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Armenian Opposition Reoccupies Key Square As Protests Grow In Strength

WATCH: Thousands of antigovernment protesters defied a government ban and poured into a key Yerevan square on March 17. (Produced by RFE/RL's Armenian Service)

By Emil Danielyan, RFE/RL's Armenian Service

YEREVAN -- Thousands of people in Yerevan defied a government ban on antigovernment protests and held a rally that opposition leaders warned could mushroom into an Arab-style revolution if the government doesn't compromise.

The March 17 rally, which attracted an estimated crowd of 10,000, was led by the main opposition group, the Armenian National Congress (HAK).

After brief negotiations with protest organizers, riot police allowed the crowd to enter Liberty Square and celebrate what the HAK described as a major "victory" in its drive to force President Serzh Sarkisian to call snap elections.

In a speech to the crowd before it entered the square, HAK leader and former President Levon Ter-Petrossian repeated his belief that Sarkisian will soon face the kind of popular uprising that has rocked Egypt and other Arab countries.

Ter-Petrossian said, "I absolutely don't doubt that what has happened in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere will also happen in Armenia. That is, the authorities will after all submit to the will of the people. But I also believe that unlike those countries, that will happen in Armenia smoothly and without upheavals."

But Ter-Petrossian also said that his opposition alliance is ready for a "dialogue" with the Armenian authorities if the government meets at least some of its demands, including the release of opposition members arrested following a disputed 2008 presidential election.

Robust Attendance

In an indication that Sarkisian is taking the renewed opposition protests seriously, two Ter-Petrossian loyalists were released from jail on March 17. One of them, Harutiun Urutian, received a hero's welcome in Liberty Square.

Thousands of opposition supporters demonstrate on Yerevan's Liberty Square on March 17.

Attendance at opposition demonstrations that began on February 18 has been robust, and the March 17 rally had the biggest crowd yet. Demonstrators ended the action at Liberty Square, the scene of the 2008 postelection protests that authorities brutally dispersed.

Ter-Petrossian himself was forcibly removed from Liberty Square on March 1, 2008, just hours before vicious clashes between his supporters and security forces that left 10 people dead. The sprawling square facing Yerevan's Opera House has since been effectively off-limits to Armenian opposition groups.

"Liberty Square has been liberated," Aram Manukian, a senior HAK representative, told the jubilant crowd, which was chanting "Levon!" and "Victory!"

As the crowd made its way into the square, some protesters rushed to greet Raffi Hovannisian, the leader of the opposition Zharangutyun (Heritage) party, who began a hunger strike there on March 15.

"This is the beginning of the victory of freedom," Hovannisian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service.

Hovannisian, whose party has a tenuous rapport with the HAK, was not approached by Ter-Petrossian. Nor did other HAK leaders greet or address him from the podium.

List Of Demands

At a March 1 HAK rally, Ter-Petrossian presented the authorities with a long list of economic and political demands, chief among them calling fresh presidential and parliamentary elections.

Sarkisian has not reacted directly to the demands but has said his administration is open to "realistic" and "feasible" opposition proposals.

Opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrossian greets supporters on Liberty Square.

While complaining that Sarkisian has essentially ignored his demands, Ter-Petrossian said he and his political team are ready to start a "dialogue" with the government if all remaining "political prisoners" are freed, an independent inquiry into the March 2008 bloodshed is begun, and opposition demonstrators are allowed to hold rallies in Liberty Square.

"We are not maximalists and have no intention to push the authorities into a corner for now," he said.

But Ter-Petrossian, who served as Armenia's president from 1991-1998, warned at the same time that Sarkisian could get a "real ultimatum" at the next opposition rally -- scheduled for April 8 -- if he fails to make major concessions to the opposition.

General Nerses Nazarian, the chief of the Yerevan police, could not say whether the opposition will be allowed to rally supporters in Liberty Square on April 8.

"We will talk, we will negotiate, and time will tell," Nazarian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service at the scene.

In remarks primarily addressed to his most radical followers, Ter-Petrossian emphasized that he is against "hasty" opposition steps and will instead continue to gradually ratchet up pressure on the Sarkisian government.

"We have no reason to hurry up or hasten events as we are convinced that the success of the struggle depends solely on our patience, self-confidence, serenity, and discipline," he said.

"It's the authorities that have to hurry up because a further delay could be fateful both for them and the country," he added.

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