When Raffi Hovanissian addressed the crowd of approximately 10,000 at Freedom Square just after noontime on April 9, he repeated the same rhetoric he had been stating for months—power to the people, the nation belongs to the people, the people will be victorious, the corrupt, dishonest leaders of Armenia will answer to the people in Freedom Square and so forth. Essentially nothing new was said. The oath he gave with the people, constitutions in hand, was inspirational, even charming. But he let the crowd down when he sent them off to lunch at 1:30p.m. There would be no march en masse as anticipated by many to the Presidential Palace in a magnificent show of defiance against what the people, what this movement, saw as a corrupt, kleptocratic, illegitimate regime.
That march wouldn’t take place until the second rally of the day held at 6p.m. adjourned, but by then the crowd had dwindled to only a few thousand. It was the jeers in the crowd that coaxed Raffi into agreeing to stride past the Palace while making yet another pilgrimage to Tsitsernakaberd to say one more prayer. I heard firsthand people’s frustrations, and they demanded that he take immediate action by chanting ”Now! Now!”, just as they had done earlier that afternoon. As if to say, “you want it, you got it,” he suddenly announced that they would move forward, only to be met by a wall of police in full riot gear standing across the width of Baghramyan Avenue, at its intersection with Tamanyan Street. Naturally a melee ensued, panic, shoving, beating. And video recording—there were dozens of cameras and cell phones thrust overhead in the crowd. His confidant and the top Barev candidate for mayor of Yerevan Armen Martirosyan was detained after a brutal struggle with the police at the line of contact, which was captured on video. Even after watching it three times I couldn’t determine whether the police provoked him to throw punches and kick, or if they simply lost patience with his resistance.
I was in the crowd, taking photos and capturing video footage of my own, which I promptly posted on my blog as well as Facebook shortly after I returned home. Although I admired Raffi’s courage and that of everyone in the crowd, as I was dozing off late at night I began to have doubts as to whether the confrontation was worth it. For weeks I have believed that a catalyst was necessary in order to activate the dormant masses and thus take the movement to the next level, another step forward in the tireless, snail-paced efforts to replace the authorities. His near month-long hunger strike proved fruitless, and so did yesterday’s symbolic pledge of allegiance to the nation and constitution. Raffi could not continue stalling forever, everyone knew this. But his unexpected change of plans last night in response to a stream of goading catcalls demonstrated a lack of tactfulness, even disorganization.
The entire spectrum of the opposition seemed silent today. The student movement held its own protest separate from the Barevolution block late in the afternoon near the National Assembly building, which resulted in detentions and absurd shouting and shoving matches with pro-government goons and the police—or as a friend often jests, the authorities’ hired security service—cleverly captured on video and distributed via Facebook and YouTube [https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=tkTirpL-OiI], only to be followed by inactivity today.
Fact is, the numbers of people needed for a peaceful transition of power, similar to what transpired in Georgia during the Rose Revolution of 2003, are not there. It is clearly obvious that the vast majority of citizens are still drowning in a fatalistic whirlpool, convinced that nothing will change whether or not they are actually present at these rallies. Perhaps realizing this all too well, Raffi decided not to lead the crowds up Bagramyan Street in the afternoon. Or maybe it was never on the agenda to begin with. But the seed of confusion took root in me when I saw Jirayr Sefilian and other members of the Sardarabad Movement gasp in disbelief when learning the rally had broken up shortly before arriving on the scene. It was then when I realized that Raffi is really not communicating his intent to the leaders of the groups supporting him. If I am indeed right about that, then it’s a catastrophe in the making.
This all leaves me and thousands of others in a tipsy state of bewilderment. I simply cannot understand the logic of events that transpired on the ninth, and virtually everyone I’ve spoken to confirms the same. The moment to take to the streets should have been when the crowd was 10,000 strong, although I understood full well that number had to be ten times greater for a show of strength to have been effective. And the evening standoff proved pointless—when I revisited the site of the clash earlier tonight it was business as usual, as if nothing had ever happened. I don’t really know what to make of all these days off in between protest initiatives, it only adds to the confusion and peculiarity of the disjointed opposition groups. A concrete plan of action is being anticipated on April 12.
But before then, Raffi would be wise to invite seasoned politicians and intelligent, reasonable thinkers like Armen Rustamyan, Nikol Pashinian, Sefilian, Andreas Ghukasyan and Karapet Rubinyan to his headquarters on Thursday and hammer out a concrete strategy on how the movement should transform, or rather gain focus. Reconciliation with the Free Democrats is long overdue, as the tried-and-true mobilization skills of Alexander Arzoumanian are inexcusably being squandered. At this point, he needs all the help he can get. Although he may not realize it, Raffi’s pride is blinding his vision and stifling his expression of intent, which will lead to his downfall unless he learns how to listen and compromise, right now.
Raffi has less than 48 hours until the next scheduled rally to save face and regain people’s confidence, or else risk becoming irrelevant. And this movement cannot afford that, not after all the progress it has made thus far.