On March 1, police and security forces in Yerevan resorted to violence to disperse thousands of supporters of former President Levon Ter-Petrossian who had taken to the streets to protest the official results of the February 19 presidential ballot that gave then-Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian 52.82 percent of the vote, compared with 21.51 percent for Ter-Petrossian.
Exactly five months later, on August 1, thousands of Armenians again congregated in Yerevan to express their support for Ter-Petrossian's demand for Sarkisian's resignation and his call for preterm elections.
In the wake of the March 1-2 crackdown, which resulted in at least 10 deaths, Ter-Petrossian was placed under house arrest, and parliament enacted legislation imposing restrictions on public gatherings and rallies that were lifted only on June 11 under pressure from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).
Dozens of Ter-Petrossian supporters were taken into custody. While a handful has since been released, at least 70, including three opposition legislators and a former foreign minister, remain in pretrial detention.
Addressing on May 2 a congress in Yerevan of the Armenian National Movement (HHSh) he founded 19 years earlier, Ter-Petrossian laid the blame for the March 1 clashes squarely on Robert Kocharian, who succeeded him as president in 1998. Ter-Petrossian said Kocharian "was the only official who could give an order for the use of force and to shoot at peaceful demonstrators." He added that as president-elect, Sarkisian should have prevented Kocharian from doing so.
Ter-Petrossian said that while he still did not acknowledge Sarkisian's election as legitimate, he accepted that the new Sarkisian administration is a "real political factor" and was prepared to embark on a dialogue with it, provided the Armenian leadership complied with the PACE demands for the release of his detained supporters and for an independent probe into the March 1 violence. He added that such a dialogue should contribute to the implementation of real reforms and creating "a normal field for political activity." He vowed to continue his "principled and determined struggle against this antipopular regime," while refraining from any move that could trigger "internal political upheaval and developments that could threaten the country's stability."
Since early May, Ter-Petrossian has convened four rallies, one in late June in the northern city of Giumri and three in Yerevan (on June 20, July 4, and August 1). Even though the Yerevan municipal authorities withheld official permission for the three rallies, police did not attempt to disperse participants. Attendance on June 20 and July 4 was estimated at between 8,000 and 10,000, and on August 1 at between 10,000 and 20,000.
Over the past three months, as the Sarkisian leadership continued to ignore the PACE demand for the release of detainees, Ter-Petrossian has hardened his position. At the same time, beginning in May, he has sought to strengthen his position as de facto head of a new umbrella opposition coalition that would comprise not only the HHSh, but also the smaller opposition parties and groups that backed his presidential bid.
At the June 20 rally in Yerevan, Ter-Petrossian said the only issue on which he is prepared to begin a dialogue with the authorities is the holding of preterm presidential and parliamentary elections. Two weeks later, on July 4, Ter-Petrossian gave Sarkisian four weeks to meet his demands for the unconditional release of Ter-Petrossian's detained supporters and for the dismissal of three prominent officials whom Ter-Petrossian held responsible for the March 1 crackdown: Deputy Prime Minister Armen Gevorgian, Sarkisian's chief of staff Hovik Abrahamian, and Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian. Hovsepian had earlier blamed Ter-Petrossian for the March violence, accusing him of resorting to the mass hypnosis of his supporters and other "psychological tricks."
Also on July 4, Ter-Petrossian announced the "maximum mobilization" of the public in support of his demands and in preparation for a further rally on August 1, at which he intended to announce the launch of his new Armenian National Congress (HAK). Sixteen parties formally signed the congress's founding declaration during the August 1 rally. None of them, however, is represented in parliament: Zharangutiun, the only opposition party that does enjoy parliamentary representation, has postponed a decision on whether to align with the HAK, but has not ruled out cooperating with it.
Addressing rally participants, Ter-Petrossian said the Armenian public will not accept Sarkisian's implicit dismissal of the January 2009 deadline set by the PACE for the release of his supporters and the conduct of an independent inquiry into the postelection violence, but, on the contrary, will demand that Sarkisian resign.
"It will resolutely continue the popular struggle and make Serzh Sarkisian’s resignation and preterm presidential elections the main slogan of our movement," he said.
Ter-Petrossian also delivered an entirely negative assessment of Sarkisian's first 100 days as president: "The only thing that Serzh Sarkisian did well during his 100 days in power is a further restriction of democratic freedoms and a systematic violation of human rights."
He also dismissed the ambitious reform program announced by Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian (no relation to Serzh), whom he described as lacking the muscle to tackle Armenia's "vicious" system of governance or combat corruption.
The next mass protest is scheduled for September 5.
Emil Danielyan of RFE/RL's Armenian Service contributed to this article