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The power of Electric Yerevan

Strong-arm tactics and cynical compromises are yet to send Yerevan's protesters home. Is this the beginning of the end for the politics of old in Armenia?

 

On 22 June, roughly 2,000 protesters gathered in front of the Opera House at Yerevan’s Freedom Square to protest planned hikes in electricity tariffs. From Freedom Square, they marched towards the presidential residence at 26 Baghramyan Avenue to voice their demands, but were blocked by police. In response, the protesters sat down where they were and remained through the night. The next morning, police forcibly dispersed the protest with water cannons, and detained around 250 people.

The dramatic images of the dispersal and video clips showing plainclothes officers harassing and attacking journalists galvanised the city. Personal anecdotes from protesters on social media describing the use of excessive force were widely circulated. One account in particular was shared widely online and on the street: a girl, around 17 years old, spoke of how she had been attacked by a plainclothes officer. Later, the girl lost consciousness after hitting her head on the asphalt. She ended up in hospital.

The next evening, around twice as many protesters showed up at Baghramyan.

#ElectricYerevan

A few days later, the numbers of protesters peaked at around 20,000. Although the numbers of protesters have abated since then, the barricades on Baghramyan Avenue remain.

The protests have now entered the next stage. Organisers are now trying to implement better management, disseminating protester guidelines (no alcohol, mutual respect, tidiness), and organising a general assembly with broad representation from civic initiatives and thematic working groups open to the public for discussing issues related to the protests.

Electric Yerevan protesters blocking Mashtots Avenue before joining main protest on Baghramyan Avenue.

Although it is predominantly young people that pull all-nighters on Baghramyan Avenue, central Yerevan sees a much broader representation of society at night. This fact, as well as protests in the cities of Gyumri and Vanadzor, further demonstrate Armenian society's wider support for the movement.

Russian Connection

Little covered by international media, evidence of corruption in and gross mismanagement of Armenia’s energy monopoly, the Electric Networks of Armenia (ENA), owned by Russian Energy Company Inter RAO UES, has been a key grievance of protesters.

ENA has accumulated debt by habitually overpaying suppliers and contractors, as well as renting luxury cars and apartments. Director of the ENA, Yevgeny Bibin, who has publicly admitted his mismanagement of the company, was invited to a meeting by the Armenian Regulatory Commission to explain the proposed tariff hikes and to defend himself against allegations of corruption. The fact that Bibin did not even show up to the meeting only added to people's feelings of injustice and resentment toward the proposed hikes.

The corruption and mismanagement of ENA reflect wider problems of governance and the political environment in Russia. When Russian state-owned companies (in which theft is not the exception but the norm) take over infrastructure in neighbouring countries, this is, in effect, 'exporting corruption'.

This process strengthens Russia’s hand in the region, where the local elite see Moscow both as an administrative model to emulate and the power that guarantees their personal political survival (as long as they are malleable to Russian interests).

Although the Electric Yerevan protests are not anti-Russian in nature, against the backdrop of these geopolitical realities, these demonstrations are nevertheless a display of citizens' dissatisfaction with their leaders' lack of accountability.

Electric Yerevan protester on barricades with placard: 'We are becoming a country'.

Deals offered to Armenia by Russia in quick succession over the past few days belie Moscow’s stake in the matter. In the course of just a few days, Russia offered to hand over Russian soldier Valery Permyakov (who murdered a family of seven in Gyumri earlier this year), to extradite Armenian truck driver Hrachya Harutyunyan (currently serving out a prison sentence in Russia for a traffic accident), and $200 million in arms. If any appeasement was expected for these overtures, it did not happen.

Furthermore, information and analysis coming from Kremlin-aligned information sources demonstrate that Moscow is incapable of understanding civil society in Armenia. Viewed through a Kremlin lens, the Armenian citizenry cannot attempt to hold its own government accountable for corruption and abuses without a hidden hand or greater conspiracy being involved.

Russian state media has largely framed of Electric Yerevan as stemming from 'outside influence'. This response has only further insulted Armenians, denying them their agency and discounting the legitimacy of their grievances.

Anatomy of protest

Electric Yerevan is the latest manifestation of a tradition of dissent and contention against government abuses, which include successful protests against mining projects in Armenia’s north and planned transport fare hikes for Yerevan.

The informal activist networks, established through face-to-face interaction and routines that resulted in solidarity building during those contentious actions, set the stage for Electric Yerevan.

