Electric Yerevan and the end of apathy; Electric Yerevan may not have been an Armenian Maidan but activists hope and analysts believe it marks the end of the country’s era of apathy
(Business New Europe – bne.eu – Monica Ellena in Yerevan – July 27, 2015)
The intricate mandala that Lidia painted no longer adorns the boiling tarmac in Marshal Baghramyan Avenue. The whirling white-chalked pattern got washed away as the Armenian police dismantled a nearby makeshift barricade of rubbish bins and pushed away a few hard-core demonstrators, who were camping a few yards away from the presidential residence and the National Assembly.
“It’ll bring a positive karma,” the 27-year-old psychologist who uses mandalas to treat depression told bne IntelliNews on June 29, at the height of the demonstration against a 16.7% hike in electricity tariffs, which drew tens of thousands to the capital’s key thoroughfare. “It is important to be here, together and in peace.”
Lidia is no activist. Reserved and softly-spoken, she did not camp overnight on the pavement, deliver passionate speeches standing on the line of rubbish bins, or join the passionate chants for Hayastan!, the country’s name in Armenian. Still, she is one of thousands of Armenians – women, old people, and children – who for the first time took to the streets to show that people have voices and the time had come for authorities to hear them.
Apathy is over
For two weeks the electric mood of thousands of protestors galvanised Yerevan. Police attempts to forcibly disperse the crowd with water cannons and arrests only resulted in bringing more people on to the street – up to an estimated 20,000 at its peak.
“I never had 20,000 guests at my birthday party,” 24-year-old activist Vaghinak Shushanyan told a cheering crowd on Baghramyan on June 25, before cutting a cake with the symbol of an electric volt.
It didn’t last. As the numbers started to dwindle, the activists continued to demonstrate. But after two weeks, the police dismantled the protests – but less forcibly than before.
Even so, analysts and organisers alike maintain the struggle was not in vain.
“The era of apathy is over,” said Richard Gyragosian, founding director of the Yerevan-based think-tank Regional Studies Centre. The street protests marked the emergence of “a newly empowered agent of change, namely an educated youth, with less fear and more commitment for change”, he stresses.
Whether out of youthful lack of fear or a new awareness of citizens’ rights, the IT-savvy, 20-something activists behind the civic movement No To Plunder masterminded the street protests against the electricity hike – the fifth since the Russian-owned Electric Network of Armenia (ENA) became the sole owner of the power grid in 2006. They said the increase would hit households hard in a country where one third of the 3.2mn population live in official poverty.
And the older generation joined in approvingly.
“They are brave, but this is what we need if we want change, brave young Armenians to stand up for what they believe in,” Andrenik Grigoryan remarked on June 30 while watching the young crowd lounging in the shade to escape Yerevan’s sweltering heat. His remarkable white moustache and a paling tattoo on his forearm betray the 84-year-old’s young spirit. “Yes, brave,” he added, gesturing animatedly while fellow senior citizens nearby nodded in agreement.
“Electric Yerevan has irreversibly changed Armenian society,” remarked Babken DerGrigorian, a 29-year-old activist and researcher at the London School of Economics. “[Social movements] are seen more and more as a legitimate approach to addressing the problems of our country.”
One of the protest’s social media front-man, DerGrigorian is skeptical about the importance given to Twitter and Facebook. But the hashtag he coined, #ElectricYerevan, trended across all social media and helped to attract international media attention.
“As long as the government keeps trying to implement policies that are so much at odds with public opinion, I think you’ll see similar mobilisations in the near future,” he said.
Even though it spread to other cities, Electric Yerevan failed to gather the critical mass needed to turn it into an “Armenian Spring”. Some observers fear that the excitement will ultimately turn to disappointment as things return to business as usual.
Certainly, some caution is warranted. “The protest showed there is an enormous energy that could explode, but Armenia’s problems are deeply rooted. Enthusiasm and grassroots activism, though valuable, cannot affect the establishment,” says Hayk Balanyan, an economist at the State Agrarian University’s Agribusiness Teaching Centre.
Past protests set the “ground work” for Electric Yerevan, maintains DerGrigorian, who researches social movements in Armenia. On March 1 2008, thousands of protesters gathered to denounce what they called the fake results of the presidential elections. The riot police’s heavy-handed response left 10 people dead and dozens injured.
Ever since, Armenian activists have had more success when focussing on single issues, which are practical and apolitical. In 2013 an anticipated two-fold raise of public transport fares mobilised thousands of mostly young people. Their activism helped to persuade the government to keep ticket prices at AMD100 (€0.18).
“We need to build on this,” said Sos Avetisyan, a 56-year-old former journalist detained with 236 others in the first round of arrests on June 23. “People want smooth changes, the wounds of violent clashes from the past are still painful.”
Electric Yerevan’s leaders also upheld its apolitical, unpartisan nature. “Apolitical doesn’t mean the issues lack political substance, it means it doesn’t [aim at] trying to take over the government,” argued DerGrigorian. “It’s more fundamental than that. It’s saying that regardless of who is in power, state institutions need to be held accountable to the people.”
Frustration over the controversial electricity tariffs brought people together spontaneously. That became both a strength and a weakness, as the lack of leadership left demonstrators confused and hindered the development of a concrete action plan.
Civilnet.am’s journalist Maria Titizian, an Armenian-Canadian who moved to Yerevan in 2001, agreed, hoping though that “these kinds of movements understand that leadership is not necessarily an evil, especially when there is transparency and accountability. While consensus decision-making sounds great on paper, at critical junctures, the imperative of leadership becomes even more apparent.”
No Maidan-ers, yet
With the Russian company ENA holding a monopoly on Armenia’s power grid, some commentators labelled the street protests an Armenian Maidan, after the protests in Ukraine that ousted the corrupt regime of former president Viktor Yanukovych. But this was rejected by most demonstrators, who claimed the protest was not anti-Russian, but rather pro-Armenia. Still, “Free Armenia” chants were heard loud and clear in Moscow.
“The movement isn’t anti-Russian, but without doubt there exists an anti-Russian element,” admitted DerGrigorian. “And Russia knows it too.”
Armenia has been hit hard by Russia’s economic downturn as the two countries’ economies are deeply intertwined and public grievances with the former imperial master have long been building. In January, Yerevan joined the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), further increasing its economic dependence.
Over the last 15 years, the Armenian government has systematically relinquished control of state assets to Russia, mostly as a means of debt repayment, according to a recent study. Russian companies operate Armenia’s key energy supplier and most of the banking, telecoms and transport sectors are in Russian hands. For Stefan Grigoryan, chairman of the Analytical Centre on Globalisation and Regional Cooperation (ACGRC), the decision to deal with one single player is “unwise in any circumstance”.
But the demonstrations did achieve some things. The Armenian government did not reverse the hike but addressed concerns about the way the company is being run – hitting ENA with a AMD75mn ($158,412) fine and an international audit into its books.
The Russian government also moved to smooth things over with Yerevan, providing it with a $200mn low interest loan to purchase Russian-manufactured weapons, and agreeing that a Russian soldier, Valery Permyakov, charged with murdering a family of six in the country’s second city, Gyumri, in January will be tried in Armenia.
As Lidia’s mandala survives only in photos, its good karma may have worked after all.