Electric Yerevan, Part Two?
A fresh scuffle between police and demonstrators in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, suggests that widespread complaints about officials' handling of a 16.5-percent increase in electricity prices could still have legs.
The latest rally, scattered by police on September 12, did not boast the numbers comparable to the “high-voltage rallies,” a series of sit-ins in the city center in June known as Electric Yerevan. It was a much smaller crowd, made up mainly of activists from the No to Plunder group, which claims that the government, counter to its earlier promises, has not entirely covered the cost of the higher power prices.
Most businesses, the group alleges, have been left out.
At first glance, to many outsiders, paying roughly ten cents (48.78 drams) per kilowatt hour of daytime energy use may not seem high. But protesters claim the real issue relates to the practice of officials handing out special favors for the government's corporate chums -- a longtime complaint in Armenia. The government, they charge, always covers up accordingly.
No to Plunder has demanded that the new prices, seen as the result of government collusion with the Russian-owned Electricity Networks of Armenia (ENA), be scrapped entirely. “We will go to the end,” the protesters told Interfax.
After demonstrators failed to disperse by dawn on September 12, police intervened, arresting 48. They have since been released.
The last time police attempted a protest-cleanup, during this June's Electric Yerevan, it only boomeranged back against the government, and even put Armenia’s big brother, Russia, on tenterhooks over what it perceived as another Maidan-style revolution in the making.
Both the government and protesters worked hard to make sure that anger with the Russian-owned electricity grid did not escalate into protests against Russia, its main military ally which supplies most of the country’s energy and much of its trade.
As the protest tensions petered out and the vacation season kicked in, the situation for both the government and ENA calmed.
Talk of penalizing ENA for not connecting clients to its grid as agreed tapered off in August after Armenia's regulatory commission voted against fining the company.
It also transpired that the auditor chosen to review the Armenian regulatory commission, the Moscow-based Deloitte & Touche CIS, itself has ENA’s owner, Inter RAO UES, as a client.
For now, the state subsidy for power prices has helped the government to keep things calm among ordinary Armenians. But the money for the subsidy, allegedly taken come from the sale of a large hydropower complex, will not last for long. Nor does Armenia’s ailing economy help matters.
Electric Yerevan left many Armenians with a sense that they can get officials to do at least some of their bidding — the question is whether or not another attempt will now be made.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a journalist based in Tbilisi, and author of Tamada Tales.
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