Armenian protests threaten regional stability

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Protestors in Yerevan. [Occupy.com]

The ongoing protests over electricity prices are a danger to the Sargsyan government, according to Strafor, the global intelligence company.

Protests in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, over the government’s plan to raise electricity prices 16% are now in their third week. Though the government has made some concessions, demonstrators continue to take to the streets daily. Public protests are frequent in Armenia and so far do not pose a significant threat to the government. More important, in spite of widespread comparisons to Ukraine’s Euromaidan movement, Armenia’s electricity protests do not threaten Russian interests. The demonstrations, however, might grow if clashes between protesters and security forces turn violent. Yerevan likely has the Euromaidan analogy in mind and will seek to accommodate or wait out the protesters to avoid such a scenario.

The public controversy began when the government announced on 17 June that it would implement a 16% hike in the price of electricity for public consumers starting on 1 August. Thousands of people gathered in Yerevan’s Freedom Square on 19 June to protest. The demonstrators began a coordinated march on 22 June from Freedom Square to the presidential palace, but riot police stopped the procession on Baghramyan Avenue. The marchers then staged a sit-in that became known on social media as the “No to Plunder” event. Police arrested several hundred protesters and used water cannons on demonstrators to clear them from the street, leading to dozens of injuries.

The crackdown spurred larger demonstrations and around 15,000 people gathered in central Yerevan on 23 June. The Armenian government then decided to adopt a softer tone, releasing over 200 detained demonstrators while pledging to stop forcibly removing protesters and to initiate a dialogue. But protesters continued to come out over the following week and refused to return to Freedom Square from Baghramyan Avenue, where they continued to block traffic and to reiterate their demand that the government reverse the rate hike. The government responded, announcing June 28 that it would delay the price increase to allow for an audit of the state-owned electricity company. The decision did not fully disperse the demonstrations but did split the protesters. The number of people on the streets dropped, and some agreed to leave Baghramyan Avenue.

Armenia has a higher tolerance for public demonstrations than other states in the former Soviet Union, making such tolerance a key factor in assessing the current protest movement. In a typical year, Armenia has several demonstrations on numerous economic, security or military issues and general opposition to the government. Some of these protests have brought tens of thousands of people into the streets. Still, they typically do not pose a major threat to the government or challenge the strong position of Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, who has ruled the country since 2008.

However, in the context of the crisis in Ukraine that began with the February 2014 Euromaidan protests, the media and public officials now pay greater attention to large demonstrations in the former Soviet Union. Shortly after the Yerevan demonstrations began, the media began to speculate as to whether this might be the “Armenian Maidan.” Armenia’s status as a Russian ally has only fueled these rumors. Since the fall of the government of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, Yerevan has integrated more closely with Moscow both economically and militarily. Many now speculate that these electricity protests could unseat the government or reverse the country’s geopolitical position.

But to this point, the protests have had little to no geopolitical motivation or evidence of external support. Because Russian utility firm Inter RAO UES owns Armenia’s electricity grid, some see the protests as focused on Moscow’s influence. Demonstrators, however, have been clear that their focus is on reversing the government’s decision to raise electricity prices and not on broader strategic issues. Even if demonstrations were to take on a broader message or call for Armenia to shift away from Russia, there is little cultural and political support for the country to move toward the West in the same way Ukraine did prior to the Euromaidan protests. Yanukovich’s decision to back out of the EU Association and Free Trade Agreement sparked the Euromaidan protests. Armenia’s president, by contrast, made the same decision with relatively little public backlash.

Currently the protests have little significance on the strategic level. The situation could change if demonstrators can sustain the movement or if they clash with police. Continued disruptions could lead to a police crackdown. Protesters might also decide to abandon their nonviolent methods. So far, the government has shown considerable restraint since the original crackdown on 23 June, but any change in tactics could enflame the protests and escalate the situation.

Since the Euromaidan movement, Russia has become sensitive to the possibility of escalation. Perhaps to prevent a replay, Moscow has engaged in a flurry of activities to draw closer to Yerevan, such as granting $200 million in financing for Armenia to purchase Russian arms and letting Armenian courts try a Russian soldier accused of murdering an Armenian family, a case that had sparked protests earlier in 2015. But while Moscow is worried, the Armenian government appears willing to wait and see or even to concede on the electricity hike issue to avoid the unstable and unpredictable environment that would accompany the use of force against the protests.

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