Silencing Protest With Balloons and Concerts

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From my balcony in the center of Yerevan, the Armenian capital, I heard a sudden volley of bangs, as flashes of light illuminated the evening sky. A few weeks earlier, I'd been standing in the same place as the crackle of tracer bullet fire resounded in the night. Some people called this "Bloody Saturday," as nine people were killed in pitched battles as riot police put down protests against Serzh Sargsyan's disputed presidential election victory. But this time, the explosions were celebratory -- a display of fireworks ending the day last week when Sargsyan was sworn in to office. This time, nobody died.

From morning, the city had been under lockdown. Baton-swinging cops formed a huge cordon around Yerevan's Opera House, where the inauguration ceremony was to take place. After last month's unrest, nobody was taking the risk of letting any member of the public anywhere near Sargsyan on his big day.

Inside the cordon, Yerevan was quiet and still. Armenians were only permitted to watch their new leader take power on screen. Even journalists, who were also told that they had to watch the event on television, were confined to a room deep within the Opera House. Desperate cameramen shot footage of journalists sipping their complementary coffee. Meanwhile, Sargsyan strode toward the podium to take his oath in the same Opera House, but he seemed eerily distant.

Ranks of soldiers goose-stepped past their new president as a military parade brought the inauguration ceremony to its conclusion. This was a show of strength on the 40th day after the deaths on March 1 -- the day when, according to tradition, the souls of the departed should be commemorated. Beyond the cordon, on the street where the clashes took place, women cried bitter tears as they faced down a solid wall of riot shields and laid flowers in memory of those who died.

As they did so, they could hear echoes of pop music from nearby Republic Square, where a concert was staged alongside a hot-air balloon show. Children gazed. They were transfixed and oblivious to everything that was going on around them, as the huge balloons rose gracefully into the sky.

A few opposition protesters tried to disrupt the festivities by chanting slogans, but they were rapidly dispersed. An image captured by one photographer showed a man standing apart from the crowd, holding up a portrait of a youth who was killed on March 1, its gilded frame wrapped in black ribbon. Behind him stood a line of riot police, ensuring that his lonely statement went almost unnoticed by the evening revelers.

Matthew Collin is a journalist in Tbilisi.