Protests in Armenia are not limited to its capital, Yerevan. The government is grappling with discontent in the country’s regions, too.
In Gyumri, Vanadzor, Ashtarak, Sisian, Alaverdi, Kapan, Spitak and elsewhere, people have taken to the streets to say “No to Theft!”
The protests, much smaller in turnout than in the capital, have tended to ebb and flow along with events in Yerevan. As the capital city have quieted down – an evening concert by popular poet singer Ruben Hakhverdyan is planned for July 2 – the demonstrations in the regions have as well.
Vardine Grigorian, a resident of the town of Vanadzor, about 120 kilometers to the north of Yerevan, says that when the protests in the Armenian capital first started in late June, locals reacted “simply in their hearts, among friends, on their Facebook accounts, but never in the streets.”
As the ElectricYerevan initiative gathered pace, a poster advised “Be quiet. Vanadzor is sleeping” in an attempt to keep things that way, she said.
But after the police violently forced demonstrators off Yerevan’s Baghramian Avenue on June 23, she claims, the mood changed. Signs appeared, calling for people to come out and show their support for the Yerevan demonstrators.
“Many Vanadzor residents gathered at the protests. Various people and groups claimed that they did not expect such activity, that they are proud of the city,” enthusiastically recounted Grigorian, a monitor and coordinator for the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly Vanadzor Office, a leading human rights watchdog.
Graffiti tracking the rise in electricity prices over the years also has appeared recently in the town’s central Hayq Square.
Officials in Vanadzor have avoided forceful methods as they try to keep the situation calm. Mayor Samvel Darbinian has relied mainly on the powers of persuasion in trying to contain the protest mood. “Say, residents of Gyumri and Yerevan take to the streets. Let’s be different and not do it,” he suggested, assuming an air of disinterest.
One regional government, however, is opting for the tougher methods. In Kapan, seat of the southeastern mining region of Syunik, Governor Surik “Liska” (“Little Fox”) Khachatrian did not allow even 50 people to gather for a protest on June 24. Instead, according to Yerkir.am, the government just turned off the electricity to break up the protest.
To the north, in Gyumri, the site of Russia’s 102nd army base, around 1,000 people gathered in the rain on June 25 for a show of support for the Yerevan protesters, a display that included patriotic songs and theatrical performances, news portal 1in.am reported. Locals were urged to “Join, it is not only the electricity that gets more expensive.”
Justice itself has come with a high cost for Gyumri, after Russian Private Valery Permyakov allegedly murdered a seven-member family earlier this year. In an apparent bid to quiet Yerevan’s protests, seen by some in Moscow as a potential prelude to Euromaidan-style political unrest, Russia recently agreed that an Armenian court could try Permyakov. A trial date has not yet been set.
The Kremlin’s concession, something demanded for months by Yerevan, made little impression on Gyumri protesters. It came as “late candy that nobody needs,” opined Levon Barseghian, head of the Asparez Journalists’ Club Armenia, and one of the leaders of the campaign for an Armenian trial for Permyakov.
Meanwhile, the Gyumri protesters are continuing to organize.
Plans are afoot for a July 4 outdoor discussion, organized by the No to Plunder civic initiative to discuss a “common agenda.” An announcement calls for the participation of “sector specialists, economists, lawyers, etc.”
For now, whether in Yerevan or the regions, the ultimate outcome of this campaign is unclear. But Armenians’ belief in the potential of grass-roots activism to prompt change is clearly growing.
“This fight broke the fairytale of the government’s invincibility,” commented 39-year-old Yerevan trader Harutyun Harutyunian to EurasiaNet.org. “If people realize their power, everything will gradually flow by another route. If not, we will have to continue along the same dark path.”
Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter based in Yerevan and editor of MediaLab.am.