BY HARUT SASSOUNIAN
When a group of young Armenians spontaneously gathered in Yerevan’s Liberty Square 10 days ago to challenge the planned increase of electricity rates, no one expected their protest to reverberate around the world.
To everyone’s surprise, the small gathering mushroomed into several thousand mostly young people who marched to the Capital City’s major thoroughfare, the Baghramyan Avenue, where the Presidential Palace, the Parliament, and the Constitutional Court are located, and staged an overnight sit-in. The protests quickly spread to major towns and cities throughout Armenia.
Since the demonstrators refused to vacate the Avenue, the police dispersed them with water cannons, injuring a dozen protesters and arresting 237 others. The police also detained several journalists, damaging or confiscating their cameras and tape recorders.
As images of these confrontations were disseminated through social media and various websites, several thousand more protesters showed up the next day, making crowd control practically impossible. At the time of writing this column — the evening of June 29 — demonstrators were still occupying portions of Baghramyan Avenue.
Who are these young men and women and what do they want? They are not affiliated with any political parties or foreign powers, contrary to baseless accusations, and have no agenda other than demanding that the Armenian government rescind the 17% increase in the cost of electricity, effective August 1. These activists believe that they are legally and morally justified to block city streets because their protest is peaceful and spontaneous! They have named their movement “No to Plunder.”
The authorities made several attempts to persuade these young people to abandon their protest. When President Serzh Sargsyan proposed to meet with them, the protesters declined the request demanding that the meeting be televised live to the public. The government’s offer to subsidize the higher cost of electricity by providing a corresponding increase in aid to over 100,000 destitute families was also rejected. Finally, the President’s decision to freeze the rate increase until an international auditing company reviews the financial records of the Energy Networks of Armenia, a subsidiary of a Russian company, to see if the new rate is warranted, was also turned down.
The first break in the tense standoff came last Sunday night when the protest organizers accepted the police offer and moved back to Liberty Square to avoid another bloody confrontation. They announced on Monday night that they are ending their protest and will decide their next move shortly. Most demonstrators, however, refused to follow the lead of the organizers, spending another night in the middle of Baghramyan Avenue, chanting: “We are the masters of our country.”
This new generation of men and women are disenchanted with both the authorities and the political opposition. However, rather than giving up and leaving the country like so many others, the protest organizers took to the streets to defend the people’s rights. These activists showed that although they have no power, no wealth, and no official position, they are capable of rising to the occasion when necessary and rally the masses around them, commanding the grudging respect of the authorities! One may disagree with the protesters’ tactics, but cannot help but admire their sincerity and commitment to the welfare of their fellow Armenians!
There are three important lessons to be learned from these recent developments:
- The future of Armenia will be in good hands as long as there are young people in the upcoming generation like those who appeared spontaneously last week in the streets of Yerevan;
- Opposition political parties in Armenia have little chance of assuming power anytime soon, unless they completely overhaul their policies, attract bright, committed and resourceful young men and women to their ranks, and allow them to rise to positions of leadership;
- The people of Armenia have had a deep-seated distrust of all successive governments before and since independence. The leaders in power are facing far greater problems than the price of electricity. It is an existential imperative for Armenia to establish a just and democratic society in which the citizenry can live in dignity, prosperity and peace. Armenians would not need to protest in the streets of Yerevan if there are effective mechanisms that people can trust to defend their basic civil rights and secure their economic well-being.