Social movements and popular protests organized around them against government policies have become a part of global politics since the Occupy Wall Street movement. Although the immediate cause differs, they all have similar underlying motivations: The inability of governments to understand the demands of society and find a compromise, the use of excessive police force against the people and the people’s deep down loss of trust.
The latest example of social unrest hit Armenia on June 17, following a decision by the regulatory body to raise the electricity prices by 16 percent, effective from Aug. 1. The raise triggered some people to protest against the government’s decision on June 19, which, as in previous examples, turned into a much bigger protest after police used excessive force against demonstrators on June 23. Despite Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan’s pledge on July 27 to review the decision, the protestors are still blocking Yerevan’s main thoroughfare, Baghramian Avenue, where the parliament building, the presidential residence and many embassies are located.
The fact Armenia is a close strategic ally of Russia and most of the country’s assets, among them electricity, are owned by Russian businesses makes recent this turbulence all the more interesting. Pro-Russian analysts and media outlets have already denounced the demonstrators as “pawns of the games of great powers,” while some Russian officials likened them to the Euromaidan protesters of 2013-14 in Ukraine, also highlighting their similarities to the color revolutions of the early 2000s. The recent memory of toppling Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s former president, with similar tactics used by the protestors and criticism from Western countries regarding the heavy-handed methods of police have fueled conspiracy theories.
However, the accumulation of displeasure in the country against corruption, Russian monopolistic control of most of the economy and distrust towards the government has played an important role. Moreover, the belief massive graft was involved in the creation of the main electric supplier, Electric Networks of Armenia (ENA), has driven public anger. The fact the ENA is fully owned by Inter RAO United Energy Systems, a large Russian company whose chairman, Igor Sechin, is a close friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin, makes it all the more complicated. Though ENA representatives argue they need the price increase as a result of sharp decline in the currency, there is a popular suspicion of a hidden agenda. As a result, President Sargsyan’s announcement to audit the planned increase and subsidy the prices until then has not eased the tension, as people now demand a more durable solution.
Typically, demonstrators are mostly young and mobilized through social media. They have tried, and so far succeeded, to distance themselves from political groups. They are not a homogenous group, with different demands and a lack of a leadership cadre. So far, the so-called #ElectricYerevan movement has mobilized hitherto uncoordinated people on a common ground of an electricity price hike. But the lack of leadership and a long-term objective weakens the movement.
On the other hand, the Armenian government does not have a good reputation in dealing with public unrest, often resorting to disproportionate use of force. It was successful in dispersing crowds in previous cases fairly easily. Yet, the examples of the past few years from around the world highlight possible different outcomes.
Though most pundits are doubtful about its ability to do so, the Armenian government might consider this time paying more attention to the demands of the society. Otherwise, the unrest might easily spread to other cities with wider demands. No doubt, the result will be watched closely in nearby and faraway countries.