Armenia: Bus Protests Grind on with Carpools and Conspiracy Theories
Tempers over a hike in transportation fares in Yerevan cooled on July 24, but a carpooling protest to support residents boycotting city buses continues.
Meanwhile, as some observers scramble to make sense of it all, the time-honored Caucasian pastime of conspiracy theories has begun. The website www.FreeCar.am, however, remains very much in the here and now. It allows car owners to provide boycotters with the routes and schedules for shared rides, along with the models of their automobiles and contact information. Several Armenian celebrities have been among those car owners who are picking up and dropping off many residents around Yerevan for free. Meanwhile, Facebook users are joining the page “We Won’t Pay 150 Drams” [the new fare for city buses, over 35 cents] and Twitter users are tweeting updates with the #OccBusYrvn hashtag, a non-sequitur reference to the worldwide "Occupy" protests.The movement also comes in the form of street rallies. Separate groups of protesters clashed with police on July 23 near the mayor’s office and accused municipal officials of corruption.
The protest is yet another challenge for newly reelected President Serzh Sargsyan, whose victory rival Raffi Hovannisian challenged earlier this year with a streak of demonstrations. And it stems from a similar cause -- many Armenians' inability to make ends meet. Over a third of the country's population of 2.94 million people is estimated to live beneath the poverty line. But, of course, in the Caucasus, a bus protest cannot be just a bus protest. In a July 23 interview with RFE/RL's Armenian service, ruling Republican Party of Armenia Deputy Chairperson Razmik Zohrabian posited that the boycott is the work of superpowers -- and "not only Russia" -- interested in the question of whether Armenia will head toward European integration or toward Russia's Eurasian Customs Union.
And to one ArmeniaNow commentator, the logic makes sense. Conspiracy theories aside, Russia already has made one cameo appearance in this drama, via the increased price of its natural gas. Most Armenian buses, as well as heaters and stoves, run on natural gas, and Russia is the main supplier of it.
“Gas is so expensive now that the police can’t even afford to use tear gas on protesters,” one Yerevan resident joked dryly.-- EurasiaNet.org correspondent Marianna Grigoryan contributed reporting from Yerevan.