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Analysis: Armenian Opposition Issues New Ultimatum

The standoff between the Armenian authorities and opposition that resulted from the flawed February 19 presidential ballot and the violent police crackdown 11 days later on opposition supporters who rejected the official election returns looks set to continue.

Speaking on May 12 on Armenian Public Television, Levon Zurabian, who is an aide to former President and defeated presidential candidate Levon Ter-Petrossian, said that unless the Armenian authorities revoke by June 20 the restrictions on public meetings and demonstrations enacted by parliament in March, the opposition Pan-National Movement that supports Ter-Petrossian will defy that ban and convene a meeting on Yerevan's Freedom Square. Former Justice Minister David Harutiunian, who now chairs the parliament commission on legal affairs, pledged on April 22 that the legislature will ease the restrictions by the end of May, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported.

Freedom Square was the site of the mass protests that followed the announcement that according to official returns, the February 19 presidential ballot was won by then-Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian with almost 53 percent of the vote. Ter-Petrossian, who polled only 21.5 percent, claimed he had been denied an outright victory. The Freedom Square protests lasted until early on March 1, when they were broken up by police. A subsequent assault on opposition supporters later that day resulted in 10 deaths, including one police officer. Outgoing President Robert Kocharian declared a state of emergency that was lifted three weeks later, but the restrictions on public rallies enacted by the parliament on March 17 remain in force.

Ter-Petrossian's supporters initially sought to circumvent those restrictions by staging "protest walks," but police intervened. Then, on April 19, the Yerevan municipal authorities gave permission for a pro-Ter-Petrossian rally in Yerevan that was attended by several thousand people. But permission for a second such rally, to be held on May 5, was withheld.

On May 2, Ter-Petrossian convened a congress of his Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh) in a government conference hall in Yerevan. In his 90-minute address to that gathering -- his first public address since March 1 -- Ter-Petrossian said, as he had done earlier, that while he does not consider Sarkisian the legitimately-elected president, he is ready to accept his invitation to dialogue provided that the authorities first comply with the demands contained in a resolution adopted on April 17 by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).

They include conducting an "independent, transparent and credible inquiry" into the March 1 violence; the release of persons detained in the wake of those clashes "on seemingly artificial and politically motivated charges;" and the immediate repeal of the legal amendments effectively banning opposition rallies. Ter-Petrossian's staff estimate the total number of those detained or arrested at over 100; according to the Prosecutor-General's Office, 59 people have been formally charged. Those still in detention include several of Ter-Petrossian's closest associates within the HHSh, among them former Foreign Minister Alexander Arzoumanian.

Ter-Petrossian further told the May 2 congress that he thinks the only way to defuse the persisting tensions is to hold preterm parliamentary and presidential elections; at the same time, he admitted that neither the Armenian leadership nor the international community is likely to welcome that proposal, Noyan Tapan reported. And he argued forcefully that the HHSh should be restructured and strengthened, given that "it is obvious that thanks to its broad public support, the...movement will play a permanent and decisive role in all future political processes in Armenia," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported.

Ter-Petrossian further proposed that the two dozen mostly small opposition parties and groups that backed his presidential bid should form an alliance, to be called the Armenian National Congress, that might eventually coalesce into a single political party. But at least one of his backers was cool to such a merger: People's Party of Armenia leader Stepan Demirchian, who ran unsuccessfully against incumbent President Kocharian in the February-March 2003 presidential ballot, told journalists on May 9 that while the consolidation of opposition forces is welcome, it is "too early" to talk about merging parties, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported.

Meanwhile, the Armenian authorities have agreed to the PACE demand for an independent investigation into the March 1-2 violence, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on May 12, quoting Avet Adonts, a members of Armenia's PACE delegation. Adonts said the commission will be formed by the end of this month and include representatives of both parliamentary and extraparliamentary parties and "international forensic experts." And in a further small gesture of goodwill, two close Ter-Petrossian associates arrested in the wake of the March clashes, former deputy parliament speaker Karapet Rubinian and Union of Painters of Armenia member Tigran Baghdasarian, were released from detention on May 13, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported.

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