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Yerevan Vows To Go Ahead With Rate Hikes Despite Protests

June 25, 2015
by RFE/RL's Armenian Service

The Armenian government has refused to reverse electricity price hikes, as protest rallies in the capital entered their second week.

Defying a call by protesters to reverse a decision to hike power prices by more than 16 percent from August, Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian told a government meeting on June 25 that authorities would proceed with the move to 'ensure the country's energy security.'

However, he told a government meeting on June 25 that state allowances to some 105,000 'disadvantaged' families will be increased to help them cope with the rate hikes.

Abrahamian called on protesters to unblock one of the city's main thoroughfares, Baghramian Avenue, and urged them to be 'more constructive.'

He accepted protesters's assertions that there might be widespread mismanagement and corruption at Armenia's electric company, but said the scheduled rate hikes reflect 'objective realities,' including the depreciation of Armenia's currency and a longer-than-expected shutdown of the Metsamor nuclear plant.​

Nonetheless, hundreds of people maintained their vigil near the presidential palace in Yerevan, blocking traffic for a fourth day on Baghramian Avenue.

Meanwhile, Russia's Foreign Ministry called on Armenian authorities to find 'a compromise decision on issues raised by the demonstrators.' In a statement late on June 24, Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin said Moscow is counting on 'the common sense and wisdom of the Armenian leadership.'

Public anger has mounted in Armenia over a move to hike power prices for households by more than 16 percent from August 1. Protests began in several Armenian cities late last week. Armenia's electricity supplier, Electric Networks of Armenia (ENA), is wholly owned by the Russian firm Inter RAO.

Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian -- who twice tried unsuccessfully to organize a meeting with protest leaders -- left Armenia for Brussels late on June 24 for a summit of the European People's Party.

Turning down the talks, the organizers of the demonstrations have insisted that they seek only the government's repeal of the electricity rate hikes.

​​Vladimir Gasparian, head of the Armenian police, visited the site of the Yerevan protest on the morning of June 25 but did not speak with any of the demonstrators.

On June 24, more than 9,000 protesters took to the area, defying police calls to disperse.

'We are not in a hurry,' Vaghinak Shushanian, a leader of the No To Plunder civic movement that is coordinating the protests, told RFE/RL on June 24. 'We have one month and 10 days' until the increased electricity rates come into effect on August 1.

RFE/RL's Armenian Service reports that protests broke out in many other Armenian cities on June 24, in addition to the several cities where demonstrations began simultaneously with Yerevan.

Public anger has mounted over a move to hike power prices for households by more than 16 percent from August 1. Armenia's electricity supplier, Electric Networks of Armenia (ENA), is wholly owned by the Russian firm Inter RAO.

Lawmaker Tevan Pogosian rejected widespread claims in the Russian media that the protests are a 'colored revolution.'

'This situation has been caused by the poor management of the Electric Networks of Armenia,' he told the Interfax news agency. 'But instead of improving management, some people are looking for 'Maidans,'' a reference to the pro-EU unrest that toppled the Ukrainian government in February 2014.

Armenia, a poor ex-Soviet country of 3.2 million, has already been badly hit by the economic crisis in Russia.
When you water us, we grow stronger.'
-- Vaghinak Shushanian, No To Plunder leader

​​The protests gained momentum after hundreds of riot police moved early on June 23 to break up a rally using water cannons, triggering a confrontation between protesters and police.

More than 230 people were arrested during the clashes, and all have since been released.

Protest organizer Shushanian told RFE/RL that demonstrators will not be put off by water cannons.

'When you water us,' he said, 'we grow stronger.'

Washington, Brussels, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) all expressed concerns over the violence. The head of the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), Michael Georg Link, was quoted by the OSCE's Yerevan office as saying Armenian officials 'must fully respect the rights of the protesters in Yerevan to exercise' their freedom of assembly.

On June 25, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement voicing concern at reports of excessive use of force by Armenian police against protesters and journalists. The statement called on authorities to investigate such reports 'thoroughly and promptly.'

In Gyumri, Armenia's second-largest city and home to a Russian military base, a handful of protesters has spent the last three nights on the streets after police arrested 12 locals on June 22 for holding a sit-down protest. They have since been released.

​​Activists in Gyumri said they planned to stage another march on June 25 despite a heavy police presence.

In the town of Kapan, in southern Syunik Province, the mayor and the regional governor visited protesters on June 24 to ask them to stop their demonstration. Instead, however, a television monitor was set up in a park near the mayor's office so that locals could watch coverage of the Yerevan demonstrations.

Kapan activists told RFE/RL's Armenian Service they will organize another sit-in on June 25.

Protests were also held in Charentsavan, Abovyan, and Ashtarak, among other towns.

In addition to sit-ins and rallies, the protests have also taken the form of 'automobile marches.' Protests are also planned in some Armenian communities abroad. ​

Some politicians in Russia have suggested that the West or Western NGOs had a hand in fomenting the unrest, comparing the protests to those in Ukraine in 2013 that led to the overthrow of a Russia-friendly president.

The Kremlin, however, took a conciliatory tone, voicing hope that the standoff will be settled peacefully.

The demonstrators in Yerevan have denied any links either to foreign organizations or to opposition parties in Armenia. The protesters, most of whom are young, have used social media to organize their actions.

'No one is controlling us from either West or East,' said Yeghia Nersesian, a 36-year-old photographer and activist who is one of the organizers of the protest. 'We will look after ourselves. Our reputation is what matters.'

Seeking to win broader public support for their action, activists have handed out leaflets urging people to 'join the struggle from home' by making noise with their utensils from their balconies.

They also called on Yerevan residents to switch off the lights in their apartments for an hour as a sign of protest.

With reporting by AFP, AP, and Interfax


Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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