Armenian president tries to defuse electricity protests

Armenian authorities threatened Sunday (28 June) to forcefully break up a protest against rising electricity prices and police brutality after the president announced concessions in a bid to calm tensions.

Thousands of demonstrators were expected to take to the streets of the capital Yerevan in the evening after President Serzh Sargsyan’s promise that the government would shoulder the burden of a controversial hike in electricity prices failed to appease the activists.

Police threatened to break up the rallies which grew out of dissatisfaction with rising electricity prices and have since morphed into a broader protest movement in a country already hit hard by the economic crisis in Russia.

After police dispersed a rally with water cannon in the small hours of Tuesday and arrested nearly 240 people, new demands sprang up, with protesters now calling on the authorities to punish police.

Activists have called on ordinary Armenians to take to the streets Sunday evening to decide on the further strategy of the movement.

“If people do not accept the proposal to restore public order on Bagramyan Avenue then it will be us who will restore it,” senior police officer Valery Osipyan told reporters.

He said many residents had complained about the noise and rubbish on the streets.

Crowds have been taking to the streets of the capital Yerevan since 19 June to protest against a planned 16-percent hike in electricity prices from August in the largest anti-government demonstrations the ex-Soviet nation of 3.2 million has seen in years.

>> Read: Armenian electricity protests continue for sixth day

Under pressure to end the unrest, President Sargsyan said the Armenian power distribution company would be audited and could even be nationalised.

The company is owned by a Moscow-based state holding which is controlled by a top ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Chanting “Victory!” and dancing, some 10,000 people rallied near the presidential palace on Saturday, blocking traffic on the city’s main thoroughfare.

“We will continue our fight,” one of the activists, Vaginak Shushanyan, told a cheering crowd.

The protests have been organised by a non-partisan group called “No to Robbery,” with the hashtag #ElectricYerevan gaining traction on social media.

‘Respect for Maidan’

Protesters insist their rallies are not political but some demonstrators have expressed admiration for Ukraine’s popular uprising dubbed the Maidan that ousted a Moscow-backed government last year.

“Mad love & respect for #Maidan,” activist Babken DerGrigorian said on Twitter.

“Dear Ukrainian allies: #maidan & #ElectricYerevan are partners. Share vision of a better tomorrow.”

Sargsyan said the government would go ahead with the tariff hike but would temporarily cover the costs of the increase.

“Annulling the tariff raise is extremely dangerous,” he said.

“If an audit confirms that the tariff raise is justified, consumers will start paying according to a new price,” he warned.

Meeting with Russian Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov last week, Sargsyan noted that Moscow was the largest investor in Armenia’s economy but urged companies working in his country to pay greater attention to “social responsibility”.

Both activists and President Sarkisian denied the rallies were anti-Russian.

But grievances against former master Moscow, which owns some of the most prized assets in Armenia, have long been building and rippled to the surface this month.

Bilateral ties received a huge blow in January when a Russian soldier serving at the Russian military base in the tiny Caucasus nation killed a family of seven including a six-month-old boy. Moscow’s decision to have the soldier tried in Russia further strained relations.

Sargsyan said last week that the Russian soldier would stand trial in Armenia in a move some saw as an attempt to calm tensions.

Armenia has been hit hard by the economic crisis in Russia brought on by falling oil prices and Western sanctions over Ukraine.

In January, Armenia joined the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union, further increasing Yerevan’s dependence on its former imperial master.

Washington, Brussels and the OSCE have all expressed concern over police violence in Armenia.

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