Protests in Armenia forcibly ended by the police

Mon 6 Jul 2015

Protests in Armenia forcibly ended by the police

The Yerevan Police ended the protests that went on for the past few weeks in the streets of Yerevan.  The police had warned the protesters that the security forces will not allow for them to move any further after the protesters gave the authorities the ultimatum to comply with their demands by 9pm this Monday, or the protest would start moving its barricades towards the presidential palace one step at a time every day. They were demanding the reversal of a decision by Armenia’s Public Services Regulatory Commission to approve the third price increase in three years for power supplied by the Russian-owned Electric Networks of Armenia (ENA). They were also asking for the company to be audited, alleging corruption and mismanagement within its ranks. Since the police violently dispersed the protest earlier on 23 June, they were also calling for an investigation into the violence used against demonstrators and journalists. The police did not use batons and a water cannon or attack reporters in sharp contrast with their violent crackdown on a larger number of mostly young protesters who first occupied the street leading to the presidential palace in Yerevan on June 22-23. Ashot Aharonian, the chief police spokesman, praised the crowd for not putting up strong resistance to security forces. He said none of the detained individuals will be prosecuted or fined.

The protest

Protests originally began on 19th of June, after an Armenian government panel agreed to raise electricity rates by up to 22 percent at the request of the Russian-owned Electric Networks of Armenia (ENA) which has a monopoly on power supplies in the country. Police has been maintaining a cordon, but have largely left the demonstrators alone since a disastrous intervention on June 23 when nearly 240 people were detained, and more than 20 were taken to hospital as police moved in to disperse the crowd using water cannons and batons,. Journalists covering the demonstration were among those roughed up and detained. The protesters were soon back, and have occupied the same spot – Baghramyan Avenue – continuously since then, using large rubbish bins as barricades, and ignoring police demands to clear the thoroughfare.
About one-third of Armenia's population lives below the poverty line. High unemployment and low wages push thousands of people to leave the country every month. "The price hike […] doesn't make much sense for people because Armenia is the country of the former Soviet republics where electricity is the most expensive," Stephan Astourian, director of Armenia studies at the University of California, has said. "There is deep suspicion of mismanagement in that Russian company, Electric Networks of Armenia, that is owned by a huge Russian conglomerate."

International reactions

The previous events in Armenia raised international concerns over the possibility of another escalation between authorities and protesting citizens. Armenia's Western partners call for impartial, thorough and prompt investigations. Michael Georg Link, Director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) said, “Armenia, like all OSCE participating States, has committed itself to protect and promote the fundamental freedom of peaceful assembly, and must fully respect the rights of the protesters in Yerevan to exercise this freedom”. Steering Committee of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum said, “The act of aggression against peaceful protesters by the Armenian authorities shows a complete inability or unwillingness of the authorities to interact with the society, as well as to protect the rights of Armenian citizens”. “The pattern of brutal attacks on protesters contradicts all the commitments that the Armenian authorities have undertaken in the framework of its relations with the European Union,” the Committee added. Russia’s ambassador to Armenia, Ivan Volynkin, told reporters “This situation can be settled only at a negotiating table, which is what has been repeatedly proposed by Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan”. He referred to two proposals of the Armenian leaders to meet with the protesters, which they turned down, saying that their only demand was that he just announces the cancellation of the decision.

Previous attempts to reduce tension

On July 3, it was announced that the police would be looking into allegations of assaults and other wrongdoing committed by officers, but only with regards to journalists. The government has been reluctant to back down on the electricity price issue. Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamyan said on June 25 that subsidised rates would be offered to 105,000 vulnerable households. Two days later, President Serzh Sargsyan said the government would carry out an audit of ENA, and would cover the price difference for everyone until that was completed. This promise seems to have thinned out the crowds attending the rally to an extent, although many were still sceptical that the government will act in good faith. Economist Artak Manukyan claims there will be no use for the promised audit.  “The statement of conducting an audit in ENA, more specifically, this audit, by and large, is a bluff”, he said. The audit ordered will not disclose the ENA’s frauds, to identify them the company should order a special kind of study, which is called possible exposure of frauds.

What now?

Police on Monday also peacefully detained about 20 demonstrators who refused to disperse, but said they would soon be freed. At the time of this writing it was unclear whether the protest would resume elsewhere in the evening.

ABC News, Aljazeera, Radio Free Europe, Tass, Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Armenia Now 1  2, European Forum