BY SEROUJ APRAHAMIAN
From The Armenian Weekly
YEREVAN—Thousands of people gathered in Yerevan’s Liberty Square Friday evening to protest the government’s adoption of a 17 percent rise in electricity rates. What was initially slated as a march in the city center against the price hike turned into an unexpected mass sit-in.
Maxim Sargsyan, a member of the “No to Plunder” civic initiative that organized the protest, stood before the crowd and put forth the following proposition, “We can either go out to march and then disperse back to our homes as usual or we can stay here until Monday, stage a sit-in, and demand a suspension of the illegal price hike.” The demonstrators opted for the latter.
The mostly young protesters could be seen huddled in various groups throughout the square, sitting on carpets, pieces of cardboard, tires, or simply the ground. They held banners reading “High Voltage” and “No to Plunderers” as they chanted “We are the owners of our country.”
Music blared from the podium, playing everything from patriotic songs and traditional Armenian rhythms, to System of a Down and a hip-hop song made specifically for the campaign. Several large circles of traditional Armenian dancing also spontaneously broke ou
Demonstrators vowed to stay in the square until June 22 and declared that they will march to the presidential palace if the price hike is not reversed by then.
The mass sit-in comes on the heels of the Public Services Regulatory Commission (PSRC) of Armenia voting unanimously on June 17 to raise electricity prices from 42 AMD/kWh to 49 AMD/kWh. This is the third consecutive price hike by the government in the last 3 years and the fourth since 2009, making Armenia the country with the highest electricity rates in the region.
Both protesters and members of the government agree that the price increases are due to the mismanagement and indebtedness of RAO Unified Energy Systems (UES), a Russian-owned company that operates Armenia’s power distribution network. The government insists that rates have to be raised in order to ensure that UES gets out of debt and is operational, leaving average citizens and small businesses—that are already overburdened with socio-economic hardship—to foot the bill.
Widespread anger ignited as soon as the proposed price increase was made public early last month. The “No to Plunder” initiative organized a mass rally in Yerevan on May 27, while the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) led a tense demonstration in front of the PRSC building on the day of the vote. They called for the resignation of the head of the regulatory body and demanded to enter the meeting before the vote. One AYF representative was eventually allowed in but news of the unanimously approved price hike was met with demonstrators throwing eggs and tomatoes toward the building. Several protesters were also detained in minor skirmishes with the police.
This current episode is the latest in a string of civic struggles that have arisen over recent years in response to regressive government policies. These struggles have achieved several victories, including the preservation of a waterfall, prevention of illegal construction in a public park, reversing a transportation fee hike, and partially overturning the privatization of the country’s pension system.
Members of the “No to Plunder” initiative repeatedly made reference to these victories, noting that the only way to bring about social change in the country has been grassroots direct action and civic protest—while traditional politics have failed.
“This is the struggle of all Armenian citizens, independent of their political or partisan views,” said “No to Plunder” member Aram Manukyan from the podium. “Taking into account the experiences and successes of past movements, we have concluded that the struggle must be waged on the streets in an organized and united fashion, strictly excluding any dialogue with the authorities.”
As the sit-in went into the night, demonstrators gathered into open assemblies where they discussed issues such as orderliness, keeping the square clean, meeting basic needs, and forming groups of security for the protest. Participants also urged one another to remain peaceful and not engage in any confrontations with the police.
Organizers maintain that they will continue their struggle and use all manner of lawful civil disobedience until the price hike is fully repealed