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High Voltage: Yerevan Protest Ignites New Wave of Social Change

Special for the Armenian Weekly

Residents living on Yerevan’s Baghramyan Avenue awoke to the sounds of water cannons and police wagons on Tuesday morning as police violently dispersed an overnight sit-in held by activists protesting a recent hike in electricity fares.

Thousands of citizens came out onto the streets of Yerevan Tuesday evening following a brutal police crackdown of protesters earlier that morning. (Photo: Serouj Aprahamian)

Images of young demonstrators being hosed down, beaten, and dragged by riot police and plainclothes officers quickly spread through the internet and social media. More than 230 people were arrested in the melee, with several sustaining injuries.

The disproportionate use of force by the police elicited condemnation from the public and international observers. Many were stunned by the violence of the operation and official labeling of protesters as “hooligans,” especially given the overwhelmingly peaceful interaction that was maintained prior to the crackdown.

Members of the ‘No to Plunder’ civic initiative rally demonstrators at Liberty Square before marching onto Baghramyan Avenue. (Photo: Serouj Aprahamian)

Organizers of the demonstration—members of a non-partisan movement called “No to Plunder”—repeatedly urged attendees not to get into any confrontations with the police. Participants could be heard constantly chanting “Officer, Join Us” (Vostikan Miatseer), displaying solidarity and emphasizing that they were fighting just as much for the officers’ rights as theirs. Those in the crowd who tried to antagonize the police or hurl objects at them were quickly shamed as saboteurs and neutralized.

Such a state of affairs is rare in Armenia, where protests tend to spiral into visceral conflict between activists and police. It was clear that the authorities were taken aback by the peaceful demeanor of the demonstrators, helping explain why the sit-in was allowed to last for nearly 11 hours in the center of downtown Yerevan.

Nevertheless, in the end, when they were given orders to disperse the crowd, the police did so with the traditional methods of aggression they are accustomed to. Rather than instill fear in the population, the widespread use of force only reinvigorated the movement. Whereas about 4,000 demonstrators marched on Baghramyan on Monday, by Tuesday evening, a crowd of 15,000 had gathered in the streets.

Despite the anger over the attacks, protesters on Tuesday continued to emphasize the importance of remaining peaceful. “Our struggle is not against a specific person or the police,” exclaimed a “No to Plunder’’ member over the megaphone before the second march to Baghramyan. “Our struggle is against injustice.” He reminded the crowd of the importance of remaining non-violent and reassured them that victory would be achieved.

These protests mark a clear departure from the politics of the past. Spearheaded by a crop of young activists from various independent civic initiatives that have developed over the past five years, this movement is crystallizing a new spirit of civic engagement in Armenia.

In this and many other ways, these protests mark a clear departure from the politics of the past. Spearheaded by a crop of young activists from various independent civic initiatives that have developed over the past five years, this movement is crystallizing a new spirit of civic engagement in Armenia.

Security forces backed up by a powerful water cannon used force to unblock Marshal Baghramyan Avenue at the end of a nine-hour standoff on Tuesday morning (Photo: Photolure)

This spirit is, first and foremost, a rejection of the single leader-based, political party approach. Young people have seen how the political opposition led by figures such as Levon Ter Petrossian, Raffi Hovhannisian, and, most recently, Gagik Tsarukyan, have failed to bring about change. Meanwhile, independent civic and social movements have achieved significant victories over and over again (a point that is brought up regularly by movement organizers).

Instead of looking toward charismatic leaders or foreign governments for their salvation, this new generation is looking toward local, non-partisan grassroots action. They are not politicized or tied to any NGO’s and categorically reject the concept of a leader. They operate in a democratic manner, putting issues as important as whether or not to meet with the president up to demonstrators to decide (both on Monday and Tuesday, they rejected President Serge Sarkisian’s offer to “negotiate” over their demands).

Their main calling cry is “We Are the Owners of Our Country” (Menk Enk Teruh Mer Yerkrin), a slogan that emphasizes hope, agency, and responsibility for the future of the country, rather than passivity and disillusionment so common among many Armenians.

In addition, these protests have attracted large swaths of young people who make up the core of the movement—not just college students but even teenagers and young kids. They are coming out into the streets voluntarily—with drums in hand, lively energy, and non-violent tactics—showing that they are unwilling to accept unjust, illegal decisions in their homeland. This large youth presence alone sends a strong message to the authorities that the future will not be one of passive and apathetic citizens.

