By Nane Atshemian and Astghik Bedevian
Facing mounting public discontent, Yerevan’s government-appointed mayor has rescinded a 30 percent increase in the key public transportation fares that was ordered by himself last week.
The decision by Mayor Yervand Zakharian to raise the price of a ride on the mainly private minibuses, the principal means of transportation in the Armenian capital, to 130 drams (30 U.S. cents) took effect on Wednesday. The measure proved highly unpopular with commuters and even minibus drivers who reportedly had trouble enforcing it.
One of Zakharian’s deputies, Kamo Areyan, said on Monday that the mayor overturned it at the weekend due to “numerous complaints” from city residents and “concern” expressed by President Robert Kocharian. “To put it simply, there was popular discontent,” Areyan told journalists.
The Arminfo news agency quoted presidential spokesman Victor Soghomonian as saying that Kocharian demanded explanations for the tariff rise from Zakharian and that the latter failed to substantiate it. Under Armenia’s constitution, the Yerevan mayor is appointed and can be dismissed by the president of the republic.
Areyan insisted that the decision to raise the fares was “reluctantly” taken by Zakharian at the request of the majority of 75 private firms operating 125 minibus routes across the city. According to the Yerevan municipality, they cited rising prices of fuel and vehicle repair.
Media reports have suggested that the real purpose of the price hike is to boost the revenues of state-owned buses that find it difficult to compete with private carriers. But Areyan denied this.
The unusually large number of the mostly old minibuses -- there were approximately 3,300 of them as of the beginning of this year -- may be convenient for commuters, but it has added to widespread disregard for traffic rules in the city. The authorities have repeatedly promised to phase them out by purchasing hundreds of new buses. But they have so far been very slow in doing that.
The minibus companies are highly lucrative and many of them are owned by government officials and their relatives. Only a fraction of their revenues are believed to end up in the city budget.
Meanwhile, two non-government organizations announced on Monday plans to file a class-action suit against Zakharian for what they called “financial and moral damage” caused by his controversial decision. Martin Aristakesian of the Armenian Center for Economic Law said he floated the idea while riding in a minibus last week and found strong support among its passengers.
“They said, ‘You write it up and we’ll sign it’,” Aristakesian told RFE/RL. “The drivers are also angry because they have incurred losses.”
Aristakesian claimed that mayor’s directive came into force without prior notice and therefore could not be enforced under Armenian law. “The mayor took and enforced an illegal decision, forcing the minibus drivers to levy the extra charge from commuters,” he said.