MOSCOW — Thousands of protesters returned to a main thoroughfare of downtown Yerevan, Armenia, on Tuesday evening, facing down riot police to protest steep electricity price increases planned in the economically strapped country.
Protesters in the capital city marched toward the presidential palace on Marshal Baghramyan Avenue just hours after police had unleashed water cannons to disperse a peaceful overnight sit-in that had taken place in the same spot earlier in the day, detaining more than 230 demonstrators and journalists in the process. The protests, which have been growing over several days, are the most widespread public demonstrations in the Armenian capital since opposition activists rallied thousands against President Serzh Sargsyan’s reelection in 2013.
The demonstrations against electricity prices are less structured than the post-election protests, but they still could resonate widely in the current political climate.
Armenia’s unrest comes as the country is reeling from the protracted effects of the economic crisis that has gripped Russia’s economy over the past year — and, in turn, affected the economies of former Soviet states that depend on Russian markets and the value of the ruble. Russia’s economic troubles were complicated by pressure from Western sanctions imposed in response to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and involvement in eastern Ukraine, punitive measures that the European Union voted Monday to extend for six months.
Armenia receives more than 20 percent of its national income from Russian remittances and joined the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union earlier this year. It is especially dependent on the ebbs and flows of the Russian economy, and its currency, the dram, has suffered for it.
The Russia connection is even more acute in the energy sector.
Armenia’s power grid is controlled by the Armenian Electricity Network, a subsidiary of the Russian company Inter RAO UES, whose major shareholders include Russian state-controlled entities. Last month, the Armenian subsidiary announced plans to raise the price of electricity by more than 16 percent beginning in August. The move was described as necessary because of the depreciation of the national currency, but protesters say the increase would be too much for regular people to afford.
“Spread the word, fill the streets and don’t pay your electric bill,” one organizer told the crowd gathered in Yerevan’s Liberty Square on Tuesday. “If we all don’t pay our electric bills, they can’t do anything about it.”
But the protests may not have gathered strength absent general dissatisfaction with the economic and political situation in the country.
“The society is very polarized. The power is very weak, in terms of its legitimacy. And a significant number of people are not satisfied with the political system,” said Alexander Iskandaryan, a political expert and director of the Caucasus Institute in Yerevan. “They are expressing their dissatisfaction, making statements against the president, against the police, against the ruling Republican Party. But in general, this entire complex reveals the total lack of trust in the political system.”
Tuesday’s protesters were mostly young adults, and word of the demonstrations spread through social media instead of through the political opposition parties. The main group behind the past several days of protests is a civic group called No to Plunder.
Iskandaryan said it is difficult to predict how the protests will develop, given how relatively decentralized and underfunded they are. The demonstrations could continue, they could fizzle or the government could meet the demonstrators’ demands.
“But whatever scenario will come to be, it will not solve the main problem. The main problems will remain,” Iskandaryan said. “And then it will be possible to find another excuse for another rally.”
How the Yerevan protests proceed depends in part on the state’s response. Foreign diplomats expressed concern over how police detained journalists Tuesday morning, while angry protesters were likely galvanized by the use of violence and water cannons to quell and disperse the crowd.
Yerevan police seemed to be restraining themselves Tuesday night. Deputy police chief Valery Osipyan frequently warned protesters to control potential “provocateurs” who might start a confrontation, but he never called out the water cannons.
What happens next will depend on whether interest groups seize the moment created by the demonstrations.
Some Armenian opposition politicians supported the protesters Tuesday. Activists in Russia and Ukraine also cheered the rallies via social media, lauding them as the next generation of demonstrators against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s post-Soviet order.
Some Russian media reports seemed to support that view, citing experts warning that the “hands of the USA” were behind the Armenian protests, which had the makings of a “color revolution.”
But the demonstrations largely avoided any overt political message about aligning with the East vs. the West, and most anti-Russian vitriol was reserved for Yevgeny Bibin, the chief executive of the electricity company instituting the price increases.