Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1253, ( 2 - 8 July 2015)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1253, ( 2 - 8 July 2015)

Ahram Weekly

High voltage vexes Yerevan

Public anger has been mounting over the Armenian government’s decision to hike power prices in the country, reports Nora Koloyan-Keuhnelian

Al-Ahram Weekly

It has been more than ten days now that thousands of protesters in the Republic of Armenia have been blocking Baghramian Avenue in the capital Yerevan where the presidential palace stands. The demonstrators are demanding that the government cancel a decision to raise electricity prices by 17 per cent.

The Public Services Regulatory Commission of Armenia (PSRC) unanimously decided at its 17 June session to increase the tariff for electricity by 6.93 Drams, or from 42 Drams/kWh to 49 Drams/kWh, starting on 1 August.

Civil society groups, activists and ordinary citizens then united to fight the decision, with rallies first taking place in Yerevan’s Liberty Square on 19 June and then leading to a three-day sit-in. A “No to Plunder” Movement was formed against the rises, which issued an ultimatum saying that if they were not cancelled in three days the protests would move to Baghramian Avenue near the presidential palace.

The movement attracted thousands of supporters and began marching towards Baghramian Avenue. When the demonstrators were blocked by police, they sat down on the road before being dispersed by riot police using water cannons in the early hours of 23 June.

Police officers in civilian clothes dragged people away from the scene, and at least 25 people were taken to hospital and nearly 240 people arrested. Journalists also became targets of police violence, with several having their equipment confiscated or damaged. Others were detained by the police.

By that evening more protesters had gathered, and the police then stood by peacefully. The movement has also spread to other regions of the country and even outside Armenia in the form of solidarity movements.

Several organisations including the OSCE, the EU Delegation to Armenia, the US embassy, the journalists group Reporters without Borders and the human rights group Amnesty International have issued statements condemning what they called the excessive use of violence used by the police on the morning of 23 June.

 “A prompt, thorough and impartial investigation into police action on the morning of 23 June is urgently needed to determine its legality and proportionality. The allegations of beatings, unlawful damage to journalists’ equipment, and the arbitrary detention of journalists covering the protest are particularly serious,” Giorgi Gogia, South Caucasus Director and researcher at the Human Rights Watch told Al-Ahram Weekly.

According to Gogia, the investigation should also look into the circumstances in which water cannons were used during the dispersal of the protest. “It is important to stress that even if the demonstration was unsanctioned, nothing can justify physical attacks on largely peaceful demonstrators and journalists covering the protests,” he said.

Human Rights Watch has also received complaints of police interference with the due process rights of detainees, including their right to a lawyer. “All such claims should be thoroughly and promptly investigated and should lead to the accountability of police officers committing abuse,” Gogia said.

Armenia’s police chief Vladimir Gasparyian in an interview with the Armenian TV channel GALA TV said that the police would compensate the journalists for any damage. “There are some flaws that I have noticed in the police work, especially in connection to the representatives of the news outlets. We have assigned an internal investigation to the matter, and it will be settled amicably. Any technical equipment broken will be paid for by the police,” he said.

The protesters had used rubbish bins to form barricades to prevent the police dispersal, and a criminal case has now been taken out against them for “intentional destruction or damage to property.”

The protesters’ demands include the cancellation of the PSRC’s decision to raise electricity prices, a review of previous tariffs with a view to their reduction, and the punishment of police officers that they say have unlawfully beaten peaceful demonstrators as well as those that have given unlawful orders.

They have held up banners reading “High voltage,” “No to plunderers,” and “No to violence” as they chanted “We are the owners of our country.” In recent days, the protest has looked like a street party, with mostly young demonstrators dancing and singing national songs. Booths have also been set up on Baghramian Avenue to provide the protesters with food and drink.

Armenian President Serj Sarkissian made a move towards appeasing the demonstrators on 27 June, proposing an audit of the electric company and offering to suspend the hikes until the results were presented. Should the audit find the price hikes reasonable, then, in Sarkissan’s words “citizens must abide by the ruling.” 

However, the statement did not satisfy the protesters, who considered it to be a “sleight of hand” and said they would not leave the streets. Following the statement on Saturday, the police announced they would restore order on Sunday 28 June, causing many Armenians to understand that the hikes would be subsidised by them through taxes.

The police began surrounding the perimeter of the protests on Sunday, with police leaders threatening to break up the gathering by force. The leaders of the demonstrators then issued an announcement urging the group to move to Liberty Square to begin what they called “public deliberations.”

 “By staying here longer we won’t be physically prepared to endure more police beatings and water cannon,” Vaghinag Shoushanian, an organiser of the movement, told the crowd on Sunday evening. However, only several hundred protesters joined the march, and the majority of the protesters preferred to stay on Baghramian Avenue, splitting the demonstrators into two.

On Monday night, Shoushanian announced the suspension of the sit-in in Liberty Square and a press conference to discuss next steps.

Such initiatives in Armenia represent a new wave of civic activism in the post-Soviet period, and although they address specific and sometimes narrowly focussed issues, their emergence has been informed by and articulates much broader concerns around corruption, the absence of the rule of law, the lack of democracy, and the rise of oligarchic capitalism.

Since 2010, protests sparked by civic initiatives have become common in Yerevan and to a lesser extent in the smaller cities of Gyumri and Vanadzor too.

“Armenia has a vibrant civil society and very active youth groups. In the past few years, relatively small groups of people have organised peaceful protests to draw the government’s attention and express concerns regarding the pension reforms, environmental concerns, utility prices, and other issues,” Gogia explained.

The current protest is considered to be among the biggest Yerevan has seen in several years, with the estimated number of protesters reaching 20,000. This is the third consecutive price hike of electricity in the last three years and the fourth since 2009.

The Armenia energy company is owned by the Russian state holding Inter RAO, which is controlled by one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s closest allies, Igor Sechin.

Armenia has the highest electricity rate not only in the Eurasian Economic Union, but also among all CIS countries, the Union of Informed Citizens, an NGO, reported on June 17.

Among post-Soviet countries only Lithuania and Latvia have higher prices for electricity, and only Moldova has the same. Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Estonia, Georgia and Azerbaijan all have lower electricity prices than Armenia.

The hashtag #ElectricYerevan has gained popularity on Twitter, with supporters taking to social media to back up the campaign. The US embassy in Armenia tweeted on Sunday night, “concerned by tense situation downtown. Urge all sides to display peaceful, restrained behaviour befitting democratic values #ElectricYerevan.”

It is still too early to predict the result of the protests. “The people gathered in the centre of Yerevan are exercising their right to freedom of assembly provided in a number of human rights treaties to which Armenia is a party.”

“The government of Armenia has an obligation to respect that right and to refrain in all circumstances from ill-treating the protesters. The authorities should tolerate peaceful protests even if they are unsanctioned, so as not to deprive the right to assembly of its meaning, while also making clear that aggressive police actions in violation of international crowd control standards will not be repeated,” Gogia concluded.

Protesters clean Baghramian Avenue every night before the next day’s peaceful protests.

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