By Atom Markarian
Drivers of privately owned minibuses, the principal means of public transportation in Yerevan and other major cities, are fuming over a 30 percent surge last week in the price of liquified gas which they fear will wipe out their already modest revenues.
The increase is the result of the Armenian government’s decision to double its fixed sales tax on the relatively cheap fuel used by over 80 percent of the country’s transport vehicles. The government estimates that the measure will bring an extra 350 million drams ($600,000) in revenues to the state budget this year.
For the 3,000 or so minibus drivers servicing more than a hundred routes across the Armenian capital, that will mean some 40,000 drams in additional costs each month -- more than the official average income in the country. At least half of them are thought to rent the vehicles from private owners and will be hit hardest by the price hike. They threatened to go on strike or resort to other forms of protest over the weekend.
“They should either cut the rent or reduce the gas price,” said one of them. “Otherwise, we will be left without any income.”
Typically, the drivers operate on transport lines granted by the Yerevan municipality to dozens of wealthy middlemen. Many of them are top government officials, parliament deputies and other government-connected individuals. They charge each minibus owners and drivers between 3,500 and 6,000 drams a day -- a very lucrative business. A minibus fare on most Yerevan routes is 100 drams.
“We work 12 hours a day to satisfy the route owners,” said one angry driver. “I’m afraid we will now be returning home empty-handed. We could barely make 500 drams [a day].”
The fuel tax increase, effective from January 1, was mandated by a special law which the government pushed through the parliament late last year. Interestingly, the gas price soared only on April 9, the day when President Robert Kocharian was sworn in for a second term in office.
The existing transport scheme, which critics say is a breeding ground for corruption, came into existence in the late 1990s, following the collapse of a centralized network owned by the state. The cash-strapped government’s failure to replace the disintegrating fleet of Soviet-era buses gave rise to thousands of mainly decrepit but more durable vans that often compete with each other for passengers, endangering road security.