Taking into account this history of contention, as well as the non-democratic nature of the Armenian context, it becomes clear why Electric Yerevan is structured in such a loose, informal way. In non-democratic states such as Armenia, NGOs and social movement organisations seldom constitute the most salient component of civil society when it mobilises. Rather, loose and horizontally structured networks of people forming a more informally organised movement emerge as more significant.

In Armenia, where a 'power vertical' similar to Russia’s exists, there is no straightforward process for movements to make open coalitions with institutions or establish structured channels of interaction with political elites. As the Armenian state is incapable of responding to or channeling dissent in institutionalised ways, repression or cooptation from the state emerge as the main danger to movements.

The loose, horizontal structure of the Electric Yerevan thus presents a significant obstacle to the Armenian state's capability to attack or dismantle it. This structure is both a strength of the movement and a logical adaptation to the realities of the Armenian political arena.

Challenges, advantages

The demands of the protesters are specific: to repeal the electricity tariff hike, to review the current fare, to hold the police accountable for the excessive use of force on 23 June. Chances for the movement to succeed in its demands depend on several factors.

Two major obstacles to the movement exist. First, there are no major elite conflicts within the halls of power that might prompt officials to look for support outside, potentially allowing challengers such as Electric Yerevan a way into the official political arena.

Second, there are no influential elite allies inside the state apparatus that could offer material and symbolic resources to the movement or pressure for movement goals. The local soap opera celebrities and MPs who attempted to form a 'human shield' at the barricades have yet to offer any substantive benefits to the movement beyond a show of moral support. President Serzh Sargsyan's power vertical, where formal mechanisms of policy making are limited to those in or allied with the ruling Republican Party, has assured the exclusion of outsiders to administrative support. The few oppositional MPs who support the movement are themselves largely marginalised and excluded from power.

On the positive side, Armenia’s relative media freedom is as an important resource for the movement. Although a large part of Armenian media remains under the control of official and semi-official Yerevan, alternative media sources, such as Civilnet and smaller independent publications such as Hetq and Epress, speak to movement participants directly, allowing them to represent themselves.

These channels have provided a powerful counter narrative against mainstream media representations of the movement, which remain predominantly negative.

Social media, and Facebook in particular, has also become an important site for disseminating ideas, coordinating action, and drawing in participants. Rather than threatening to replace bodies-in-the-street action, it augments it, offering an important alternative space where participants can circumvent state-controlled media constraints, disseminate information and counter any misinformation.

Online memes poking fun at the Russian media’s extremely politicised 'colour revolution' style coverage and humorous clips of Armenia's thuggish police chief Vova Gasparyan shouting overlaid on well-known movie scenes have enlivened and confronted serious topics. These practices can transcend activist boundaries, creating common ground with wider audiences.

A second advantage of social media has been the way it has attracted international attention and coverage of the protests. In part due to the post-Soviet sphere's history of 'Colour Revolutions', any confrontation in this part of the world automatically attracts the world's scrutiny as the 'next revolution'.

Sit-in at the Electric Yerevan protests.

Although much of this attention has encouraged faulty depictions and comparisons of Electric Yerevan to revolutions in Ukraine and elsewhere, it is clear that the international media attention has constrained the ability or willingness of the authorities to crack down.

What next?

While the protest's stated goals are limited to a narrow set of aims, the movement is about much more. It involves a much wider range of claim making around social and political issues, all falling under the umbrella of transparency and accountability.

It is not a given that the tariffs will be repealed or reviewed, or that the police will be held accountable. But if judged within a broader framework of bringing cultural and social change, then the movement can be a success. The sustained social interaction and the expressing of values and grievances through these protests have reinforced peoples' identities around values and norms related to contention. This can take the movement through lulls in mobilisation and increase participants' likelihood of future mobilisation when the time comes.

Electric Yerevan's protests have provided a chance to tie individual identities to collective ones through contention – a crucial resource of citizen empowerment in a non-democratic state such as Armenia.

Chants of 'no to plunder' and 'we own this country' heard on Baghramyan speak of common cause: the rejection of exploitative opaque governance and the conscious desire of protesters to reassert their identities as Armenian citizens – with the rights and responsibilities which that entails.

Standfirst image: Electric Yerevan protesters on Baghramyan Avenue. 

All photographs courtesy of the author.

About the author

Karena Avedissian is a Fellow at the University of Southern California's Institute of Armenian Studies. She received her PhD from the University of Birmingham in 2015 for a thesis on social movements in the North Caucasus. Her research interests include the relationship between popular geopolitics and identity, human rights and security, and issues of governance, with a particular emphasis on Russia and Eurasia. Find her on twitter @KarenaAv


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