By Karine Kalantarian, Ruzanna Stepanian and Shakeh Avoyan
The Armenian authorities raised late Wednesday the possibility of arrests of opposition leaders ahead of their promised push for regime change, announcing criminal proceedings into their alleged calls for a “violent overthrow” of President Robert Kocharian.
The office of Armenia’s prosecutor-general said in a statement that it opened Tuesday a criminal case in connection with “the mainly unsanctioned” rallies held by the opposition Artarutyun (Justice) bloc across the country over the past month. It said that during those rallies leaders of the bloc “publicly insulted representatives of government” and threatened to “seize state power with violence and change constitutional order of the Republic of Armenia.”
A spokesman for the law-enforcement agency told RFE/RL that no charges have yet been brought against any individuals. He said that will be determined during the investigation.
Stepan Demirchian and other Artarutyun leaders contacted by RFE/RL said they are unaware of the development which will further up the stakes in the unfolding standoff between Kocharian and his political foes. They rejected the accusations.
“These steps show that the regime has lost its ability to think rationally and is resorting to overt provocations, illegalities and repressions,” Demirchian said. “We will be consistent in realizing public demands for restoration of constitutional order in our country. The opposition has never advocated violence.”
“They are the ones who usurped power with vote falsifications and other illegalities,” said Artarutyun’s Albert Bazeyan. “We want to return that power to the people and that will happen very soon. We want to restore, not to breach constitutional order.”
“Regardless of whether or not yet open criminal cases we will not diverge from our path,” Bazeyan added.
The prosecutors’ statement mentioned violence at Sunday’s Artarutyun rally in Gyumri, accusing the organizers of assaulting plain-clothes police and “dissident citizens.” Nine Artarutyun activists were arrested after their clash with law-enforcement officers which the opposition blamed on the local authorities. The latter deny any responsibility for the violence, saying that the oppositionists will be tried for “hooliganism.”
Speaking at a news conference earlier in the day, Artashes Geghamian, the leader of the National Unity Party, Artarutyun’s opposition ally, accused the Armenian authorities on Wednesday of planning “provocations” to disrupt the upcoming opposition demonstrations in Yerevan.
“They are planning provocations so that developments unfold in a chaotic way and can be suppressed with brutal force,” he said.
Geghamian claimed that police in the capital have already formed special squads tasked with carrying out “provocative” actions” among National Unity activists ahead of the party’s April 5 rally in Yerevan. He is expected to announce at the gathering the precise date for the start of “decisive” street protests to be jointly staged by his party and Artarutyun.
Geghamian, who has until now avoided any participation in the Artarutyun rallies, ruled out any separate deals with Kocharian and said a dialogue with the government could only center on ways of ensuring a “regime change without upheavals.” He urged the Armenian leader to hold democratic presidential and parliamentary elections and resign.
“This would be a unique opportunity for Mr. Kocharian to redeem himself,” Geghamian told a news conference.
Kocharian has repeatedly shrugged off such calls and warned that any attempt to “unconstitutionally” topple will meet with a tough government response. His most powerful associate, Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, said on Wednesday that the authorities have “no desire” to use force against the opposition.
“But we are obliged to maintain law and order and will do just that,” Sarkisian told reporters, accusing the opposition of planning to “shed blood.” The political situation in Armenia is “quite tense,” he added.
But Prime Minster Andranik Markarian sounded more untroubled by the opposition actions, saying that he sees “no danger to Armenia’s constitutional order.” He also said: “We refuse to hold any discussions on regime change with them. They are making demands that can not be met.”