Yerevan faces summer of protests over transport reforms

By bne IntelliNews August 15, 2013

Clare Nuttall in Astana -

Shrugging off efforts to placate them, Armenian protesters against planned changes to Yerevan's transport systems have kept up the pressure through July and early August. While the unrest in the Armenian capital is focused on a handful of specific issues, it highlights the growing lack of tolerance for corruption and a willingness by Armenians to challenge the authorities.

The demonstrations continued for several weeks despite a pledge from the mayor of the Armenian capital, Taron Markarian, to back down on a controversial fare hike for public transport. That saw Markarian announce on August 6 that reintroducing the fare increase cannot be ruled out, though the city council will wait for the verdict of an ad hoc commission set up to consider the issue. Markarian is also determined to push ahead with unpopular changes to the car parking system in the city.

Fares on buses, minibuses and trolleybuses in the Armenian capital were due to increase from AMD100 ($0.24) to AMD150 from July 20. However, Markarian was forced to suspend the plans after six days of protests involving hundreds of activists - an echo of the protests in Brazil that were sparked by public transport fare increases. In addition to refusing to pay the extra AMD50, opponents also organised a high-profile "Free Car" campaign, in which politicians and celebrities offered lifts to Yerevan residents.

A sit-in outside government offices was also started. On August 1, police prevented protesters from putting up tents, claiming they needed an official permit to do so. This sparked clashes between police and activists, who are demanding the resignation of top transport officials within the Yerevan administration.

In addition to the opposition to higher public transport fares, a storm is also brewing over planned reforms to car parking in the city. A private company, Parking City Service, has been selected to collect street-parking fees from motorists electronically. Like public transport users, drivers face a price increase, as they will now pay AMD100 per hour for parking, rather than a fixed fee of AMD100 however long they park.

Opponents of the scheme have criticised both the higher costs and the decision to allow Parking City Service to take 70% of fees paid, with just 30% going to the municipal budget. At a meeting on August 4, hundreds of activists backed plans for more protests and a mass boycott of the new system. The mayor now insists the new parking system will come into force on September 1, and has threatened a police crackdown on parking attendants who do not comply.

The price increases have been linked to a recent sharp increase in gas and electricity tariffs. Armenia's Public Services Regulatory Committee (PSRC) approved the tariff increases after Gazprom said it would raise the price of gas by 18% starting in July. The large share of Armenian electricity generated at gas-fired power stations means electricity bills have also increased, triggering a rise in inflation.

Murky links

Activists accuse government officials and members of the city council of having links to transport operators set to profit from the changes. On August 1, Markarian denied allegations in the local press that he owns minibus lines, saying the reports were "idle speculation", but he appears to be caught between Yerevan residents who are fiercely opposed to the price increases, and the powerful owners of the city transport networks. The owners of Parking City Service are also rumoured to be close to President Serzh Sargsyan.

Tolerance for corruption is falling in Armenia, with officials coming under increasing scrutiny from the population. This is partly due to the influence of neighbouring Georgia, one of Armenia's main trading partners, where reforms introduced since the 2003 Rose Revolution have seen a dramatic fall in corruption. As a result, Armenians are starting to demand similar steps at home. "Clearly this is indicative of an end to apathy," says Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Center in Yerevan.

He points out that many of those who have taken up the fight against the city authorities are first time protesters with no political affiliations. "The public transport price rise not only affected a broad cross-section of the population, it also had a disproportionate effect on the more vulnerable lower and lower middle class, making it much more of a socially explosive issue."

Meanwhile, Armenian opposition parties have had relatively little involvement with the recent wave of protests in Yerevan, and have so far failed to catch up with the grassroots activism over social disparities of wealth and income - one of the pressing issues within Armenian society, according to Giragosian. A similar weakness was demonstrated after Armenia's February 2013 elections.

The most significant action by the opposition so far has been by the Barev Yerevan opposition bloc in the Yerevan city council - linked to former presidential candidate Raffi Hovannisian's party - which on August 7 filed a lawsuit asking for directives signed by Markarian raising public transport prices to be declared illegal.

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