President’s offer to finance price hikes does little to quell the fervour as thousands of demonstrators remain on the streets. EurasiaNet.org reports
There have been both kisses and water cannons; three wedding celebrations and a barrage of injuries. The protests against electricity price hikes in Armenia’s capital, now in their third week, just refuse to go away despite a significant government concession.
Armenia protests escalate after police turn on demonstrators
Thousands of mainly young Armenians remain on the streets of Yerevan surrounding the presidential palace, and smaller demonstrations have spread to the towns of Gyumri, Vanadzor, Kapan and Sisian.
The #ElectricYerevan protests have become “a multi-headed dragon” for President Serzh Sargsyan’s administration, said independent analyst Saro Saroian. “After decapitating one head, another one grows immediately in its place.”
That is essentially what happened on 27 June when some protesters accepted Sargsyan’s offer to subsidise the hugely unpopular tariff rise that sparked the protests – and a far larger group elected to stay on the streets.
Addressing the crowd as “my dears”, Sargsyan, a veteran politician who has faced down more than a few rebellions in his seven years in office, urged the group to listen to his “friendly appeals” for a solution. He said that having police disperse protesters from downtown Yerevan “is not our aim”.
Hundreds of citizens have been arrested in the protests so far and journalists have had their equipment smashed. The use of water cannon on unarmed civilians led to condemnation from human rights groups .
The president’s overture essentially split the protest between a few hundred who agreed with the government’s proposal and left Baghramian Avenue for nearby Liberty Square, and many more who stayed put.
Meanwhile, the protests have been taking an increasingly jubilant tone, with three couples choosing the streets of Yerevan as their wedding venue.
“This is the result of a civilian struggle over the past two to three years, when thousands of people were mobilised. Not a crowd, but an organised fight, and a national fight, when the citizens know their rights,” said Saroian.
One demonstrator, 32-year-old psychologist Anush Badalian, said that experiences after the fall of the Soviet Union, when the economy and energy sector collapsed and Armenia fought a brutal, six-year war with Azerbaijan over the still-disputed territory Nagorno-Karabakh, fuelled protesters’ refusal to back down.
“We are the generation who saw the war,, who ate bread received with ration cards. Nothing scares us because we are used to hardships and fights,” Badalian said.
Ruben Mehrabian, a political analyst at the Armenian Center for National and International Studies in Yerevan, advises caution.
“At the moment, there is not the power [among the protesters] to serve as an alternative to the current government. But that does not mean that it will not appear in the future,” Mehrabian said. “Everything is still ahead.”
Stepan Danielian, head of the Collaboration for Democracy Center, warned that the protests may rnf in disappointment.
While even more Armenians on the streets could prove decisive, “public structures and mechanisms to make decisions must be developed,” he said.
“Even if Serzh Sargsyan resigns and the [ruling] Republican Party is dissolved, by that alone, problems are not solved. New Serzh Sargsyans will be born. The problem is more radical [than that].”
At the heart of the protests is the government’s perceived tradition of looking out for its business buddies: in this case Electric Networks of Armenia, owned by the Russian company Inter RAO, which has close ties to the Kremlin.
Demonstrators are furious over reports such as Transparency International Armenia’s, which claimed that the company spent 450 million-drams (about £600,000) on luxury cars.
To address that anger, the government has suggested that civil society and the opposition help appoint auditors and has not excluded the possibility of selling or nationalising the utility company.
But some analysts believe these proposals do not go far enough to address the underlying resentment.
“The post-Soviet system in Armenia, which by itself represents the Russian-style system of vertical corruption, does not work anymore,” said Mehrabian, a political analyst at the Armenian Center for National and International Studies. “It has expired, [yet] it is impossible to exchange its existence [for something else].”
Mass protests in Armenia as killings test loyalty to Moscow
The absence of an alternative could prove reassuring to Moscow, which has been watching the protests for signs of a repeat of the Ukrainian revolution. Little have come, with demonstrators denying they are aiming at Russia, Armenia’s closest ally.
Moscow’s recent decision to allow an Armenian court to try a Russian soldier charged with the murder of a family in the town of Gyumri appeared to be a bid to deflect anger away from the Kremlin. The rumour on the streets is that the decision only demonstrates how much Moscow understands their power.
A version of this article originally appeared on EurasiaNet.org, part of the New East network