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Analysis: Former Armenian President Plans Mass Rally

By Ruzanna Stepanian --> Levon Ter-Petrossian (Photolur) Former Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrossian and the opposition parties that backed his candidacy in the February 19 presidential election reaffirmed on June 3 their intention to hold on June 20 their first major rally since the postelection clashes in Yerevan on March 1-2.

In a written statement, Ter-Petrossian's Popular Movement, an umbrella structure uniting more than two dozen opposition groups, offered to cooperate with the municipal authorities and the Armenian police in maintaining public order during the planned rally. Senior Ter-Petrossian aide Levon Zurabian told journalists that the organizers will formally ask the Yerevan mayor to authorize the gathering. But he made it clear they will urge supporters to converge on the city's Liberty Square even if that application is rejected.

The date of the planned demonstration is just three days before the start of the June session of the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) that will discuss Yerevan's compliance with a PACE resolution adopted in mid-April on the political situation in Armenia. One of the key demands of the resolution is the repeal of controversial legal amendments that enable the authorities to ban antigovernment street protests practically at will.

The authorities have been keen to thwart such protests since the deadly March 1 clashes between security forces and thousands of Ter-Petrossian supporters protesting against official results of the disputed presidential election. The violence left at least 10 people dead and nearly 200 others injured, leading to the imposition of a 20-day state of emergency in the capital.

The authorities initially maintained their de facto ban on opposition protests even after the end of emergency rule by enacting controversial amendments to the law on public gatherings, but in response to Western pressure, the Armenian parliament passed in the first reading in late May a bill easing those restrictions. Council of Europe officials have welcomed the move.

However, the Ter-Petrossian camp insisted on June 3 that the changes are "cosmetic." Its statement said the administration of President Serzh Sarkisian has also failed to meet other demands included in the PACE resolution such as the launch of an independent inquiry into the March 1 violence and the release of political prisoners.

Speaking at a news conference on June 3, Zurabian would not say what the Ter-Petrossian-led opposition will do if the police again cordon off Liberty Square and surrounding streets in the city center. He said only that the opposition would hold the authorities responsible for any ensuing violence.

On May 30, Ter-Petrossian's movement praised the revised and final assessment of the February presidential election released by the Organization for Security and cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Whereas the initial assessment made public shortly after the ballot was largely positive, the final report concluded that serious irregularities during the vote count and recount "devalued the overall election process." "While the 2008 presidential election mostly met OSCE commitments and international standards in the preelection period and during voting hours, serious challenges to some commitments did emerge, especially after election day," according to the OSCE final assessment. "This displayed an insufficient regard for standards essential to democratic elections and devalued the overall election process. In particular, the vote count demonstrated deficiencies of accountability and transparency, and complaints and appeals procedures were not fully effective."

"The OSCE has effectively abandoned its previous evaluations legitimizing Armenia's recent presidential elections, as the Popular Movement demanded," the opposition said in a statement commenting on the OSCE assessment. That statement said the OSCE observers' initial conclusion that the presidential ballot was administered "mostly in accordance" with democratic standards only emboldened the authorities to use lethal force against opposition protesters. "Had the evaluations been objective right from the beginning, the regime would not have dared to take the criminal step of slaughtering its own people," it claimed.

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