Starting last Wednesday the opposition faction led by former president Levon Ter-Petrossian started to hold daily protests. Ter-Petrossian as people who follow the news and this blog know was now president-elect Serge Sargsyan’s main challenger in the February 19 elections. His movement migrated to Liberty Square which basically surrounds the Opera House located in the city’s center. Ter-Petrossian’s mouthpiece and mascot, Nikol Pashinian who is the editor of the paper Armenian Times (Haykakan Zhamanak), vowed that they would not leave Liberty Square until new elections were called and encouraged their followers to do the same, as they claim that the elections were falsified even though Ter-Petrossian trailed Prime Minister Sargsyan by over 30 percentage points, thereby blowing him out of the water. Naturally, there were irregularities in that countless people were taking bribes worth 5,000 dram to vote for Sargsyan or in the case of government employees were threatened with losing their jobs if they didn’t cast a ballot for their boss. But I am not sure if that constitutes a reason to hold new elections as the people have a choice to say “no” and vote with their hearts since they are supposedly living in a democracy, and ultimately no one can tell them how to vote.
In any case, those people are still out there, having pitched tents across the square. I went there on Saturday night and again last night to observe what was going on. There were a couple thousand people there at around 10:30, but a friend of mine said that there were even more when she attended the show—which is what it is—two hours beforehand. The public benches that line the square, which is a semi-circle, were reassigned into several square blocks. Within each bench block about 10-20 people sat around a bonfire lit in the middle trying to keep warm. The square now resembles a refugee camp. In between tents people have lit bonfires—probably not a good idea since they can catch fire but whatever, as they say here. The place was littered with plastic bags, food wrappers, cigarette butts and naturally sunflower seed shells, as everyone’s favorite snack was in plentiful supply. There is a stage erected near the steps leading to the entrance of the Opera House, where speakers spread their wisdom to the masses, also chanting slogans such as “Serge Go Away,” “Levon, Levon” “Victory,” and “Struggle, Struggle Until the End.” In fact someone managed to record a dance mix incorporating Pashinian’s voice chanting the latter phrase, which they played last night. In between speeches, usually made by Pashinian, they blast music, virtually all upbeat popular songs performed by Armenian dancehall favorites. So the place has basically turned into a circus, with curious people strolling through the crowd eating toasted seeds and peanuts.
Apparently each day an estimated 40,000 people attended the show to hear what Ter-Petrossian has to say. He has been spreading the same message--that the elections were not fair, the authorities rule in a totalitarian-type of regime, the regime’s leaders must resign then leave the country, and so on and so forth. But this movement for change will not go anywhere because the majority of citizens simply do not care. If they did, young and old alike, they would be attending in the hundreds of thousands, making demands for the changes they expect. I work with nearly 25 people, most of them under the age of 35, and only about five of them bothered to attend any one of the rallies during the last week (myself included). They are not there on a daily basis because they do not believe in Ter-Petrossian and the change he can supposedly bring, it’s very simple. Of course supporters of the current regime will not go so we can discount them, but they arguably represent the majority of the populace, whether we want to believe that or not.
Meanwhile Ter-Petrossian has earned the support of diplomats and politicians or rank-and-file members of opposing political parties such as the ARF-Dashnaktsutiun and even the ruling Republican party. Even some defense ministry officials have “joined” his movement. Two opposition leaders were supporting him long before the start of his campaign. Others backing him are being arrested left and right.
Yesterday Sargsyan held his one rally at Republic Square pleading for citizens to have faith in him to a crowd of about 10,000 people. Sargsyan promised power-sharing deals with opposition forces. In the meantime Ter-Petrossian supporters were being bused in and left off at Republic Square, handing their Republican Party flags to leaders of the opposition movement. Apparently at one point opposition supporters marched to the government building on Republic Square chanting their infamous slogans. Naturally there were police guarding the building and others such as the one housing the Central Election Commission.
I think some people, intellectuals and political junkies mostly, were waiting for a colored revolution to take place in Armenia this year. Unfortunately such an expectation is a long time coming. Armenians were back to business as usual the morning after the elections. Much of Ter-Petrossian’s support seems to be coming from middle-aged men who judging by their faces were disappointed and burned hundreds of times during the last 20 years, surviving bankruptcy, war battles, unemployment, and general misery. He apparently is using university students to suit his own purpose and megalomania, demanding that they refuse to attend class on the basis that their “university is Liberty Square” as he put it. Apparently the people camped out there are encouraged to stay for another one or two weeks. But it was strange to see the dozens of taxis that lined Tumanian Street last night waiting to take the revolutionaries by day home.
Now what is going on and what will happen is anyone’s guess, and I am sure everyone has their own theory. Some are concerned that things will get violent and the authorities will crack down. Others are hopeful that new elections will be called—highly doubtful at this point judging by the lack of urgency as surely they would have been called by now if they really wanted that. In my opinion, this will all end fairly soon. I think the authorities have some kind of deal with Ter-Petrossian to have his post-election oppositionist say since a repression of free speech would make Sargsyan look very bad in the eyes of the West and even Russia. Once Ter-Petrossian receives a phone call to put a stop to it, he will tell everyone to go home. I really do not think he wants things to become violent, because reality has proven that it is not worth it at this point as he simply does not have enough support. Yet I commend the people who remain at Liberty Square day and night for standing by their principles and anticipating that the justice they demand will be served. They are the real heroes, certainly not the leader they are rallying around.
Many citizens of this country—I would not say most—are living the high life at present. You can debate all day about whether things began to improve during the last years of Ter-Petrossian’s presidential run or during the Kocharian era. Nevertheless people in Armenia have never had it so good, and they don’t want to sacrifice the riches that are at their fingertips for a “revolution” that will undoubtedly destabilize the socioeconomic situation as it could feasibly implode in such a scenario. Conditions in rural areas are stagnating and only getting worse—hopefully this Millennium Challenge Account funding that Armenia is receiving will alleviate those dire socioeconomic issues, no one can say. But the downtrodden of Armenia will not get the change they expect until they rally around someone they can believe in wholeheartedly. It is obviously not Ter-Petrossian judging from the numbers not to mention the actual count of people interested. I am not certain who will be their savior, nor is perhaps anyone.
RFE/RL has been following the events very closely. You can read some very informative, concise articles about what is happening here and here. But possibly the best coverage can be found at Onnik Krikorian's blog.