Opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian has given Armenia's political leadership late three more weeks to free his jailed loyalists and start a dialogue with his Armenian National Congress (HAK) or face an opposition push for power.
Ter-Petrosian set a new deadline for President Serzh Sarkisian as thousands of his supporters again rallied in Yerevan's Liberty Square in defiance of a government ban.
Riot police allowed the crowd to enter the square after a brief conversation with HAK representatives.
In his 35-minute speech, Ter-Petrosian insisted that the Sarkisian administration free all "political prisoners," agree to an objective inquiry into the 2008 postelection unrest in Yerevan, and guarantee opposition access to Liberty Square. He said all three demands must be satisfied before the next Armenian National Congress rally, scheduled for April 28.
"If that does not take place, then the Armenian National Congress will consider the possibility of dialogue [with the authorities] to have been exhausted and will be compelled to drastically change its tactic and the character of activities," he said, triggering "Levon!" chants from the crowd.
"We are still not inclined talk to the authorities in the language of ultimatums," added Ter-Petrosian. "But the people's patience has limits. Therefore, April 28 must be either a day of the beginning of dialogue or a day of the final watershed between the authorities and the public."
The HAK leader did not specify whether he is prepared to launch the kind of nonstop protests that followed the disputed presidential election of February 2008. He already issued what he called a "last warning" to the Armenian authorities on March 1.
Ter-Petrosian's right-hand man, Levon Zurabian, spoke of "resolute actions" that he said would "make the authorities sober up."
"We are calling on the people to start today a nationwide preparation for the launch of a campaign of civil disobedience across Armenia. And let nobody doubt that the people's patience is running out," Zurabian told the crowd before it marched to Liberty Square.
Zurabian said the authorities have still not met any of the demands voiced by the HAK since the launch of its campaign of antigovernment demonstrations on February 18.
The campaign, partly inspired by the antigovernment revolts in several Arab states, rapidly gained momentum, with the number of HAK demonstrators steadily growing in the course of last month.
But attendance at the April 8 rally, while robust, was clearly not stronger than at a March 17 protest. Police said 8,500 people took part in that event, while organizers gave much higher numbers.
Ter-Petrosian and other HAK leaders maintain that the main aim of their campaign is to force the holding of snap presidential and parliamentary elections. They say at the same time that Armenia's largest opposition force is ready to negotiate with Sarkisian if its three key demands are met.
The authorities freed two opposition members last month, reducing to six the number of Ter-Petrosian loyalists who remain in jail following arrests after the 2008 vote. The most prominent of those still in prison are newspaper editor Nikol Pashinian and former parliament deputy Sasun Mikaelian.
Ter-Petrosian spent a large part of his speech rebutting verbal attacks from other, smaller opposition groups that accuse the HAK of trying to monopolize opposition activity in Armenia. "That empty accusation addressed by some to the HAK is in fact nothing but a cheap way of justifying their own ineptness," he said in remarks apparently addressed to the Zharangutyun and Dashnaktsutyun parties.
"Organize your rallies," he said. "Persuade the people that the [Armenian National] Congress is wrong, that you are right. Make them follow you. And let us be in the last rows of the hundreds of thousands following you."
Ter-Petrosian also ridiculed his opposition critics' case for the emergence of a "third force" that would act as an alternative to both the government and the HAK. He went on to allege that they may be "extremely worried" about the possibility of a dialogue between the two rival political camps and would rather prefer to see the jailed oppositionists "perpetually" remain behind bars.