#ElectricYerevan Protesters Give Cops the Finger Amid Showdown Over Rate Hike
Despite a violent crackdown by police in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, protests over energy prices continue to grow.
Despite a violent crackdown by police in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, activists say crowds of protesters continued to grow on Wednesday amid intense discontent over a decision by a Russian-owned energy monopoly to raise energy prices in the economically struggling country.
Hundreds of mostly young activists spent Monday night on the streets, and on Tuesday morning police used water cannons to break up the protest and arrested more than 230 participants, including several journalists, as riot police were deployed to prevent protesters from advancing towards the presidential palace. Protesters erected makeshift barricades Tuesday night out of large trash bins.
In the dramatic video below, police can be seen using water cannons to disperse those who refused to leave the streets. Riot officers and plainclothes police swoop in on the drenched crowds, taking protesters off camera.
The use of water cannons by police also sparked some comical reactions by protesters.
Police freed arrested protesters on Tuesday night. Armenia’s Health Ministry said 25 people, including 11 police, were treated for injuries following clashes. Images and videos of the crackdown and arrests percolated on Twitter, donning the hashtag #ElectricYerevan.
Despite the crackdown Tuesday, Armenians are still coming out to the streets, with activists estimating that crowds have swelled from a few thousand earlier in the week to 15,000 on Wednesday. “The use of water cannons and footage that circulated online has brought out lots of people who weren’t protesting before,” Babken DerGrigorian, a researcher at the London School of Economics and a participant in the Yerevan protests, told Foreign Policy.
The 17 to 22 percent hike in electricity prices, which is set to take effect on Aug. 1, has galvanized protesters who view them as a symptom of an increasingly corrupt and out-of-touch government. “The government has been raising utility prices for years with no consultation,” said DerGrigorian.
The government has said the price increase is necessary because of depreciation of the national currency. Protesters argue the increase would be too much for regular people to afford, considering that one-third of Armenia’s 3 million people live below the national poverty line.
The current protest movement, which has been growing over several days, is the most widespread public demonstrations in Yerevan since thousands of activists rallied against President Serzh Sargsyan’s reelection in 2013. Unlike many of its former Soviet neighbors, Armenia has an active civil society and community of activists that aren’t afraid to take to the streets. In 2008, outrage over alleged fraud in the presidential election resulted in protesters camping out on the streets for more than a week. The protest was eventually cleared by force and resulted in the government declaring martial law for one month — an experience, experts say, Armenian activists have learned from.
“Armenia’s journalists know how to be heard and its activists know how organize using social media,” said Katy Pearce, an assistant professor at the University of Washington who studies social movements in post-Soviet countries. “It’s all very grassroots, but people have experience and have learned hard-fought lessons from past failed protests and clashes with the government.”
Yerevan’s unrest comes as Armenia is struggling deal with the effects of Russia’s economic downturn in the past year. Armenia receives from Russian remittances an amount equal to 21 percent of GDP, one of the highest such rates in the world, according to the World Bank. After joining the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union in January, Armenia is even more firmly anchored to the Russian economy. Due to Russia’s financial woes, the International Monetary Fund announced in April that it expects no economic growth for Armenia in 2015.
Armenia’s dependence on Russia is also evident in the protest over electricity prices. The power grid is controlled by the Armenian Electricity Network, which is a subsidiary of a Russian company whose main shareholders include Russian state-controlled entities.
But protesters have so far refrained from painting their grievances as anti-Russian. “This is not another Maidan,” said DerGrigorian, referring the popular protests in Ukraine that ousted President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014. “The main anger is towards the government and the agency that approved the fare hike. But the fact that the government is so pro-Russian does add another dimension to it.”