BY GAREN YEGPARIAN
The last week’s developments can almost be described as bizarre.
Over something as simple and basic as electricity rates (or tariffs as they’re being referred to in what I assume is a more Euro-English parlance) in the Republic of Armenia, a major street mobilization has erupted!
The basic facts are that the Russian owned electricity distributing company, ENA, requested a 40% rate increase. This is on the back of other rate increases over the last few years. The justifications claimed are to maintain infrastructure and increased fuel costs. However, even the RoA’s not-so-clean government has asserted that the losses ENA is suffering/will suffer from stem at least partially from corrupt practices. Couple all this with people not having much income, lots of poverty, and disgust with the ruling elites (oligarchs and everyone else), and you have a potent brew.
So, a lot of youth took to the streets of Yerevan to protest this proposed (and since approved) increase. The regime, in its “wisdom” responded to these peaceful actions by pulling out the water cannons and drenching the protestors, hauling a few hundred off to jail for a brief time, and allowing police to rough up some of the protestors for no reason. Top this off with thuggish-looking characters who were undercover police (or perhaps, I can’t help but wonder, some of the oligarchs’ private security details) who joined the fray when the protestors were attacked.
Of course, in a country as small and strategically located as the RoA, nothing happens without real and/or imaginary external influences and intrigues. Naturally, Russia, given its special relationship with the RoA, is very interested in these events. The West has pressured the regime to behave. Some are asserting (incorrectly) that this is the beginning of another Ukraine-like “Maidan” movement.
So now, because of the immaturity and insecurity of Armenia’s corrupt government, we have a needlessly tense situation on the streets of Yerevan. Social media and physical solidarity is also building.
What kind of government is so clueless and insensitive to its people’s needs that it blithely approves a 16% electricity rate hike when a majority of the population is struggling to make ends meet? Much smaller increases than that raise people’s hackles in Burbank where I live, especially those on fixed, limited, or no income. With all the advisors and good-government NGOs operating in Yerevan; with all the Diasporan experience and contacts at the government’s disposal; this is the best they can do?
It’s just ridiculous!
I went to a gathering of roughly 100 people at the RoA consulate in Glendale on Thursday night. (It seems these rallies may continue, and another was announced for Friday night at 7 pm). One of those who spoke had arrived from Armenia just two days earlier. He is involved in defending those who were arrested. What he called for, more than street actions, was political pressure to stop “law enforcement”-type aid. This is our ongoing dilemma. We want to assist in our homeland’s development. Yet, at least some of that assistance ends up being used in undesirable ways. Similarly, fundraising efforts in the Diaspora to assist in Armenia become suspect, or targets of criticism. All this is because of robber-barons ruling Armenia more to line their already bulging pockets than to improve the lot of its people.
There is also some criticism to be made of the activists/protestors. They were offered the opportunity to send five representatives to discuss matters with the authorities. They refused. Why? They want everything to be democratic and open. That’s good. But it’s also impractical and betrays the paralyzing fear of cooption and the prevalent mistrust of organizations that’s stifling progress in Armenia. In this particular example, the activist protestors could easily have put to the gathered masses the following question: shall we meet with the authorities, but with the proviso that the encounter is audio and video streamed live to the public, with the public able to convey its reactions in real time? This would address the fears and mistrust.
There’s a lot of learning to be done by all concerned. There’s a lot of support that must be given to our compatriots fighting for basic human dignity and civic respect from governing authorities. We should all be watching this movement, supporting it, and engaging in constructive participation – advice, criticism, and the perspective that comes from watching at a little bit of distance. Get busy contacting your friends in the homeland and doing your bit in the Diaspora. Our national future, if it’s to be democratic, depends in part on a positive outcome to this movement, no matter how long it takes.
Garen Yegparian (June 26, 2015)