BY SEROUJ APRAHAMIAN
Residents living on Yerevan’s Baghramyan Avenue awoke to the sounds of water cannons and police wagons on Tuesday morning as police violently dispersed an overnight sit-in held by activists protesting a recent hike in electricity fares.
Images of young demonstrators being hosed down, beaten, and dragged by riot police and plainclothes officers quickly spread through the internet and social media. More than 230 people were arrested in the melee, with several sustaining injuries.
The disproportionate use of force by the police elicited condemnation from the public andinternational observers. Many were stunned by the violence of the operation and official labeling of protesters as “hooligans,” especially given the overwhelmingly peaceful interaction that was maintained prior to the crackdown.
Organizers of the demonstration—members of a non-partisan movement called “No to Plunder”—repeatedly urged attendees not to get into any confrontations with the police. Participants could be heard constantly chanting “Officer, Join Us” (Vostikan Miatseer), displaying solidarity and emphasizing that they were fighting just as much for the officers’ rights as theirs. Those in the crowd who tried to antagonize the police or hurl objects at them were quickly shamed as saboteurs and neutralized.
Such a state of affairs is rare in Armenia, where protests tend to spiral into visceral conflict between activists and police. It was clear that the authorities were taken aback by the peaceful demeanor of the demonstrators, helping explain why the sit-in was allowed to last for nearly 11 hours in the center of downtown Yerevan.
Nevertheless, in the end, when they were given orders to disperse the crowd, the police did so with the traditional methods of aggression they are accustomed to. Rather than instill fear in the population, the widespread use of force only reinvigorated the movement. Whereas about 4,000 demonstrators marched on Baghramyan on Monday, by Tuesday evening, a crowd of 15,000 had gathered in the streets.
Despite the anger over the attacks, protesters on Tuesday continued to emphasize the importance of remaining peaceful. “Our struggle is not against a specific person or the police,” exclaimed a “No to Plunder’’ member over the megaphone before the second march to Baghramyan. “Our struggle is against injustice.” He reminded the crowd of the importance of remaining non-violent and reassured them that victory would be achieved.
In this and many other ways, these protests mark a clear departure from the politics of the past. Spearheaded by a crop of young activists from various independent civic initiatives that have developed over the past five years, this movement is crystallizing a new spirit of civic engagement in Armenia.
This spirit is, first and foremost, a rejection of the single leader-based, political party approach. Young people have seen how the political opposition led by figures such as Levon Ter Petrossian, Raffi Hovhannisian, and, most recently, Gagik Tsarukyan, have failed to bring about change. Meanwhile, independent civic and social movements have achievedsignificant victories over and over again (a point that is brought up regularly by movement organizers).
Instead of looking toward charismatic leaders or foreign governments for their salvation, this new generation is looking toward local, non-partisan grassroots action. They are not politicized or tied to any NGO’s and categorically reject the concept of a leader. They operate in a democratic manner, putting issues as important as whether or not to meet with the president up to demonstrators to decide (both on Monday and Tuesday, they rejected President Serge Sarkisian’s offer to “negotiate” over their demands).
Their main calling cry is “We Are the Owners of Our Country” (Menk Enk Teruh Mer Yerkrin), a slogan that emphasizes hope, agency, and responsibility for the future of the country, rather than passivity and disillusionment so common among many Armenians.
In addition, these protests have attracted large swaths of young people who make up the core of the movement—not just college students but even teenagers and young kids. They are coming out into the streets voluntarily—with drums in hand, lively energy, and non-violent tactics—showing that they are unwilling to accept unjust, illegal decisions in their homeland. This large youth presence alone sends a strong message to the authorities that the future will not be one of passive and apathetic citizens.
And this message has already been heeded.
Thanks to the activism of these young people, the 40-percent price hike originally proposed was reduced to 17 percent, public hearings have been held around the issue, and even government officials have begun criticizing the Russian company that operates Armenia’s power distribution network.
What’s more, the back-to-back protests on Baghramyan Avenue have paralyzed several main thoroughfares in the city at the height of tourist season, further raising the costs of the government’s unjust decision. Rather than look at the protests as an attempt to reach the Presidential Palace directly, they should be seen as a means for putting pressure on the authorities through the disruption of state affairs and bringing global attention to the issue.
As of this writing, protesters continue to raise the pressure by demonstrating into the early night on Baghramyan Avenue. What the final fate of their action will be is yet to be determined. But one thing is clear: The political vacuum left open by the traditional opposition in Armenia is quickly being filled by a younger, more democratic and progressive current of social change. The further consolidation and strengthening of this current is likely to be the greatest hope for confronting the unjust system prevailing in the country.