Armenia: Reasons for Protest. What Next?

The bulk of the protest movement consisted of young people, who took to the streets under the slogans "No to Plunder!", "We are the Owners of Our Country!" etc. The diversity of the slogans stressed the lack of clearly formulated political demands of the youth movement.

The decision of the Public Services Regulatory Commission (PSRC) to raise electricity tariffs (for the third time in three years) by 16.7% beginning from August 1, 2015 provoked a protest movement in Armenia. Such sharp reaction to the potential price hike has become more of an expression of common protest sentiment over the complicated socio-economic situation and a reaction to the wide-spread doubts about the efficiency of energy resource management on the market by the country's power monopolist CJSC Electric Networks of Armenia (ENA). The protesters believe that the company basically tried to settle its debts by raising the tariffs.

The bulk of the protest movement consisted of young people, who took to the streets under the slogans "No to Plunder!", "We are the Owners of Our Country!" etc.The diversity of the slogans stressed the lack of clearly formulated political demands of the youth movement. The gist of the demands consisted in return to the old tariffs, to an inspection and control over the company's activities. Its efficiency and transparency still raise questions, the answers to which can only be given by independent international audit.

At the peak of the protests, according to different sources of information, about 8,000-10,000 people took part in the demonstration, blocking one of the central arterial roads of Yerevan, the Marshal Baghramyan Avenue. It is noteworthy that the demonstrators included young activists and a large number of sympathizers who were reluctant to take part in any actions of the Yerevan residents. Attempts of parliamentary political opposition forces to join the protests or even head the campaign were met with a negative response from the core of the protesters. The latter were opposed to politicizing the movement and treated professional politicians with distrust, taking into account their potential attempts to rehash the format of the campaign into a protest movement against the ruling elite. The more extremism-inclined forces, for example, the Pre-Parliament civil initiative, found no support among both the activists and the demonstrators around Yerevan in general due to its radical disposition, which was at odds with the spirit of the movement.

According to the organizers of the protest, the campaign was absolutely peaceful, it was essentially a civil and social protest against the decision of the PSRC and the aspiration of the ENA to raise tariffs, though they were generally reflecting the protest potential in Armenia. The civil protest movement in Armenia born in the 1980s has become a sort of an expression of grievance without marginalization of political opposition. The form of activism has become a manifestation of protest against the complicated socio-economic conditions. At the same time, it seems that any protest in Armenia has a certain line conditioned by a security component that no sane politician or civil rights activist would want to cross.

The population of the republic is in quite a tough socio-economic situation. Judging by different assessments, about 100,000 families receiving allowances and about 450,000 pensioners, excluding those receiving unemployment and disability benefits, belong to the poor stratum of the population. For those particular categories of citizens, higher costs of electricity and possibly higher costs of goods and services would certainly aggravate the situation.

Despite the criticism of the initiative to raise the tariffs coming from various political forces, not one of them showed the mobilizing potential which was demonstrated by the informal "No to Plunder!" movement. In other words, not a single political opposition force had the credit of trust given to the spontaneous civil movement, which suggests that the political opposition in the country is generally on the decline. The protest movement emerged extemporaneously, among young people. It had earlier taken part in other campaigns (against higher prices for public transport tickets, against the law on pension reform) and resembled an online self-organized non-political movement without any political programme, without the potential to cooperate with other political forces as a coalition, without distinct leadership, yet with a demand understood by everyone and supported in one way or another, though without any articulate political context and action programme.

Attempts to compare the protests in Yerevan to the events in Ukraine have not held up against criticism from the very beginning. The flags of the European Union that appeared on the Freedom Square in Yerevan on the first day of the protests disappeared almost as quickly as those who tried to manipulate or add political content to the protests in Yerevan. The protesters themselves had no intention to change either the elite or the course of foreign politics.

Today's activists are not the force capable of forming any clear constructive political agenda. Despite all the potency of the movement, it has failed to formulate any demands other than return to the old tariffs. However, the demand coupled with the sui generis "occupy Baghramyan" was sufficient in convincing the government to gradually start keeping its ears open to the events on the streets. From the very first days, readiness for discussions and negotiations with the organizers of the campaign has been expressed, but the call for negotiations was ignored either out of the organizational informality of the movement or due to the maximalism of its organizers. At the initial stage, the positions were absolutely opposite. On the one hand, they were a call for return to the old tariffs, on the other hand, they were a strive for keeping the PSRC's decisions intact on condition that it would name fair reasons for raising electricity costs.

In what seemed like a deadlock situation, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan's proposals to pass a moratorium on electricity bills with the new tariff (the government of Armenia will compensate the difference in price) until realization of an international audit and a presentation of a report on the results of activities of the Electric Networks of Armenia. The decision split the protesters, only part of them continued the thin protest on the Freedom Square. Most sympathizers of the movement left the streets. As for the Baghramyan Avenue, which was cleared of the garbage containers two weeks later, on July 6, only a small group of protesters stayed, failing to either provoke a public outcry or arouse any serious interest.

The response of the government did smooth out the tensions in this respect, however, there are no guarantees that the outrage would not erupt again if the audit keeps the higher tariffs intact.

Therefore, the government needs to continue constant interaction and dialogue with the society, to conduct consultations and form an agenda instead of reacting to arising challenges. A constant dialogue and real steps toward improvement of the socio-economic situation in the country can tamp down existing protest sentiments. However, with account of the factors of regional development, it is still an objectively strenuous endeavor. Moreover, the problems of Armenia can partly be solved within the framework of Eurasian integration, which raises the question about its higher efficiency. It is clear though that the project launched just recently cannot offer immediate output. At the same time, the data set fore by analysts specializing in economics before Armenia's admittance to the EAEU should have a positive effect and should gradually have a positive impact on the living standards of the local population.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.