Armenia: Police Disperse “Electric Yerevan” Protest
Armenian police made 237 arrests on June 23 after roughly breaking up a Yerevan sit-in against a planned fee hike by the country’s Russian-owned power distribution network. The protest appears to be serving as a multiplier for longstanding economic grievances against the government of President Serzh Sargsyan.
Despite the police pushback, protesters have announced on Facebook that they will attempt another demonstration this evening, ArmeniaNow.com reported.
Led by a group called No to Plunder, the initial demonstration, a three-day sit-in, targeted a 16-percent increase in power prices by Electricity Networks of Armenia, a company owned by Russia’s Kremlin-friendly Inter RAO UES. That price increase, introduced on June 17 amidst protests, replaced plans for a 40-percent hike.
But the move did nothing to assuage many Armenians frustrated by scanty incomes, insufficient employment and perceived rampant corruption.
Protesters, en route to the presidential office, declined an offer on June 22 to meet with Sargsyan to discuss their grievances. Faced by police, last night they headed for a central thoroughfare, Baghramian Avenue. Riot police and water canons that remained at the ready moved in on the group at dawn.
Reportedly, the crowd by that time had shrunk from thousands-strong to several hundred. But that did not dull the police response. Multiple media outlets covering the rally claimed police had beaten their reporters and destroyed video equipment and tampered with cameras.
Ani Hovhannisian and Hrant Galstian, two reporters for the investigative news outlet Hetq.am, which routinely publishes corruption exposés about Sargsyan’s government, were arrested, Hetq.am reported. Galstian remains in custody.
Police have justified their actions by a need to maintain order. A permit for the rally was not obtained, they say. "In such cases, the police have the right to stop your rally and march by all means prescribed by law,” Deputy Police Chief Valery Osipian stated, news outlets reported.
Demonstrators say that their protest is non-political, but the event, and the police response, nontheless puts Sargsyan into a tricky situation.
In 2013, Sargsyan opted for a closer alliance with Russia with the promise of a stronger economy. But the Armenian economy has only been battered over the past year as international sanctions eat into Russia. Remittances and exports have both shrunk considerably, leaving many Armenians to question the benefits of membership in the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union.
Or Russian control of key parts of the Armenian economy, including the energy sector.
Arguably, in the social-media era, greater potential range now exists for demonstrations over these or any annoyances. Armenian protests are now becoming more about civic initiatives than NGO-organized events, openDemocracy noted recently,
Yet while foreign media outlets are often quick to look for signals of a Euromaidan-style uprising, President Sargsyan, a former interior and defense minister, has been down this protest road before. And has always managed to overcome challenges to his power.
His tenure began after deadly clashes in 2008 between police and supporters of his rival for election, ex-President Levon Ter-Petrosian. Sargsyan’s re-election in 2013 sparked a so-called Barevolution, a shortlived attempt by presidential candidate Raffi Hovannisian to challenge voting results through mass rallies. Earlier this year, Sargsyan also weathered another storm over constitutional changes.
Whether or not he can find a way to minimize the effects of this latest demonstration remains to be seen.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a journalist based in Tbilisi, and author of Tamada Tales.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.