YEREVAN -- Armenian opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrossian says he scored his biggest victory yet against the government while announcing and strongly advocating the start of a "formal dialogue" with it, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reports.
Addressing thousands of supporters in Yerevan on May 31, Ter-Petrossian portrayed a series of concessions made by President Serzh Sarkisian to his Armenian National Congress (HAK) as a "remarkable event that has no precedent in the Armenian reality."
He also denied making any secret deals with Sarkisian's administration and insisted that "regime change" and the holding of fresh presidential and parliamentary elections remains the HAK's main goal.
"Since we are ready for the dialogue, in the coming days we will decide the composition of our delegation...and present our agenda of the dialogue to the authorities. Naturally, the authorities have to do the same," Ter-Petrossian said in a more than hour-long speech delivered at the latest HAK rally in Liberty Square.
"A new political situation has emerged in Armenia which allows us to solve even the most acute issues by legal means," he declared. "We have a chance to show the world that we are civilized people with centuries-old traditions of statehood."
The sanctioned rally took place just days after virtually all jailed HAK loyalists were set free in accordance with a general amnesty initiated by Sarkisian and approved by parliament. The most prominent of those detainees, Nikol Pashinian and Sasun Mikaelian, received a hero's welcome from the crowd when they appeared at the rally.
Earlier, Sarkisian ordered a new criminal inquiry into the 2008 postelection unrest in Yerevan, while the city administration lifted a de facto ban on opposition rallies in Liberty Square. The authorities thus accepted the HAK's three main preconditions for the long-awaited dialogue on ways of defusing lingering political tensions.
"This must be considered the biggest victory registered by the three-year popular struggle so far," Ter-Petrossian told the crowd. "This is a victory not for the opposition, the Armenian National Congress, but, first of all, for Armenia's new civil society and, if you like, the whole Armenian people and ultimately our country and state."
The HAK leader, who served as Armenia's first president from 1991-98, claimed the Sarkisian administration fulfilled the opposition demands not only because of the HAK pressure but also because of upcoming "serious developments" in the peace process over the breakaway Azerbaijani region of Nagorno-Karabakh, the threat of social upheaval, and a new environment created by the popular uprisings in several Arab states.
"The authorities are forced to make serious concessions in order to woo the people and find even minimal support within the country," Ter-Petrossian said. "The main reason is the deplorable socioeconomic situation in the country and their realization of not being able to find a way out of it."
Other opposition groups critical of the HAK, as well as some commentators, claim that Ter-Petrossian has simply struck a deal with Sarkisian that will enable the president to at least complete his five-year term in office in 2013. They say the ex-president is also seeking government assurances that the HAK will have a solid presence in the next parliament, which is due to be elected next year.
Ter-Petrossian spent a large part of his speech on May 31 denouncing and deriding these "malevolent gossips." He claimed the HAK will press for fresh elections during the upcoming negotiations.
Ter-Petrossian also downplayed the fact that Sarkisian and his governing coalition have repeatedly ruled out a possibility for early elections, saying that the dialogue may well yield a "brilliant solution that is beneficial for the two sides and the people."
"For us, the dialogue is the only or the best opportunity to get the country out of this disastrous state by attempting to achieve mutual understanding between the government and the opposition," he said.
More radical opposition elements, some of them formerly affiliated with Ter-Petrossian's movement, believe that only a campaign of nonstop antigovernment protests can force the government to call early elections.
Ter-Petrossian rejected this view, stating bluntly that there is not enough popular enthusiasm for a fresh standoff with the government. "You may disagree with this," he said, "but political and civic activity necessary for effecting regime change is not yet sufficient in Armenia.... You may be here rallying, but many, many others are staying at home."
"Besides, such behavior inherently contradicts the creed of the Armenian National Congress, which categorically rejects the revolutionary way of struggle," he said, adding that the HAK will do everything to spare the country "upheavals and bloodshed."