Armenia gearing up for new protests

No To Robbery is leading protests in Armenia. Photo: Photolure

No To Robbery is leading protests in Armenia. Credits: Photolure

The universal public outrage sparked by the increase in electricity rates has not disappeared. The mass meetings which shook Armenia in June and July may have stopped, but according to the unanimous opinion of many experts and politicians, they will continue.

So far the authorities have agreed that from 1 August the country’s citizens will not pay an additional 7 drams, and that multiplier effect which would have caused prices to rise will not appear. Prime Minister Hovik Abramyan announced that the money to cover the debt to Electric Networks of Armenia will be allocated from the funds received through the sale of the Voroton Cascade HPP to the US company Contour Global Hydro Cascade.

Meanwhile, many await the results of an audit of the Electric Networks of Armenia, which itself was the original advocate for the rate increase. According to Europe Insight’s source in the government, it will be conducted by Ernst&Young. The auditing firm declined to comment.

The struggle has only just begun

Maxim Sargsyan, a member of the coordinating group of the citizens’ movement No To Robbery! told Europe Insight that the struggle will continue. According to the activist, though exhaustive answers have not been received to three of their main questions for the authorities (repealing the price increase, punishing those guilty of beating journalists and protestors on 23 July, preserving rates with a tendency to reduction), in a global sense they have achieved the main thing – the nation has entered the streets in protest. “During these days, the inhabitants of 16 of Armenia’s cities protested against the increase in prices for electricity, but it is easy to predict that their number will be much higher,” he said. “Besides, we do not know what the audit will be like. If it is an accounting audit, then it will mean nothing. The audit must be all-encompassing so the public gets the full picture of why, exactly, they were planning to raise the rates,” says the activist.

Moreover, the movement now feels a great deal more confident. There was a time when Maxim Sargsyan and his associates did not expect and were not ready for 15-20,000 demonstrators. “Now, of course, we have gained some experience,” they say and note with pride that there is no political force in Armenia today that can bring together so many. “We have shattered the stereotype,” another activist Armen Kotolyan stated confidently.

Among the other organizations participating in the protests and continuing their activities, the largest one by far is the movement Stand Up, Armenia. Along with a solution to the rates issue, it also demands the punishment of the Electric Networks of Armenia leadership and the dissolution of the Public Services Regulatory Commission (PSRC). The leaders of both movements acknowledge that at one point negotiations were underway regarding unification. However, they are now acting rather more separately. “We are not planning to conduct joint actions with them,” said Sanasaryan, meaning No To Robbery!. Both groups say that they disagreed on protest tactics.

“There is no schism between us, like many are trying to make it seem.” said Maxim Sargsyan, stressing at the same time that, besides the rates, there are almost no points of intersection. The “PSRC as such does not interest us. They are puppets. The main thing is to make them work,” he clarified.

Police carry away Stand Up, Armenia protesters. Credits: Photolure

Police carry away Stand Up, Armenia protesters. Credits: Photolure

According to Sanasaryan, who is spokesman for the opposition party Heritage and faction member in the Yerevan Council of Elders, representatives of minor parties participating in the movement “are not serving the interests of the political forces”. However, Stand Up, Armenia itself is planning to involve political forces into getting its demands met. Supporters of No To Robbery! have also repeatedly been called for joining the political agenda, but there they are still refusing.

In the ruling Republican Party of Armenia, they are prepared for a new wave of protests. “However, these could not take place because of the authorities’ pursuance of a correct policy,” the party’s deputy chairman and Minister of Education and Science Armen Ashotyan told Europe Insight. “There is no doubt that the program proposed by the president has begun to work and that a fair and positive solution will be implemented,” he added.

Another subtext to the energy protest

We have already written earlier about the course of constitutional reform. At present, it remains a subject of contention between the ruling party and the opposition. However, a new round of protests could exacerbate the issue and raise the stakes surrounding it. In addition, the constitutional amendments could have a direct connection to the electricity rates, Ruben Mehrabyan, an expert from the Armenian Center for Political and International Research, told Europe Insight in an interview. According to him, the vortex of the worsening social and economic situation will suck reform into itself come autumn. “Against the backdrop of a precipitous decline in life quality, we see that the system is becoming the main obstacle to the country’s development and is gaining an ever increasingly malignant character. Society is left with no choice but mass protests to force the authorities to either serve public interest or leave,” he said.

The Republican Party also thinks that constitutional reform can be used to stir up protests serving the interests of opposition forces. Armen Ashotyan did not exclude that the political structures capable of playing on this could be connected to the country’s former authorities. In his opinion, they are trying to transform the demands, to add constitutional reform, “to create a bridge between them”.

David Sanasaryan, speaking of constitutional reform, emphasised that he is not a proponent of ignoring it. “It is necessary to go and say ‘no’ because this is an attempt at a coup which they are trying to illegally bring through a constitutional course,” insists the opposition politician.

The Director of the Institute of Philosophy, Sociology and Law at the National Academy of Sciences Gevorg Poghosyan also suggested in an interview with Voice of Armenia that the events could develop into a negative scenario. “We must look a little into the future – what could lie ahead? It could become worse because radicalization is the most common line of development for social confrontations,” the publication quotes him. Along with this, he also sees the possibility of an exit from a negative scenario for the development of events. “Each time the authorities apply temporary measures which do not solve the problem in all its depth, they push it back, camouflage it, but no more. All of the issues, of course will not be resolved, but if the authorities turn to face the population and make a step towards them, fortunately the problem can be corrected,” thinks the academician.

In the Republican Party, it is thought that the first constructive steps have already been made and the future mechanism for action has been determined. “The problem will be resolved by itself by the algorithm of the president, who will prefer an intellectual, not forceful solution to the problem,” said Armen Ashotyan, maintaining optimism. However, it is necessary for both sides to be invested in its solution.

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