By Tigran Avetisian
The Armenian government on Monday signaled its readiness to make more concessions to hundreds of taxi drivers that again flooded Yerevan’s main square with their cars in protest against stricter licensing and taxation rules imposed on them.
Under the new requirements approved by the government in March 2007, taxi companies and independent cab drivers have to install electronic fee meters and pay an annual state duty of 200,000 drams ($650) for each of their cars in addition to regular revenue tax. More importantly, they will be banned from using vehicles manufactured more than 10 years ago.
The measure sparked angry protests from hundreds of mainly self-employed cabbies in July last year. Then Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian was forced to delay its enforcement until after the February 2008 presidential election.
The protests resumed late last month as the reprieve given by Sarkisian was about to expire. The government failed to satisfy them when it decided to cut the licensing fee to just 25,000 drams last week.
Hundreds of drivers again parked their cars outside the prime minister’s office in Yerevan’s Republic Square on Monday to keep up their pressure on the government. “If our demands are not met today, we are ready to go on a hunger strike,” one of them told RFE/RL. “Or else, our children will go hungry.”
Gevorg Dosturian, one of the organizers of the action, said after ensuing negotiations with senior government officials that the authorities agreed not enforce the new rules until January 15 and further discuss the matter with the protesting drivers in the meantime. Dosturian said the government is ready to simplify taxation procedures for individual cabbies.
It is not clear if the government is ready to extend the age limit for the cabs. Transport Minister Gurgen Sargsian ruled this out last week.
The taxi business has had a huge expansion in Armenia in the past several years, creating thousands of new jobs and catering for a growing clientele. The government says efforts to regulate the business more tightly will complicate tax evasion and improve passenger safety.
But critics say the measure will force most small taxi firms and self-employed drivers dominating the sector and ensuring tight competition there out of business. They claim that it will only benefit large carriers that are owned by wealthy businesspeople and can afford buying new cars.