And this message has already been heeded.

These protests have attracted large swaths of young people who make up the core of the movement—not just college students but even teenagers and young kids. They are coming out into the streets voluntarily—with drums in hand, lively energy, and non-violent tactics—showing that they are unwilling to accept unjust, illegal decisions in their homeland. This large youth presence alone sends a strong message to the authorities that the future will not be one of passive and apathetic citizens.

Thanks to the activism of these young people, the 40-percent price hike originally proposed was reduced to 17 percent, public hearings have been held around the issue, and even government officials have begun criticizing the Russian company that operates Armenia’s power distribution network.

What’s more, the back-to-back protests on Baghramyan Avenue have paralyzed several main thoroughfares in the city at the height of tourist season, further raising the costs of the government’s unjust decision. Rather than look at the protests as an attempt to reach the Presidential Palace directly, they should be seen as a means for putting pressure on the authorities through the disruption of state affairs and bringing global attention to the issue.

As of this writing, protesters continue to raise the pressure by demonstrating into the early night on Baghramyan Avenue. What the final fate of their action will be is yet to be determined. But one thing is clear: The political vacuum left open by the traditional opposition in Armenia is quickly being filled by a younger, more democratic and progressive current of social change. The further consolidation and strengthening of this current is likely to be the greatest hope for confronting the unjust system prevailing in the country.

24 Comments on High Voltage: Yerevan Protest Ignites New Wave of Social Change

  1. avatar Paul Nakian // June 24, 2015 at 9:55 am // Reply

    My initial reaction is that such demonstrations are overdue and that it is a sign of hope. Young people have an Inner Instinct about social injustice and the need for change. We face much the same in the United States, with the growing income inequality which, hopefully, is being addressed by several Presidential candidates in both parties. Let’s hope these peaceful demonstrations will lead to greater recognition that Armenia’s potential must be realized. The “oligarchs” must step back some, for the good of the country –and for their soul. Those beautiful new apartments in Yerevan must be opened to more of the people of Armenia. Upward mobility must be a priority of all politicians and political parties. Without hope more and more Armenian youth will leave for other countries. The United States and Russia should try to assist Armenia–there should be cooperation rather than competition (in the worse sense).

    • Paul,

      The United States and Russia, both controlled by the behind-the-scene internationalist power elites, would rather try to keep Armenia impoverished and subordinated to their broader regional and global agendas. The Armenian parliament shooting demonstrated that with utmost clarity. When in 1999 political elites in Armenia consolidated and held promise for the future, they were eliminated. This said, I believe these sinister manipulating powers may allow a regime change (cosmetic not substantial) and some economic development, mainly to stop emigration. But I strongly doubt that they would try to assist Armenia knowing that Armenians, if given a chance, have the potential to make progress in many spheres of life. And if the Armenians make progress, they, naturally, will be more assertive in advancing their demands for self-determination and recognition of Artsakh and for receiving justice for their stolen homeland in Western Armenia. I don’t think, therefore, that either the U.S or Russia would want to have strong Armenia in the turbulent region.

    • Paul, as an outsider I have heard the mantra “no hope” since I visited Armenia in 1993. I returned almost every year (or more frequently) afterwards, until 2011, hearing the words “no hope”, “huiss cheega” as a constant refrain. Yet is was obvious that huge progress was being made. The minibuses were a little less broken down looking. Truck tires were not always bald. Trash containers appeared on street corners. Sidewalks were refurbished. New parks and buildings were constructed. Tourist services improved. Public buildings stopped smelling like toilets as plumbing improved. At every turn things were better than they were the last visit. Could things be better? Of course, it is way too hard to overcome the hurdles to start a business, for example. Public corruption is at unacceptable levels. But the mantra “no hope” wears thin.

    • @ JGinNJ,

      My comment was in a much broader context than truck tires or trash containers and in response to a wish expressed by poster “Paul Nakian” in that “the U.S. and Russia should try to assist Armenia. “No hope”, therefore, is beside the point. I agree that some progress will be allowed, but not to the extent that Armenia, given our certain national qualities, becomes a stronghold, so to speak, in the region. As for improvements you’ve seen in the capital, this is a shared problem of many of us, Diasporans. I’m fortunate, so to speak, to have relatives living in rural areas, and I’m sorry to say that villages are in a deplorable state. This is not badmouthing. This is a concern.

