BY SAMSON MARTIROSYAN
From The Armenian Weekly
YEREVAN—The government’s decision to increase prices for public transport entered into force on July 20. Commuters using mini-buses (marshootkas) and buses saw fares increase by over 30 percent, from 100 to 150 drams (25 to 40 cents). Meanwhile, the fare for trollies doubled in price, from 50 to 100 drams. The decision was met with outrage from the public, and the reasons were manifold.
The public is unwilling to accept any increase in prices due to the staggeringly low minimum monthly wage for one person (35,000 drams, or approximately $85), coupled with high levels of unemployment, and other economic concerns.
Second, there is a lack of any apparent justification for the decision. The main reason is said to be the rise in natural gas prices (natural gas is used as fuel for public transportation in Armenia), and the expenses attributed to the technical maintenance of vehicles and the new assessed cost per passenger, published by the Yerevan Mayor’s Office. According to this document, the price for one marshootka passenger is 144.3 drams, and 157.3 dram for buses.
Dissatisfaction with the findings of the report have led to a separate, third-party analysis, which found that the real price for one marshootka passenger is 94.2 drams (including a five percent profit), and 118.5 drams for buses.
On July 19, a group of protesters gathered in front of Yerevan Mayor Taron Margaryan’s Office and, in the presence of numerous policemen who outnumbered the protesters, held an unofficial meeting with the Mayor’s Office representative. The demonstrators attempted to present the results of the alternative report, but the meeting resulted in nothing more than each side reinforcing its own position.
The level of dissent seemed to increase immediately thereafter. Many now believe that the new prices are not the result of natural gas prices or technical maintenance; rather, they say, it is because the transport lines are reportedly co-owned by Mayor Margaryan and other politicians and oligarchs, and that they are the ones who made—and will profit from—the decision.
The situation is getting tense. Yet, there are several reasons why this newly emerging movement in Yerevan has already been beneficial for society:
1. The protests have drawn mostly young people—students, NGO activists, civil society groups, etc.—who tend to be more determined and, in a positive sense, more aggressive and demanding.
2. There is also an accompanying sense of community. This has come about through social media websites like Facebook and Twitter. In a very short period of time, several groups and events have been created as tools to bring people together and maximize organizing as a community. The Twitter/Facebook hashtag #չեմվճարելու150դրամ (“I will not pay 150 dram”) is quite popular now.
3. The activists are committed. Several groups are working to raise awareness by hanging leaflets and posting caricatures of Mayor Margaryan on buses and bus stops. The numbers of such groups is rising. Police have detained a handful of protesters engaged in such actions.
4. The drivers are not identified as the enemy. Despite initial concerns that drivers would confront passengers unwilling to pay the new prices, it turns out that often they not only object to the old prices, but in some cases even encourage people to pay the old fares. Some drivers have even gone on strike, declaring that they too are against the new prices and do not want any conflicts with passengers.
5. The protest against the new prices has led to citizens raising other concerns regarding the system of public transportation in Yerevan. They are now demanding that authorities provide more vehicles to reduce the number of overcrowded mini-buses and buses; develop a new payment system; provide discounts for students and other special groups; ensure that people with disabilities can take full advantage of public transport; control the length of driving shifts to avoid drivers being overworked; get rid of the hand-to-hand paying system; take steps toward eliminating private ownership of public transportation; and hold the Mayor’s office responsible.
6. Almost every Armenian news source has published articles regarding this case, and the level of coverage has been positive overall.
In the current stage, it is difficult to know which of these factors will play the largest role, or whether they will have any impact at all. There is also the possibility that the authorities will not react to these developments, remaining indifferent until the movement exhausts itself. Time will tell how this case develops; what’s most important, however, is that such movements have a cumulative, positive impact in the development of a demanding, self-reliant, and strong civil society.