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latimes: Local Armenians take part in protest

By Ryan Carter, News-Press

GLENDALE — Local Armenians will join protests against Armenia’s president Thursday with rallies at the offices of the Consulate General of Armenia.

In recent weeks, protests have been building inside and outside of Yerevan, the Armenian capital, with a vocal opposition decrying the presidency of Robert Kocharyan, who was reelected last year to a five-year term under a cloud of charges including voter fraud and ballot stuffing.

In recent days, thousands of protesters have reportedly taken to the streets, marching on government buildings in Yerevan. They reportedly had violent clashes with police as recently as Tuesday, reports said. Several injuries — to activists and journalists — have been reported.

As the news comes in, Armenians in Glendale and Burbank — among the most densely populated areas of people of Armenian descent outside of Armenia — are beginning to mobilize and join the protests from afar.

Harry Sarafian, a Burbank resident and co-chairman of the Coalition for a Democratic Armenia, spent Tuesday trying to organize a protest tentatively set for 1 p.m. Thursday at the Consulate General of Armenia in Beverly Hills. Local Armenians have sent letters about the issue to local and national representatives, he said.

“The overall feeling is that we are drifting away from democracy,” Sarafian said. “We had it in the 1990s, but now you could call this a dictatorship, and the middle class is being eradicated.”

At the heart of the protest is what many have called an illegitimate presidential election last year, and an unfulfilled promise from an ensuing Armenian high court decision that a referendum on the president would be held this year, Sarafian said. That referendum has not come.

Kocharyan won the disputed March 2003 election in Armenia. But votes from citizens outside the country were overwhelmingly for challenger Stepan Demirchyan. In Los Angeles County, for instance, 3,256 Armenians voted for Demirchyan, while the incumbent garnered 285, according to the Consulate General’s Office.

Sarafian said protesters are demanding that the Armenian parliament either establish a referendum or that the president resign.

“It’s finally come to a head,” said Peter Darakjian, director of the Armenian Council of America. “From the election more than a year ago, it’s been on a daily basis that people feel that [Kocharyan] was put there unjustly, and that the constitutional court approved the election unjustly.”

Darakjian lamented that outside of Yerevan, Armenia has not seen economic reforms or improvements in public infrastructures, after years of hope in the wake of the country’s independence in 1991.

But not all wholeheartedly agree that the country has stagnated during Kocharyan’s regime.

“The country has come a long way,” said Pierre Chraghchian, president of the Glendale chapter of the Armenian National Committee. “If we compare today to four years ago, nobody can question whether the standard has improved. Any government should be questioned all of the time, but the ANC would differ in the approach being taken right now.”

The ANC was founded by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, which is backing Kocharyan. But the ANC officially is not a political arm, so it has taken no position on the political situation in Armenia, said Ardashes Kassakhian, executive director of the ANC’s western region. He added that any violence is deplorable.

The U.S. State Department has reportedly criticized Yerevan authorities for their crackdown on demonstrators. Authorities used water cannons and blank grenades to disperse about 3,000 demonstrators on Yerevan’s main thoroughfare early Tuesday, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

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