    • Please stop believing social justice nonsense and learn about geopolitics. The United States and Armenia cannot be compared at all.

  2. Young and not so young people need good employment in Armenia to be able to bear hikes in prices to benefit the economy of the country.

    Therefore, peaceful protests by the Armenian people for the suffering people of Armenia are just, and economic issues need to be addressed in an orderly manner. However, events of this nature, could play into the hands of local and/or international trouble makers.

    Time to be more prudent and smart to find peaceful resolution to the latest. What better than good employment for the people of Armenia.
    Not handouts.

  3. Be careful not to turn it to Ucrain’s Maidan style protest, America will be more than happy to see how relations between Armenia and Russia is soured, THE SECURITY IF THE HOMELAND COMES FIRST:

    • Right on, Raffi.

    • avatar Random Armenian // June 24, 2015 at 1:49 pm //

      Raffi,

      The emigration out of Armenia is a national security threat. The corruption and the oligarchs have a negative impact on the well being of Armenians in Armenia. Security threats are not just external.

    • Emigration is also a national security threat, but with better governance and elementary social reforms (certainly not under the current government) this threat can be faced off or minimized. But what do you do with two Turkic states grinding knives in the east and west?

    • avatar Random Armenian // June 25, 2015 at 12:54 pm //

      john,

      One way is to increase the population of Armenia, bring in Armenians from the diaspora, specially those with skills and knowledge gained from US and Europe to what Armenia already has. But you have to make them want to come to Armenia to live.

      It’s not just Russia covering your back, it’s internal strength. Armenia shows her resolve at the borders every day, and makes the most of what she has, but with more people, a better economy, specially in the tech sector, with more tax revenues for the military, will only strengthen Armenia’s security. And less corruption.

      Otherwise you’re giving Russia more influence and decision making when it comes to Armenia’s security. And just like the US, Russia will act on her interests if it conflicts with Armenia’s.

      Armenia needs close relations with Russia, specially in the military area. Armenia needs to build up her own military industry, which is important for any country (Turkey has been building up her own military industry, and thus less dependence on the West, not a good sign for Armenia). Such an industry will employ Armenian engineers inside Armenia. I have a lot of respect for Seyran Ohanyan and I’m sure he knows better which directions Armenia’s military should be taking (I’m sure things are happening under-wraps currently).

      At the same time, Armenia needs to expand economic ties with the West and East as much as it can complement the ties with Russia. Diversification is always good.

      A better economy, increasing population, influx of Armenians (ie brain gain), lower corruption, all re-enforce Armenia’s strength on the borders.

      Russia cannot be the only solution to Armenia’s security. Any social and economic improvements within Armenia strengthens the borders. And this includes harnessing the power of Armenian women. Why use only half your population? Believe me Armenian women are just as smart and determined as the men. Check out American University of Armenian, most of the students are women! And Armenia needs every Armenian’s contributions.

  4. “… paralyzed several main thoroughfares in the city at the height of tourist season, further raising the costs of the government’s unjust decision…” Raising the costs to whom? Shop owners paid a price. Did their workers pay one too? How long should demonstrators be allowed to shut down an area, don’t other people have rights as well?

  5. LOL, freedom democracy? Cmon, it is going to be another Libia, Syria, Ukraine. Bunch of young uneducated kids not realizing without Russia there will be no Armenia, being paid for all this by US.

    • So, you are saying, those uneducated “rioters” are US side and who ever is educated is Russia’s side. you have unrealistic uneducated comments, where only Russia dominated in your thoughts…

      Armenia belongs to Armenians no Russia and no West this is how most young educated kids think about Armenia. Armenia is not a “typical” Middle Eastern county, for bloody revolutions and we have no common border with Russia either..

      Absent of Parliamentarian rule of law will create more unhappiness in Armenia. Presidential power must have some limitation and, should remain as ceremonial symbol in Armenia. This is the only way that systematic corruption can be reduced, where people can have direct control over parliament, and prosecute those MP’s or government official, who abuse their power.

  6. Dear Paul, we cannot blame Russia or the United States for having a failed government in Armenia. The only people we have to blame is us, us Armenians. As it is commonly said…. “In a democracy, people get the government they deserve,” “Every country has the government it deserves.” Now that a viable movement has emerged challenging the THUGS in Armenia that have robed and abused the country since independence, we have to fully commit ourselves and support organizations including these young Armenians who are struggling for regime change in Armenia. Instead of blaming others, we should take the “bull by the horns’ ‘and confront our problems head-on. Time has come for Sargyssyan and his bandit friends to GO!

