Armenia’s Mark March 1 Clashes

YEREVAN (Combined Sources)–Thousands poured into the streets of Yerevan Sunday to rally on the first anniversary of the country’s deadliest political clashes since the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union.

In a protest not sanctioned but tolerated by the Armenian authorities, demonstrators marched through the site of the March 1, 2008 clashes between security forces and opposition protesters that left ten people dead and more than 200 others injured.

Hundreds of Armenia’s Saturday night lit candles and placed flowers at the site outside the Yerevan mayor’s office where thousands of people had barricaded themselves followinc the break-up of non-stop oopisiton protests in the city’s Liberty Square.

The crowd Sunday silently filed past the granite plinth following a rally outside the Matenadaran institute of ancient man’scripts led by former president Levon Ter-Petrosian. The demonstration took place peacefully, with police officers deployed along its route making no attempts to disperse it. Protesters later marched through Yerevan to the area near the French embassy where the clashes took place, before laying flowers and dispersing peacefully.

"I came here today because I want justice," said one of the protesters, 57-year-old Siran. "I want those responsible for this tragic event and for the deaths of these 10 people to be punished. The government refuses to punish them, so it should go."

Other protesters called for the release of dozens of people jailed following the unrest, including a former foreign minister and several other senior opposition leaders who are still on trial.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch last Wednesday accused Armenia of conducting "politically motivated" trials against the opposition while failing to investigate the use "excessive force" by police during the clashes.

As was the case during the previous opposition rallies, the authorities appeared to have seriously restricted Yerevan’s transport communication with the rest of the country on Sunday in order to lower attendance at the rally.

President Serzh Sarkisian, meanwhile, paid his respects to the two police servicemen and eight civilians killed in the clashes, lighting candles in their memory at Yerevan’s Surp Sarkis church. For his part, Catholicos Karekin II presided over a prayer service for the victims at the main cathedral of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Echmiadzin.

In a 45-minute speech at the Matenadaran rally, Ter-Petrosian again blamed the authorities for the bloodshed.

It was the first opposition rally since a moratorium on anti-government street protests in the capital declared by Ter-Petrosian and his Armenian National Congress (ANC) on October 17. Some ANC supporters hoped that it will mark the start of a fresh opposition push for power similar to the massive non-stop rallies held in Liberty Square in the wake of the February 2008 presidential election.

Ter-Petrosian, who had touted his 2008 campaign as a “classic bourgeois-democratic revolution,” made clear on Sunday that he is now against attempts to effect “immediate regime change” and favors instead a “prolonged struggle” with the Sarkisian administration.

“Any regime change must take place through solely constitutional means. Namely, by means of legal elections, which is the only guarantee of establishing a democratic state. And we will achieve such legal elections,” added the former president.

Armenia’s former president only drew moderate applause from the crowd after finishing the speech.

Ter-Petrosian went on to issue a dark forecast for the country, predicting a “drastic fall in living standards” which he said will result from the global economic crisis. “I am deeply convinced that the country is simply descending into an abyss,” he said, predicting an impending collapse of the Armenian dram, skyrocketing unemployment, price hikes, massive cuts in government spending and other catastrophic socioeconomic consequences.

“The current crisis will most probably be more severe and more difficult to overcome than even the crisis of the early 1990s, which occurred in a healthy global economic environment,” he added, referring to the first years of his presidency that saw Armenia’s Gross Domestic Product shrink by more than half and its economy plunge into ruin.

Ter-Petrosian said another anti-government rally would be held on May 1.

Analysts have warned that Armenia remains politically unstable and that potential losses of thousands of jobs due to the global economic downturn could spark further turmoil.

The Armenian government is bound to brush aside this apocalyptic scenario. Sarkisian and other high-ranking officials insist that they have a realistic strategy of minimizing the fallout from the global downturn. The success of that effort hinges, in large measure, to large-scale external assistance. The government has already secured more that $1 billion in assistance pledges from the World Bank and Russia.

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