The youth protests that have shaken Armenia were years in the making

Thousands of Armenians staged a second day of protests on Tuesday in the capital Yerevan against a hike in electricity prices, defying police who used water cannon to try to disperse them.

For the the last week, protests over a hike in electrical prices have gripped Armenia. Tens of thousands of youth have filled Freedom Square in the capital of Yerevan and faced off against police at a nearby intersection.

While the price increases are the focus of the protests, they also represent broad dissatisfaction with the country’s political system, and are the latest manifestation of the country’s growing youth movement.

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The protesters believe the steep 22 percent increase in electrical prices is due to mismanagement and corruption in the Armenian Electricity Network, a subsidiary of the Russian company Inter RAO UES. They are demanding that the government regulatory agency reverse its decision to permit the price increase at a time when the country’s economy is reeling from the effects of Russia’s economic downtown, and while more than 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. The government says the increase is because of the deprecation of the country’s currency, the dram.

The demonstrations have grown since Tuesday, when police deployed water cannons to clear a sit-in at Marshall Baghramyan Avenue, not far from the presidential palace. Dramatic images of protesters being flung through the air and being soaked with water stoked outrage on social media and drew international media coverage.

Many of the organizers are veterans of past movements, including the Mashtots Park Movement, an Occupy-influenced 2012 protest against development in a city park, and  “We will not pay 150 drams,” a 2013 protest against an increase in transit fares.

“Since 2012, there has really be a reawakening or a new form of social movements in Armenia. That were very much about shunning the political parties and sticking to social issues, realizing that the political parties can’t solve a lot of the issues,” he says. “A new generation of active citizens, and this identity of an active citizen, started to really emerge a few years ago.”

DerGrigorian expects the demonstrations to drag on.

“Basically the situation that’s happening now is really unprecedented. I don’t know what’s going to happen. Because the [electric] company is a Russian owned company, I don’t think the Armenian government has the guts, for lack of a better term, to  just say ‘We’re not going to raise the fees.’ On the other hand, I don’t see the protesters going home, and the longer they stay out there, the more the issue evolves from being about this one single issue to being an actual anti-government protest,” he explains.

DerGrigorian has been active in Armenian social movements for the last four years. In the image below, which occupanies an audio selection of his interview with PRI, he is shown being arrested during the  2013 transportation protests. 

Arpiné Grigoryan, a 30 year-old media consultant, was one of many to join the crowds after the police crackdown. A veteran of the 2013 transit protests, she was drawn to participate in #ElectricYerevan after watching it unfold online. 

“There were 25,000 people watching the livestream [Tuesday] night. I know I couldn’t take it to watch it from distance and not be in the middle of things, even though some of my parents and relatives were worried that it can be dangerous. But we go there with my husband and all of our friends. … The bigger the crowd, the most effective it will be.”

Grigoryan, like most of the protesters, is middle class, and part of a young, connected generation tired of the oligarch-driven and corrupt politics of past generations. “I tried to make people I know to go there even though many are afraid for their security, but the young people are not. They are teenagers mostly, if you see on the front line —  very active, young teenagers who are probably unemployed students, and they are like the driving force,” she says. 

Like many of the activists, she rejects comparisons between the Armenian protests and the Ukraine’s EuroMaidan movement. She doesn’t want to see the country  or the protests  divided along pro- and anti-Russian lines. Pro-Russian news outlets said the US provoked the protests.

“But it’s just bullshit” she says. “It’s not any Maidan. It’s not the same Ukraine scenario, nothing like that. And the people here would do everything to prevent it from becoming the next Maidan. … In reality, it’s not the time. We don’t want to spoil the idea that gathered many people , even pro-Russian people.”

Grigoryan expects the protests to last for weeks. She says the square was occasionally filled with the smell of pizza during the first few days, as protesters ordered delivery, but now they have started bringing food with them and preparing for the long hall. Local bars have donated water, cafes have provided free WiFi and umbrellas  useful when temperatures climb past 90 — and a local print shop let activists use a photcopier to make flyers, so they could reach out people not on social media.

During the sit-in at the square, activists organized clean-ups, spent free time reading books, and sharing ponchiks, a kind of Armenian donut.

“It’s a good place to meet nice people, you know,” she says.

Ultimately, DerGrigorian thinks the tensions currently on display in Freedom Square will be a part of Armenian politics for some time to come, regardless of how the impasse over the electricity fare is resolved.

“Armenian society is going through a really big change and the government is not keeping up. And sooner or later, the difference between what Armenian society is and who is governing them will have to reconcile itself,” he says.

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