by Grigor Yeritsyan, coordination team of Ecolab
It’s been a long way to understand that change for the better takes place only if we struggle for it. This was a challenging and a difficult journey of young Armenians and it has finally led to the #ElectricYerevan movement.
To begin with, like most of the countries that inherited Soviet legacy, Armenia has built its independence on the ashes of the Soviet Union. One of the key elements of the Soviet thinking has always been the idea that change is implemented from above and that the citizens should do nothing but respect imposed rules and decisions. This thinking has largely influenced the Armenian mentality. Many people remained sceptical about their role as “change-makers” in the society and preferred to hope for a better future without taking action for it.
And this is what #ElectricYerevan and similar youth-led civic movements came to change. The conventional wisdom that changes from below are not possible is no longer relevant in Armenia.
Background of #ElectricYerevan
During the last years there have been several successful civic movements and protests that have shaken Armenia. However, #ElectricYerevan became the largest and strongest civic resistance since Armenia’s independence. Unlike the political and partisan protests that are very common in Armenia’s political life, this non-partisan youth led movement managed to mobilize all the diverse segments of the society for a particular cause.
So, how did everything start? The civic unrest in Yerevan was sparked on June 19th, few days after the nationwide hike of 16.7% in electricity prices was announced. The raise in electricity prices was a request of Armenia’s electricity distribution company “Electric Networks of Armenia” which is owned by Russia’s state-owned energy holding Inter RAO.
The protests started on the Freedom Square, as protest usually do, but continued towards the Presidential Palace which is located on Yerevan’s central Baghramyan avenue. Most of the governmental buildings are located here – the Constitutional Court, the Parliament and the President’s residence. This street symbolizes executive, legislative and judicial branches of power in Armenia, which are equally corrupt. Soon, the riot police closed the way to hinder the protesters from reaching the presidential palace. In turn, the protesters began a sit-in protest right there, blocking one of the city’s main roads.
The information about the protests spread worldwide under the hashtag #electricYerevan after the police used water cannons to violently disperse the protest on June 23rd, arresting more than 230 people (soon almost all of them were to be released). The violence and injustice triggered bigger discontent and brought more and more people to the streets. According to different sources up to 20.000 people – mostly young people – joined the protests.
For 15 days Baghramyan Avenue remained blocked by the protesters … something that would hardly happen in any democratic country. The barricades built by the protesters became a dividing line between responsible citizens symbolizing the will of young Armenians to live in a better country on one side, and the police – a symbol of a corrupt and weak political system on the other side.
Joining the Protest
I came back to Armenia from a working trip on the morning of June 23rd – the very day when the police exercised power against the peaceful protesters. From early morning on I have received several calls and messages from friends and colleagues who either suffered from the violence or have been detained. Since then I have joined the protests and spent two weeks full of unity, consolidation and celebration of success.
As a youth worker and civil society representative I could have only dreamed to see as many different young people united for a common cause … liberals, conservatives and nationalists, partisan and non-partisan youngsters, members of NGOs and students, locals and foreigners, representatives of the business sector and celebrities, young people from cities and rural areas. Many would argue that everyone had different goals for being there, but at the end of the day we were there to protect our right to a better future in Armenia.
For Armenia’s authorities it was not clear where these young people come from. Mostly open-minded, smart, intelligent, balanced, tolerant, educated and creative – an image of young persons that the state never promoted. On the contrary: for decades, the state has sponsored educational, political, social and cultural systems attempting at suppressing the independent thinking of Armenian youth, killing any initiative, innovative thinking and developing stereotypes. They have been always afraid of active citizens and tried hard to form a spirit of indifference towards the societal problems. Eventually, they failed!
During the half a month I have protested together with my friends and likeminded people, I’ve seen a very high degree of empathy and solidarity. It’s not easy to describe the positive atmosphere at the occupied Baghramyan Avenue. People were bringing food, providing each other with water, cleaning the area, taking care of and supporting each other. There was permanently music and dancing going on in order to keep the spirit of unity. The protests were very inclusive and everyone was welcome to join. In a couple of days the Baghramyan Avenue became a good place to meet good people, to talk about politics, to share ideas about the future of Armenia and to make new friends.
What Did We Ask for?
From the very beginning the main demand was to void the decision on the raise of the electricity prices sponsored by the President of Armenia and to introduce reforms to the energy sector. After the illegal violence committed by the police, a new demand was introduced: to impartially investigate the events and punish all those policemen who exercised violence against peaceful protesters. There were many other demands voiced by different participants of the protests, varying from the president’s resignation to stopping corruption, eliminating the criminal oligarchy and injustice in the country. However, the main official requests remained connected to the electricity prices.
