‘Trial period for establishment of democracy’ – defense minister on Armenia demonstrations
YEREVAN, APRIL 23, ARMENPRESS. Following 11 days of ongoing unrest in Armenia, defense minister Vigen Sargsyan held a press briefing Monday morning on the domestic developments of the country.
Vigen Sargsyan was re-appointed as Defense Minister on April 18. Sargsyan first took office in 2016.
Sargsyan (no relation to PM Sargsyan) argued that it isn’t good for a parliamentary democracy when the right to exercise freedom of speech and democratic freedoms starts contradicting with other components of the protection of law and law enforcement agencies are forced to step in.
“Actually I think it is a matter of tradition, time, that the opposition having parliamentary votes and the opposition only having a tool of street struggle starts to differentiate from one another, because the beauty of parliamentary opposition is this very thing – the opposition which has garnered the votes of the people and is represented in the parliament has another set of tools for solving problems unlike the other opposition which doesn’t have this opportunity and is forced to take to the streets,” Sargsyan said.
According to the defense minister, the ongoing processes are another trial period for the establishment of democracy in the country.
Asked about the arrested lawmakers, the defense minister said questions about the arrest and relating legal terms should be addressed to law enforcement.
“A proper information was released yesterday. Clear procedures are in place in case of lawmakers which must be overcome, both domestic and international procedures. I am sure that the letter of the law will be maintained,” he said.
Street demonstrations and protests began in Yerevan 11 days ago, days before Armenia’s third President Serzh Sargsyan was elected by Members of Parliament to serve as Prime Minister. The historic vote – first time that a PM was elected by parliament in Armenia – took place April 17.
Earlier on April 9, the country shifted to a parliamentary system of administration. On the same day, President Armen Sarkissian took office.
Opposition protests began in the Armenian capital in the form of sit-ins, marches and demonstrations.
Led by opposition MP Nikol Pashinyan, the lawmaker from the parliamentary Yelk faction which has only 9 seats in the 105-seat Armenian Parliament, the protesters launched a campaign of civil disobedience.
Demonstrations began to grow citywide, and protesters started blocking busy streets.
On April 14, the crowd sporadically charged onto the Public Radio HQ in Yerevan, breaching into the building and demanding airtime. The demand was refused and the crowd subsequently left. Protesters even intruded into educational institutions, calling for student strikes.
In the following days opposition MP Nikol Pashinyan called on his supporters to paralyze the functioning of the government by blocking not only streets and major intersections, but also governmental facilities and ministries. Protesters were seen deflating the tires of official vehicles outside ministry headquarters.
Police numerously called on the protesters to maintain public order and adhere to the law.
At one point protesters had even blocked the official vehicle of the country’s defense minister, while he was on-duty.
Many were detained in the course of events as mass public disturbances were reported.
The demonstrators would gather every evening in the Republic Square of Yerevan, where Nikol Pashinyan would address his supporters, calling for renewed demonstrations.
On April 16, a brief clash erupted between riot police and the protesters in Baghramyan Avenue – which houses major governmental buildings. Nikol Pashinyan suffered a minor injury to his hand after contacting a barbed wire. Several people were hospitalized, including three police officers.
Police declared they are entitled to disperse the rally under the Constitution, because the demonstrations are causing public disturbances and restricting the fundamental rights of others, namely the freedom of movement, and also endangering public safety.
The protesters failed to comply with police orders and resumed demonstrations.
President of Armenia Armen Sarkissian called on MP Nikol Pashinyan to immediately begin discussions around negotiations table to avoid further escalation.
On April 21, Pashinyan reacted to the President’s call, offering to meet in their main rally site – the Republic Square. The President accepted the offer and was seen approaching the heavily overcrowded square shortly afterwards. President Sarkissian walked through hundreds ot protesters, surrounded by few bodyguards, and began talking with the MP. Although the meeting was broadcast by media, the conversation wasn’t heard because no microphones were allowed near. At one point the President took off his tie, seemingly signaling that it is an informal meeting. The meeting lasted around 10-15 minutes, and the President left the area, waiving and greeting the people. The President then met with Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan.
Shortly afterwards, it was reported that the Prime Minister and the opposition leader will meet the next day, April 22, in the Marriott Hotel in Republic Square.
The highly anticipated meeting took place 10:00 Sunday morning.
Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan arrived wearing a suit without a tie, while MP Nikol Pashinyan was wearing a camouflage t-shirt and a hat. The tense meeting lasted only 3 minutes, as the lawmaker said he will only discuss the resignation of the Prime Minister, to which Sargsyan responded by slamming it as “blackmailing the state”. The Prime Minister told the lawmaker that if he and his followers to don’t return to a legal framework the entire responsibility will fall Pashinyan.
After the meeting the opposition leader once again went out on the streets, calling for marches and demonstrations.
A few hours later, police dispersed a rally in the city’s Erebuni district, and three initiators of the rally, the opposition leader himself, and two other lawmakers - Ararat Mirzoyan and Sasun Michaelyan were detained.
“All actions of the initiators of the rally are illegal after the decision of the police to cease the demonstrations, and all participants of the rally are obliged to leave the location of the rally”, police said.
After a couple of hours the Prosecutor General’s Office said that the three lawmakers have been placed under arrest under Article 96, Paragraph 2 of the Constitution within the framework of an ongoing criminal case with the purpose of preventing crime and in direct suspicion of deliberately organizing and holding illegal rallies.
“MP Nikol Pashinyan, MP Ararat Mirzoyan and MP Sasun Michaelyan have numerously called on their followers to block city streets, block entrances of governmental buildings, breach into governmental buildings and paralyze the functioning of these buildings.
Their followers implemented the unlawful calls and blocked numerous streets and avenues, blocked the entries of state, self-governing body buildings, as well as private organizations, obstructed the normal functioning of these buildings and agencies, committed violence against police officers and others – leading to disproportionate restriction of the rights of other citizens and public interest.
As required by the Constitution, the Speaker of Parliament has been immediately notified on the arrest of the lawmakers”, the Prosecutor General’s Office said in a statement.
The crowd did not disperse, and pocket demonstrations were reported citywide.
Later in the day, hundreds of protesters gathered in the Republic Square again.
English –translator/editor: Stepan Kocharyan