwhile, every time the opposition submits its notification, it takes pictures of the information board at the mayor’s office where, under law, there should be notices on applications for planned events for a particular day.

“There were no notices on the board on applications from state or non-governmental bodies or organizations about planning to hold any other event, which means that the rejection is illegal,” says Zurabyan, who simply believes that “the authorities are terrified”.

While different government representatives and pro-government politicians insist that they have “nothing to fear of”, still in May Deputy Chief of Police Robert Melkonyan said, “If we let them (a group of protesters into the square) today, thousands of them will pour into it later.”