The Government Finally Reacts
Very soon the authorities reacted on the massive protests taking place in the heart of the city. The President of Armenia Serzh Sargsyan has unsuccessfully tried to calm down the protesters. He has announced that these protests are very important and that they show the trust that had been developed between the police and the protesters, the level of development of the civil society in Armenia and how important it is to respect the values of democracy.
He offered the Armenian-Russian intergovernmental committee to be in charge of an audit of the Russian electricity supplier. The president also suggested that the government of Armenia takes the burden of this increase on itself by paying the difference from the state budget until the results of the audit are conducted and published. He missed a little nuance – citizens of Armenia form the state budget by paying taxes.
This reaction of the President was not considered as a temporary victory and the invitation to a dialogue with the government was rejected. The president offered to meet six representatives of the protesters, however, the crowd refused to appoint them and asked the president to come himself or to connect live through web streaming. Neither of this happened. The invitation was considered a manipulation aiming to delay the price increase and to stop the protests. Generally, there was still a huge discontent and mistrust towards any announcement coming from the authorities. It was not possible to celebrate any victory as none of the demands were met. At the same time we could not trust any Armenian-Russian intergovernmental committee or any unbiased audit, taking into account the level of corruption both in Armenian and Russian governments.
When it comes to the police, their behaviour has radically changed. After the violent attack on the protesters on the 23rd of June, the police reconsidered its aggression and tried to cooperate with the citizens.
The police was surprisingly calm and peaceful and took the reaction of the public and the international community on the violence against activists into account. They even promised to refund all the broken equipment and lost items of the journalists and to start an investigation regarding the civilian policemen exercising violence. Later on some cases were filed against certain policemen, however, none of them had any serious impact. There is not much hope that any of them will be brought to court in the end.
Who Was Behind the Protests?
It is not a surprise that, from the very start, the media and the international community were looking for forces that might be behind the protests. And indeed there were driving forces behind … the corrupt Armenian government, the non-accountable and intransparent Russian-owned company and local oligarchs have triggered the protests themselves and have driven the people to the streets. They were the forces behind all the mess. Other than that, the civic movement started as and remained a highly non-political and non-partisan one. Political parties were not involved and any efforts to take a lead or benefit from the situation were mostly unsuccessful. There has been no sign of foreign involvement, even though especially the Russian and pro-Russian media were eagerly trying to prove otherwise. The demonstrators have always denied any links either to foreign organizations or to opposition parties in Armenia.
The Russian Factor
The protests in Armenia were never anti-Russian, although it was clear from the beginning that protesters accused the Russian company for mismanagement and money laundering. However, thanks to the Russian media and the Russian propaganda machine, there have been moments when the protests could have been turned into anti-Russian ones. From the very beginning, Russian mainstream media was spreading misinformation about the events – ridiculously suspecting an American involvement.
After failing to find any American or foreign trace, they have been trying hard to make comparisons between the Armenian protests and Ukraine’s EuroMaidan movement. Most of the main Russian media outlets have visited the protests. But after biased and falsified coverage most of them were not allowed to approach the protests anymore. At the same time there was little coverage by the European media, which allowed the Russian propaganda to conquer the world’s media space and discredit the protests.
Additionally it is worth to mention that the poor economic situation in Armenia, the social inequalities, the corruption, the economic dependence, the social injustice and the oligarchic system are mostly associated with Russia and the predecessor Soviet Union. Many news agencies pointed out that this reaction of Russian-media showed that the Kremlin, and particularly Mr. Putin is nervous about losing Armenia from its traditional imperial domain.
The Gender Aspect
There is another interesting aspect of #ElectricYerevan I would like to talk about. Along with male protesters, female protesters have equally struggled day and night. This wouldn’t be an important thing to mention for a country that has equal gender treatment. But in Armenia, where women are underrepresented in almost all the areas of public life, this was a significant step. This was a fight that really involved everyone, regardless of gender, religious or political views. Armenian women and girls have demonstrated courage and strength, redefining their roles as citizens. Some of the dances that have been traditionally performed by men were also performed by women during the celebration of small successes. The same regarding musical instruments. By occupying the main street, this movement literally created a public space, where everyone could express him- or herself, organize something and be treated equally.
What Was Achieved in the End?
There is short-term and long-term impact of the movement. Practically, the government promised to conduct an international audit of the company and start an investigation. The decision on the hike has been suspended for now. On the long term the protests showed that people would no longer tolerate the sense of impunity of their authorities.
The youth-led revolution was not only against the government, corruption and social injustice but also against conventional thinking. It was a mental revolution and a wake-up call to the society that young Armenians take charge of.
More information and updates about #ElectricYerevan you can find at electricyerevan.info.
“#ElectricYerevan: A Youth-led Revolution in Armenia” by Grigor Yeritsyan ist lizenziert unter einer Creative Commons Namensnennung – Nicht kommerziell – Keine Bearbeitungen 4.0 International Lizenz.