YEREVAN—As protests headed by the “No to Plunder” movement on Baghramyan Avenue continued into its fifth day, President Serzh Sarkisian’s office stated that it would support an audit of the country’s Public Services Regulatory Commission, a move that movement organizers said did not fulfill their demand of reversing the decision to hike energy rate.
After meeting with Russian Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov about the energy issue on Friday. Sarkisian’s office issued a statement in which Sarkisian was quoted as also stressing the importance of a “meticulous audit” involving representatives of Armenian civil society.
Sarkisian and Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian discussed on Friday with Sokolov the energy issue, after which it was announced that a Russian-Armenian intergovernmental commission economic cooperation will organize an independent audit of the under-fire power distribution network.
Sokolov’s visit, which began Thursday, followed concerns expressed by Moscow in connection with the ongoing nonstop protests against a more than 17 percent rise in electricity prices in Armenia. A senior Russian diplomat on Wednesday urged the Armenian government to work out a “compromise solution” with the protesters camped out on Baghramyan Avenue, blocks away from the presidential offices.
Sokolov confirmed to reporters that the energy tariff issue was discussed during meetings in Yerevan.
“Of course it [energy rate hike] was. We discussed all issues,” said Sokolov.
Later on Friday, the Armenian government’s press office reported that Deputy Prime Minister Vache Gabrielian and Energy Minister Yervand Zakharian held a “discussion” with Sokolov that focused on “Russian-Armenian cooperation in the area of energy,” reported RFE/RL.
A statement by the office said they specifically discussed “the situation that has arisen around the Electric Networks of Armenia (ENA),” the national power distribution network belonging to Inter RAO, a Russian energy corporation. It gave no other details.
Sokolov met with President Sarkisian afterwards, reportedly telling him that the Russian-Armenian commission decided to initiate an audit of the ENA that will involve representatives of “all interested parties.” The company’s books will be inspected in a transparent manner, he said, according to a statement by Sarkisian’s office.
Inter RAO is a successor to Russia’s now defunct Unified Energy Systems conglomerate that bought the ENA in 2006. In the last few years the ENA has posted growing losses, which many in Armenia believe blame on poor management.
The company’s outstanding debts totaling over $225 million are a key reason why Armenian regulators last week raised the ENA tariffs for a third time in two years. The price hike infuriated many Armenians feeling that they are forced to pay for corruption and inefficiency within the ENA.
The Armenian press reported in the months leading up to the price hike that Inter RAO plans to sell its loss-making Armenian subsidiary. Energy Minister Zakharian confirmed those reports last month. He also did not deny reports that the Tashir Group of Samvel Karapetian, an Armenian-born Russian billionaire, is interested in acquiring the ENA.
Karapetian has so far made ambiguous statements to that effect through his Yerevan-based brother Karen, a parliament deputy and former chief of President Sarkisian’s staff.
Some Armenian observers have suggested that a new ENA owner might be willing to abandon the price rise and thus meet the key demand of the Yerevan protesters. Abrahamian on Thursday defended the unpopular measure.
There have also been calls in Armenia for Inter RAO to inject more cash into the ENA and restructure the company, instead of trying to sort out its financial troubles at the expense of Armenian consumers. The Russian group, which also owns Armenia’s largest thermal power plant, posted $13.4 billion in operating revenue last year.
The Russian calls for Armenian government concessions to the protesters seems to reflect fears in Moscow that the unrest could grow into the kind of popular revolt that toppled Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych last year. Some pro-government Russian politicians and media have alleged that Western powers orchestrated the ongoing protests to install a pro-Western regime in Yerevan. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin disputed these allegations on Wednesday.