Special to the Armenian Weekly
When I shared some of the early photos of the protests by the “No to Plunder” movement on Facebook, one of my friends contacted me to privately protest that I shouldn’t be supporting “chaos” and attempts to create a situation similar to the Ukranian “Maidan” in Armenia. I was reminded of Armenia’s hostile neighbors and therefore the need to not aggravate Russia.
It is a sentiment that I’m sure is shared by others, well-intentioned people with legitimate concerns. But the reality is that the protests in Yerevan are not about an Armenian “Maidan.” They are anything but.
This is a struggle for the right to a decent life and a dignified future in the homeland. It is not a geopolitical struggle of East versus West playing out on the streets of Yerevan, even if some people and media outlets outside the country are trying to portray it as such.
This is evident in the conduct of the protesters themselves. The widely shared videos and photos on social media show them singing patriotic songs and chanting slogans such as, “We are the ones who decide,” “We are the owners of our country,” Together we are stronger.” One signpost from the protest read, “We won’t pay so that your bellies grow.” Another one held by anonymous soldiers said, “We’re not defending [the borders] so that you can plunder.”
Indeed, the main focus of the grassroots movement is the electricity price hike rather than a demonstration of anti-Russian sentiment. One protester (@martiros_yan) clearly argued this point in a tweet picked up by the New York Times, saying: “People from #Ukraine, how many times should we repeat that #ElectricYerevan is not #euromaidan. It is against [the] price hike, not any foreign state.”
This movement should come as no surprise. In the past several years, a growing number of young activists in Armenia have been at the forefront of socio-economic and environmental issues in the country, from the Mashdots Park movement to the protests against the pension law reform. They are free-thinking, brave citizens who have a vision for a better life and a keen sense of ownership of the homeland. And they are not going anywhere.
This much the Armenian government should have learned by now. However, despite growing discontent with endemic corruption and poor socio-economic policies, the government continues to institute unpopular measures and has failed to demonstrate genuine political will to carry out meaningful reform. This is the core of the matter. This is what has brought the citizens out in their thousands.
Anyone with a some knowledge of the geopolitical situation in the South Caucasus and the external challenges Armenia faces understands the need for a delicately crafted foreign policy that treads carefully between different regional and global influencers.
However, internal socio-economic reform, policies to improve the economy, measures to create jobs and safeguard citizens’ rights should be undertaken independent of external geopolitical influences. More importantly, improving the domestic situation should be a priority for the Armenian government not only despite external influences, but also because of an unfriendly external environment. To mitigate hostilities by Azerbaijan, and also Turkey, the Armenian government first and foremost needs the vote of confidence of its citizens and genuine internal solidarity and stability.
With this in mind, the way out of the current impasse is for the Armenian government to reverse its decision to increase electricity fares and explore alternative options as part of a sound, sustainable energy policy for the country. In the long term, genuine across-the-board reforms and free and fair elections that produce a representative government will be the only guarantors for internal peace and—to a great extent—external security.
In the meantime, it is our job to remain highly vigilant and denounce all attempts to portray these events as something they are not. Failure to do so will only hurt the cause pursued by the people behind the “No to Plunder” movement.