Opposing an Election With Open-Air Chess

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A cluster of women stands obstinately in front of the police line, clapping, whooping and belting out a ragged rendition of the Armenian national anthem. As the commanding officer raises his bullhorn and urges them to disperse immediately or face the consequences, officers with riot shields and batons shuffle forward menacingly. Some of the women scream curses or burst into tears, but nevertheless they begin to fall back. An unidentified man with a camera scurries around like a nervous rodent, capturing faces on video.

Political rallies aren't permitted in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, despite the recent lifting of the state of emergency, imposed on March 1. That was the day when eight people died during battles after riot police moved in to end more than a week of unauthorized protests against the results of the presidential election, which the opposition claims was falsified. More than 100 opposition figures have since been charged with fomenting violent unrest and attempting to stage a coup.

But some of the most committed activists have been trying to use their creative ingenuity to circumvent the protest ban by holding what they call "peaceful daily strolls." Right after the emergency measures were lifted, several thousand people held a solemn procession through central Yerevan, many carrying flowers, candles and pictures of those who were killed, injured or arrested. In recent days, the shadowy organizers of these supposedly spontaneous gatherings have asked people to bring chess sets and hold casual open-air tournaments or to read aloud from books.

The protesters insist that they are not just supporters of Levon Ter-Petrosyan, the Armenian opposition leader whose determination to challenge the election results led to the current political crisis.

I also heard a very different version of events. In the opulent halls of the presidential palace, Ter-Petrosyan is seen as the malevolent instigator of an armed uprising that was righteously thwarted. A spokesman for Robert Kocharyan, Armenia's outgoing president, said two major opposition parties had just joined the governing coalition, leaving the more radical opposition increasingly isolated, desperate and aggressive.

"It's clear that they won't succeed," he insisted calmly. "But unfortunately it's also clear that the organizers of these actions are trying to continue their policy of political destabilization, which is very sad."

Back in the center of Yerevan, an elderly man was sitting quietly on a bench, apparently ignoring the protest. But then he lit a candle, and the police quickly ushered him away.

Matthew Collin is a journalist in Tbilisi.