Addressing thousands of his supporters at a rally on March 1 to mark the first anniversary of last year's post-presidential election violence, defeated opposition presidential candidate and former President Levon Ter-Petrossian said he will not seek to stage an antigovernment "revolution." He predicted that Armenia will soon face the kind of economic collapse that it suffered in the early 1990s during his first presidential term.
In a protest not authorized but nonetheless tolerated by the Armenian authorities, demonstrators marched across the site of the March 1, 2008 clashes between security forces and opposition protesters that left 10 people dead and more than 200 others injured. Leading the march, Ter-Petrossian laid a wreath at a pedestal from which some of his close associates (currently in jail or on the run) addressed thousands of people who congregated outside the Yerevan mayor's office following the predawn break-up of nonstop opposition protests in the city's Liberty Square. Hundreds of Armenians lit candles and placed flowers there on the night of February 28-March 1.
The crowd silently filed past the granite plinth following a rally outside the Matenadaran institute of ancient manuscripts. The demonstration went off peacefully, with police officers deployed along the route making no attempts to disperse it. As was the case during previous opposition rallies, the authorities appeared to have seriously restricted transport communications between Yerevan and the rest of the country on March 1 in order to minimize attendance.
President Serzh Sarkisian, meanwhile, paid his respects to the two police servicemen and eight civilians killed in the clashes, lighting candles in their memory at Yerevan's Surp Sarkis Church. For his part, Catholicos Garegin II presided over a prayer service for the victims at the main cathedral of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Echmiadzin.
In a 45-minute speech at the Matenadaran rally, Ter-Petrossian again blamed the authorities for the bloodshed. "For a whole year the authorities have done nothing to identify those primarily responsible for the crime -- the murderers, marksmen, shop looters -- because all of them are their people," he charged. "Quite the opposite. They have spared no effort to cover up their crimes."
"The authorities have drawn no lessons from the March 1 tragedy and have taken no steps to establish democracy and the rule of law, or to improve the domestic political atmosphere," he added.
It was the first opposition rally since October 17, when Ter-Petrossian and his Armenian National Congress (HAK) declared a moratorium on antigovernment street protests in the capital. Some HAK supporters hoped that it would mark the start of a fresh opposition push for power similar to the massive nonstop rallies held in Liberty Square in the wake of the February 2008 presidential election.
Ter-Petrossian, who had touted his 2008 campaign as a "classic bourgeois-democratic revolution," made clear on March 1 that he is now against attempts to effect "immediate regime change," and favors instead a "prolonged struggle" with the Sarkisian administration. "The old-fashioned ideas of revolution or uprising must be finally driven out of our country's political agenda," he said. "Until that happens, Armenia can have no chance of becoming a rule-of-law and democratic state. History knows virtually no revolutions that engendered democracy and welfare."
"Any regime change must take place through solely constitutional means. Namely, by means of legal elections, which is the only guarantee of establishing a democratic state. And we will achieve such legal elections," added the former president.
Those remarks were clearly not to the liking of some of the rally participants, who interrupted with chants of "Now! Now!" when Ter-Petrossian uttered the words "uprising" and "revolution." And he drew only tepid applause from the crowd after finishing his speech.
At the same time, Ter-Petrossian acknowledged that many of his supporters are craving for a repeat of the postelection rallies, and he assured them that he is ready to take "decisive actions" when the situation becomes "much more favorable" for the opposition. "When conditions are ripe, the Congress will not hesitate to exercise that right," he said.
Ter-Petrossian went on claim that Sarkisian and his four-party governing coalition "will destroy themselves" in the next few months after failing to prevent a "drastic fall in living standards" that he said will result from the global economic crisis. "I am deeply convinced that the country is simply descending into an abyss," he said, predicting the impending collapse of the Armenian dram, skyrocketing unemployment, price hikes, massive cuts in government spending, and other catastrophic socioeconomic consequences.
"Thousands of shops and other services firms will shut down," claimed Ter-Petrossian. "The class of small and medium-sized entrepreneurs will effectively cease to exist. That will lead to a redistribution of property and its concentration in the hands of monopolists."
"The current crisis will most probably be more severe and more difficult to overcome than even the crisis of the early 1990s, which occurred in a healthy global economic environment," he added, referring to the first years of his presidency during which Armenia's gross domestic product shrank by more than half as fighting raged in Nagorno-Karabakh and elsewhere across the South Caucasus.
The Armenian government is bound to brush aside his apocalyptic scenario. Sarkisian and other high-ranking officials insist that they have a realistic strategy to minimize and contain the fallout from the global downturn. The success of that effort hinges, in large measure, to large-scale external assistance. The government has already secured more that $1 billion in assistance pledges from the World Bank and Russia.
-- Emil Danielyan