    • {We cannot blame Russia or the United States for having a failed government in Armenia. The only people we have to blame is us, us Armenians.}

      This is a pure rhetorical statement. On the one hand, yes, the people have to blame themselves for having a failed government. On the other hand, whenever the people attempt to change such government and bring forward patriotic, public-spirited, intellectually advanced, and experienced individuals, suddenly, behind the scenes, something terrible happens in order not to allow such people to seize power. My guess is that this is happening because the big shots—the U.S., Russia, what have you—prefer corrupt, uneducated thugs over honest and intellectually capable individuals. Why? Because corrupt, uneducated thugs are more subservient to the tasks they’re given by the big shots. They’re more controllable by them, whereas patriotic power-holders are more accountable to the people.

  7. The youth in Armenia must also demand higher wages and to leave alone
    people who want to start a business.Stop the monopolies and the jealousies of the oligarch who demand briberies from people who want to open a business.There must be equal justice in Armenia and higher wages.

  8. Unbelievable. When will the government realise that the people are tired. People are fed up with the jobs that do not exist, are tired with the increasing cost of living, Can’t anybody in the government see this and feel for the population at large?

  9. I fear that this movement is being gradually co-opted by Western interests. If these protests resort to violence or vandalism I have absolutely no problems with law enforcement authorities using deadly force to restore law and order. Due to Yerevan’s complimentary politics there are large numbers of Western mercenaries waiting on the political sidelines in Armenia to take advantage of any political unrest. If the current government is somehow toppled, know that Uncle Sam’s servants will be the ones best positioned to snatch political power in Yerevan. Armenia is too vulnerable and too small to afford making the mistakes made by Serbians, Georgians and more recently Ukrainians. If it has to come to that, I would much rather Russians taking over Armenia. Armenians still seem incapable of effective/efficient self-governance. We have proven this throughout our history: Self-rule is simply not in our DNA. To develop the kind of DNA needed for effective self-governance we as a people will need centuries of peace and stability. Unfortunately for us, the south Caucasus is NOT the right place to expect any peace and stability. Let’s therefore pray for Pax Russicana.

  10. The Russians closed your churches, turned them into storehouses, drove the religion underground, took away civil rights etc etc etc and you want a “pax Russicana”!! Russia does no and never did have Armenia’s interests at heart. Armenia was just another enslaved nation. Is that to be Armenia’s future? I hope not. Armenia has a tradition of intellectual achievement, art, music, architecture etc. Should that be subservient to Russian domination again? I think not. Democracy is not DNA, it is a product of intelligence, education, desire and a spirit willing to stand up to entrenched powers and force change if necessary. Armenia’s future lies with a free, independent and proud people, not under Russian self serving ideas.

    • You are repeating the same nonsense disinformation you posted in the Vermont Legislation thread.

      The Russians did not close our churches: the Bolsheviks did. (homework for you pal: find out who overwhelming majority of Bolshevik leaders were in 1917. Hint: they were not ethnic Russians).
      Bolsheviks also closed Russian churches.
      Russians are Orthodox Christians: they don’t close churches, they open them.
      Bolsheviks/Soviets were/are Anti-Christian.

      About that alleged “subservient” thing: if the choice is between extinction at the hands of Genocidal Turkic countries which border RoA on two sides and being “subservient”,…..take a wild guess.

      It has been a cherished dream of Turks for Russia to leave Caucasus, so they can finally achieve their centuries long goal of wiping out Armenia and completing the Pan Turanic chain.

  11. ==== “The disproportionate use of force by the police” This is pure propaganda. The police asked the people to move many times -they refuse. The west is preparing a orange revolution like the one in Ukraine. The government is doing a very good job-the people need to start working instead of protesting. This protests are organized by the enemies of Armenia. Sargsyan is the best leader Armenia ever had.

    • Do you seriously think Putin is Armenia’s friend. The old Soviet mentality is clear. Whatever term you apply, Bolsheviks, Communists or whatever, the reality is Russia acts in Russia’s interest as does any nation. Armenia needs to develop an honest democratic government and rely upon itself to the greatest extent possible.

  12. ==== How Ukraine was taken down – by the emissaries sent from US. Same story is in Armenia- the paid emissaries was sent from US to spread anti government propaganda and take down the pro Russian government. Only Russia can guarantee peace in Armenia

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