Youth protests shake Armenia

June 29, 2015

Matthew McLoughlin reports on the demonstrations confronting the Armenian government--and the backdrop of a youth-led movement fighting for social justice.

THE STREETS of Armenia's capital of Yerevan have come alive over the past days following a violent crackdown on demonstrators voicing opposition to rising electricity prices.

Thus far, the protests, dubbed "Electric Yerevan," have been youth-led and independent of political parties. Beginning as a response to Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan's plan to raise electricity prices by as much as 22 percent starting August, the demonstrations have initiated a wider conversation about corruption, inequality and the failure of political elites to meet the needs of Armenians.

Over the weekend, Sargsyan announced a retreat, reportedly telling a meeting of senior officials that the government would cover the increased portion of electricity bills until an independent audit of the electricity provider was completed. But protesters refused to end their round-the-clock occupation of one of the main avenues of Yerevan, pointing out that the government's funds are supplied by the people and Sargsyan was therefore still sticking them with the bill.

Residents of Yerevan in the streets against an electricity price increase
Residents of Yerevan in the streets against an electricity price increase

On Sunday, police demanded that protesters disperse. As this story was being prepared for publication, riot cops were still threatening to move against the demonstrators, whose crowds numbered in the thousands on Sunday, according to reports.

POLICE VIOLENCE against the demonstrators and mass arrests last week caused the protests to grow massively. There have been actions since the electricity price increase was announced, but they grew significantly over time, culminating in a march of more than 5,000 to the presidential headquarters in Yerevan on June 22. Along the way, police stopped the march, and demonstrators responded with a sit-in that lasted into the evening and night.

In the early morning hours, near dawn, hundreds of police armed with billy clubs and a water cannon descended on Baghramyan Avenue. Demonstrators were blasted with highly pressurized water in an attempt to drive them off the street. Instead, people began piling on top of each other to hold their ground, as police continued their attempt to push the protesters back from the presidential headquarters. There were also numerous reports about plainclothes police beating up journalists and destroying their equipment.

Ultimately, the police arrested more than 240 people on charges of hooliganism and disturbing the public order. If demonstrators are convicted, the charges carry a $100 fine or a jail term up to one year.

Undeterred by the morning's brutality, the people of Yerevan returned to the streets later that evening in greater numbers to begin a second sit-in on Baghramyan Avenue. When police again threatened force against the crowd, demonstrators began to collect dumpsters from the city's alleyways, tying them together to form barricades that prevented police from bringing back the water cannon.

For the following week, the people of Yerevan were able to hold Baghramyan Avenue. The action in the capital also inspired solidarity actions in other Armenian cities like Gyumri, Vanadzor and Spita.

Baghramyan Avenue has served as a central gathering point where thousands of people have been organizing, holding discussions, sharing food, singing, dancing and celebrating resistance, despite summer temperatures soaring over 100 degrees during the daytime hours.

The mood has remained celebratory in the face of the crackdown, with thousands of people joining the sit-in during the day and several hundred holding the street throughout the night. With each of the passing days, the occupation has become more organized. Cleanups of Baghramyan Avenue occur every morning, and there are areas set up to distribute food and water.

IN RECENT years, Armenia has seen the evolution of an issue-based, horizontally organized youth movement, which has successfully tackled a number of issues.

In 2012, a struggle dubbed Occupy Mashots Park prevented one of Yerevan's last remaining public parks from being turned into a retail shopping area. In 2013, organizing forced the authorities to reverse a 50 percent hike in bus fares. And last year, in the face of growing discontent, the country's Constitutional Court declared a pension privatization law to be unconstitutional.

While the movement in Armenia has shown similarities with struggles like Occupy Wall Street in its tactics and organization, it has differed in its willingness to issue demands. Each of these campaigns has been centered around goal-oriented demands with broad appeal. The success of decentralized, horizontal actions has led to a new culture of resistance based on solidarity.

Late last week, demonstrators involved in the blockade of Baghramyan Avenue issued three demands: an immediate reversal of the electricity price hike, a negotiations process to lower the existing cost of electricity, and holding police accountable for their June 23 crackdown.

Sargsyan had offered to meet with a small group of demonstrators when the sit-in began on June 22. His offer was turned down by protesters, who instead demanded that he go on television and announce a reversal of the planned rate hike.

Sargsyan has found himself in a predicament, since Armenians show no signs of leaving the streets--the police brutality unleashed against demonstrators has only emboldened them. On the other hand Armenia's electricity provider, the Armenian Electricity Network, is a subsidiary of the Russian-owned Inter RAO, which initially demanded the price hike and will no doubt put pressure on the government to deliver.

As the days pass, the combination of police violence & Sargsyan's failure to act have increased the anti-government sentiment of the demonstrators. On June 26, thousands of demonstrators marched on Mashots Avenue and began a second sit-in, stating that they would stay for an hour, and that if their demands weren't met, another street would be occupied for two hours the following day--with the blockades increasing in length each day.

Later that day, Sarkisian announced that Inter RAO would be audited. Demonstrators nevertheless made it clear that they would not leave. On the evening of June 26, the largest numbers of people yet turned, with and estimated 20,000 to 30,000 people taking the streets. Late in the evening, demonstrators made a move to take France Square, but they were pushed back by riot police.

It is hard to predict what will happen next in Armenia. In a nation where more than 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and with an unemployment rate of over 17 percent, it's hard to imagine this growing movement letting up anytime soon. If the audit of Inter RAO, which is $225 million in the red, is transparent and proves wrongdoing, it could provide Sarkisian with an easy out. If not, the demonstrations are likely to escalate.

Regardless of how the issue of rising electricity prices is resolved, the youth of Yerevan have displayed to the world that after several years, their movement has truly come into its own. You can stay up to date with developments by following #ElectricYerevan.

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