More than 9,000 demonstrators rallied in the Armenian capital yesterday (24 June) for a sixth consecutive day, defying police calls to abandon their protest against electricity price hikes and police violence.
Chanting “We are the masters of our country,” demonstrators gathered near the presidential palace as they vowed to keep up the pressure on President Serzh Sargsyan’s government until it reverses a decision to raise electricity tariffs.
Public anger has mounted over a move to hike power prices by more than 16% from 1 August in the poor ex-Soviet country of 3.2 million, which has already been badly hit by the economic crisis in Russia.
The protests started on Friday and gained momentum after hundreds of riot police moved in early Tuesday to break up a rally using water cannon, in the most serious confrontation between protesters and police in the past few years.
>> Read: Armenians protest electricity prices
Washington, Brussels and the OSCE all expressed concerns over the violence.
On Wednesday activists called on Armenians to “join the struggle from home” by turning off the lights and electrical appliances in their homes for one hour in the evening.
The crowds in Yerevan swelled after hundreds of protesters – mainly young people – braved the sweltering heat earlier in the day in defiance of a police call to disperse.
“The government will be forced to satisfy our demands if we show our resolve to continue the protests,” 19-year-old student Karen Margarian told AFP.
“What we demand from the government concerns each family in Armenia,” said another young protester, Anait Kazarian.
On Tuesday more than 6,000 rallied near the presidential palace and hundreds stayed for an overnight sit-in.
Supporters sought to prevent a repeat of clashes, with lawmakers, local celebrities and priests forming a human chain between police and the demonstrators overnight.
Similar protests were held in several other cities, including Gyumri which hosts a Russian military base.
The demonstrators’ ranks grew after police detained nearly 240 people, attacked journalists and used water cannon to break up the rally in the small hours of Tuesday. All of the protesters had been released by Wednesday afternoon.
Activists reacted to the crackdown with a dose of humour, returning to the city-centre Tuesday evening armed with rubber ducks and water pistols.
Despite anger over the authorities’ inability to lift the small landlocked nation out of poverty, the mood at the protests has been largely festive.
Some performed the national dance kochari and sang, while others recited poetry and beat drums.
‘New generation of activists’
The hashtag #ElectricYerevan gained traction on Twitter, with supporters taking to social networks to buttress the campaign.
“The Armenian government thinks they solved protester problem with water cannon. Wrong. They baptized new generation of activists,” posted Babken DerGrigorian, a researcher at the London School of Economics.
While some in Russia suggested the protests could grow to resemble Ukraine’s anti-government rallies that ousted a Moscow-backed leader last year, many insisted the Armenian rallies were not politicised.
“This is a non-political reaction to an endemic economic marginalization of a large segment of the Armenian populace,” Serj Tankian, the Armenian-American singer of the band System of a Down, wrote on Facebook.
Owned by the Russian state-controlled holding Inter RAO, Armenia’s power distribution company said the hike was needed due to a sharp devaluation of the national currency, the dram.
The company refused to comment Wednesday but its head said earlier that it would not be able to guarantee steady electricity supplies if tariffs are not increased.
Armenia, an ally of Moscow, has been hit hard by the economic crisis in Russia brought on by falling oil prices and Western sanctions over Ukraine.
In January, the country joined the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, further increasing Yerevan’s dependence on its former imperial master.