YEREVAN, March 20 (The Conway Bulletin) – Thousands of demonstrators have marched for four consecutive days through the Armenian capital demanding answers from the government about the death of 49-year old Artur Sargsyan, one of the men arrested and imprisoned last year for capturing a police station.
His death and the subsequent demonstrations have galvanized support for opposition groups only a fortnight before a parliamentary election, the first to be held under a new constitution that shifts power away from the presidential office.
The mainly young protesters have marched arm-in-arm through Yerevan shouting for the government to resign and holding aloft pictures of Sargsyan, known by his nicknamed as ‘The Bread Provider’.
During the two-week-long capture of the police station in July by a group of opposition gunmen, Sargsyan had broken through a police cordon to give them food. He was arrested when they surrendered, and died on March 16 in a hospital 10 days after ending a 25-day hunger strike.
For President Sargsyan and his Republican Party the death and protests, estimated at being 1,000-strong every night, have come at precisely the wrong time. They don’t want voters to see TV footage of police forcibly pulling young protesters off the roads and into their waiting vans.
Richard Giragosian, director of Regional Studies Center based in Yerevan, said that protests have been the defining image of Armenia over the last couple of years and that these latest demonstrations reminds voters of this.
In 2015 there were weeks of protests and clashes with police over a proposed electricity price increase and in 2016 there were more clashes between police and supporters of the gunmen who had captured the police station.
“Although the aftermath of his death may be fairly temporary, and limited to a spontaneous outburst of anger, nevertheless, public anger and deep discontent have also defined this country’s coming election,” said Mr Giragosian said.
The only public opinion poll so far, published on March 6 by Gallup, showed that the party led by millionaire Gagik Tsarukyan, who is broadly sympathetic to the current government, would receive 26.4% of the votes compared to 22.8% for the Republican party.
The poll also showed the other seven political parties and blocs, considered the real opposition forces, failing to pass the threshold to win seats.
The demonstrations may shift that, though, Mr Giragosian said.
“The government’s arrogance has already undermined both their position and popularity,” he said.
>>This story was first published in issue 322 of the weekly Conway Bulletin independent newspaper