#ElectricYerevan: Protesters stay put in Baghramyan Ave, tensions rise

Protesters campaigning against rising electricity prices have defied calls from members of the core group leading the protests, deciding to continue to block Yerevan’s central Baghramyan Avenue as police vowed action “to restore public order”.

No To Plunder, a non-partisan group that initiated large-scale demonstrations on June 19 largely accepted President Serzh Sargsyan’s compromise plan to defuse the crisis and urged their supporters to unblock the central Yerevan thoroughfare that they have occupied since June 23.

In doing so, however, they emphasized that they will continue to pursue the goal for an ultimate cancellation of the unpopular measure “through other platforms”.

After reading out a statement on behalf of the group, one of its leaders, Vaghinak Shushanyan, called on the people to move to nearby Liberty Square. The call drew mixed reactions from the crowd, with many starting to chant “Baghramyan, Baghramyan” and urging each other to remain in the protest venue until their demand for the electricity price hike is ultimately revoked.

At a meeting with senior government officials in charge of economic affairs late on Saturday Sargsyan suggested that while not cancelling or suspending the tariff increase from August 1, the Armenian government will take upon itself the subsidizing of the hike pending an audit of the Russian-owned Electric Networks of Armenia company that operates the country’s power grid. The international audit is expected to be commissioned after relevant agreement with the Russian side.

He vowed that if the audit reveals major mismanagement and corruption within the power-distribution company that would have affected the level of tariffs, the Armenian government will collect back the extra payments and consider changing the operator, including through the nationalization of the power grid.

Activists of the No To Plunder pressure group who have been holding protests in Yerevan since June 19 did not react immediately to the announcement, calling for “nationwide mobilization” on Sunday to determine their attitude towards the government plan and decide on further actions.

At a major rally tonight they decided that they will discontinue their protests at Baghramyan Avenue, but will continue to press the authorities to ultimately revoke the decision on raising electricity prices.

Many in the crowd, however, appeared to intend to stay put in Baghramyan Avenue.

Meanwhile, senior police officers vowed to “restore public order” as tensions grew late on Sunday.

Baghramyan Avenue, a central thoroughfare where a number of state offices, including the presidential administration building, are located, has become the focal point of the continuous protests against the unpopular measure since the beginning of the week.

Activists and citizens protesting the June 17 decision by the state utilities commission to increase electricity tariffs by more than 16 percent from the beginning of August were disperse in the early hours of June 23. More than 200 demonstrators were arrested, a number of local journalists mistreated, their equipment and phones smashed.

The heavy-handed reaction angered people and only strengthened their determination to stay put. So demonstrators turned out in even larger numbers and their protest became permanent.

The police have not used strong-arm methods since then, though periodically reminding the protesters that while their rallies are peaceful, they still constitute the violation of Armenia’s law on freedom of assembly.