Monica Ellena in Tbilisi -
In the war of attrition with the Armenian authorities, Electric Yerevan protesters didn’t cave in, the police pulled the plug first.
On July 6, the police routed anti-government protesters who had blocked one of the capital’s main thoroughfares for more than two weeks over a 16.7% hike in electricity tariffs – barricades were dismantled, protesters removed and central Baghramyan Avenue cleared and reopened to the traffic. No riot police, no batons or water cannon were deployed, in sharp contrast with the violent crackdown on a larger number of protesters who first occupied the street leading to the presidential palace at the crack of dawn on June 23.
Tussles happened, but no major clashes were reported when barricades came down. The police’s spokesperson Armen Malkhasyan reported that 46 people were detained, six of whom were immediately freed, while the others were released during the course of the day. Earlier, deputy chief of the capital police Valery Osipyan said that none of the protesters would be charged.
As lights go off on the demonstrations that wired Armenia for two weeks, analysts and organisers alike maintain the struggle was not in vain.
“The Armenian government thinks they solved protester problem with water cannon. Wrong. They baptised new generation of activists,” posted on Facebook Babken DerGrigorian, a researcher at the London School of Economics and the movement’s social media frontman, in the wake of the initial brutal response. Watering the protesters indeed backfired – shouting slogans like “The more you water us, the more we grow” twice as many protesters gathered the day after the repression, which had led to the arrest of 237 people.
Karena Avedissian, a Yerevan-based researcher whose PhD dissertation focused on social movements in the North Caucasus, argues that Baghramyan Avenue marked “the beginning of the end” for the old politics of Armenia.
“Yes, it is a game changer,” campaigner Vaghinak Shushanyan told bne IntelliNews. “It has shown that top-down decisions without an open public debate are no longer possible.”
He should know. The 24-year-old lawyer who headed No To Plunder, the youth group that launched the campaign the day after the electricity hike, is a veteran activist whose campaigning ranges from environmental protests against mining project in the north of the country, to the protest against a planned hike in public transport fares. The latter, in 2013, resulted in the marshutkas’ ticket prices remaining unchanged.
Yet Shushanyan was among the protesters who on June 28 urged the crowd to defect and unblock Marshal Bagramyan Avenue, following the statement by President Serzh Sargsyan that he would look into the power distributor’s books.
“We felt there was a real risk for the protest to be politicised, that was never our intention,” added Shushanyan, who then left direct involvement in the protest’s organisation.
Demonstrations sparked following the decision by Armenia’s Public Services Regulatory Commission (PSRC) to raise the prices of electricity by 16.7%, down from the 40% rise sought by the power distributor Electricity Networks of Armenia (ENA), a monopoly under Russian ownership. Since gaining control of the power grid in 2006, ENA has been piling up an ever-growing debt that has now topped $250m, a towering amount in a country with a $10bn GDP.
In an attempt to appease the protesters, President Sargsyan said that although scrapping the decision was “dangerous”, the government would temporarily “bear the burden” of higher prices while commissioning an audit into the company’s books. The audit would certify whether the price hike approved by state regulators was economically justified or resulted from alleged corruption and mismanagement. He also announced that the increase, originally due to enter into force on August 1, would be postponed. In addition, the utilities’ regulator stated that it would fine ENA AMD75mn (€144.545) for alleged irregularities in connecting customers to the power grid and billing them.
But higher tariffs merely electrified an already volatile situation, where high unemployment, a limping, highly monopolised economy, a cash-strapped government and a delicate geopolitical situation have generated deep social tensions.
For Sos Avetisyan, a 56-year-old former journalist detained in the first round of arrests, the protest has unlocked a new potential for Armenian citizens.
“We need to build on this, ” he told bne IntelliNews. “People want smooth changes, the wounds of violent clashes from the past are still painful. But if we can’t change the authorities, we can push them to work and make them accountable for their decisions. And eventually change the result.”
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