YEREVAN (RFE/RL)—Youth activists who organized a demonstration in Yerevan against Russia’s visiting President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday that they will stage more street protests against Armenia’s accession to the Russian-led customs union.
They also vowed to campaign for President Serzh Sarkisian’s resignation, accusing him of sacrificing their country’s independence and sovereignty.
The activists leading a new youth group called Dignified Armenia were at the forefront of hundreds of mostly young Armenians who took to the streets of Yerevan on Tuesday. The protesters denounced Putin and demanded that Sarkisian reverse his controversial decision to make Armenia part of the Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.
Riot police used force to prevent the protesters from approaching the presidential palace in Yerevan where Sarkisian and Putin held talks and a news conference later in the day. At least 110 of them were taken into custody. They all were released by the following morning. The police said that the vast majority of those activists will be fined between 50,000 and 100,000 drams ($125-$250) for defying law-enforcement officers’ orders.
Vrezh Zatikian, one of the Dignified Armenia leaders, said the anti-Putin protest was only the beginning of a broader campaign aimed at scuttling Armenia’s accession to the Russian-dominated bloc. “By taking to the streets we must show that Serzh Sarkisian doesn’t represent us. That was the purpose of our demonstration yesterday,” he said.
“Our government is illegitimate, it has usurped all power levers. We don’t recognize it as a [legitimate] government,” Zatikian told a news conference in Yerevan’s Liberty Square, the starting point of Monday’s rally.
Narek Ayvazian, another Dignified Armenia leader, read out an open letter to Sarkisian warning him to roll back Armenia’s entry into a bloc which Putin hopes to turn into a tightly-knit Eurasian Union of former Soviet republics. “Our actions will be continuous and will end with a halt to the process of Armenia’s forcible incorporation into the Customs Union,” said the letter. “We will be spreading the values of democracy, freedom, human rights and patriotism. We will get Armenian citizens and organizations to rally around our ideas.”
Ayvazian went on to announce that the youth group is planning to organize more massive protests that will involve “various types of action.” He did not elaborate.
“We have not yet set a date for [the next] demonstration,” Zatikian said for his part.
The anti-Putin protest was endorsed by only one major Armenian political group, the opposition Zharangutyun (Heritage) party. Several senior Zharangutyun figures were among the protesters along with members of a small nationalist party as well as a hitherto unknown youth anarchist group.
Attendance at the attempted march to the presidential administration building was quite modest by Armenian opposition standards, a fact which government backers portrayed as proof of public support for joining the customs union. Even so, it was the biggest and most vocal anti-Kremlin action of its kind ever organized in the South Caucasus state traditionally reliant on Russia. The protest was praised by Armenian media outlets critical of the government and opposed to closer ties with Moscow.
“What we want to do now is to try to explain to the society that this is bad,” explained another Dignified Armenia activist. “Our initiative is mainly aimed at working with the society. We need to be able to prove that the society too doesn’t want to be part of the customs union.”