YEREVAN (RFE/RL)—The opposition Yelk alliance rallied hundreds of supporters in Yerevan on Friday to protest against recent increases in the prices of fuel and some foodstuffs which it blames on government policies.
The price rises were caused, in part, by new tax legislation mandating higher excise duties on fuel, tobacco and alcohol. The cost of gasoline, diesel fuel and liquefied natural gas used by most vehicles in Armenia rose by over 10 percent immediately after it went into force on January 1.
Yelk leaders demanded that the authorities reverse the higher taxes when they addressed the crowd before it marched through downtown Yerevan, chanting “Reduction!”They said that the price hikes are increasing poverty in the country.
“We are saying no to price hikes and demand a reduction of the tax rates that led to the higher prices of basic products,” said one of them, Nikol Pashinian. “We are demanding price and tax cuts.”
Pashinian repeatedly urged Armenians to take to the streets in larger numbers and heighten the pressure on the authorities. But speaking to reporters, he downplayed the relatively poor attendance at the protest and said the Yelk campaign will gradually gain momentum. The outspoken oppositionist claimed that Yelk will soon hold “the biggest and most decisive rally in Armenia’s history.”
Another Yelk leader, Aram Sarkisian, insisted in a speech that the opposition bloc will pull larger crowds in March and April after many Armenians feel the impact of the higher prices more acutely. The next Yelk rally is scheduled for February 5.
Prime Minister Karen Karapetian downplayed that impact when he answered questions from Yelk leaders on the parliament floor on Wednesday. He insisted that consumer price inflation in Armenia remains low. Karapetian also defended the increased tax rates, saying that the government needs more revenue to boost its expenditures and repay foreign loans.
For his part, President Serzh Sarkisian held on January 10 an emergency meeting with senior state officials to discuss ways of mitigating socioeconomic consequences of the price hikes. Sarkisian also initiated parliamentary hearings on the issue which will be held on Tuesday.
Other, more radical opposition groups refused to join Friday’s protest, saying that Yelk is not campaigning for regime change. Pashinian rejected that criticism. He said that the opposition cannot seriously threaten the authorities’ hold on power without forcing them to scrap the rate hikes first.