Thousands of people took to the streets of Yerevan on Wednesday to protest against a more than 35 percent rise in electricity prices sought by Armenia’s loss-making national power distribution network.
Protests against the highly unpopular measure, currently considered by public utility regulators, were also staged by civic groups and opposition parties in other cities and small towns across Armenia. They drew much smaller crowds, however.
Holding a huge banner that read “High Voltage” and chanting anti-government slogans, the protesters marched through central Yerevan after rallying in the city’s Liberty Square. They were joined by senior members of Armenia’s leading opposition parties strongly objecting to the price hike.
The protesters, many of them young people, booed and whistled as they reached Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian’s office. They held a brief sit-in there before resuming the procession sanctioned by municipal authorities.
The Electricity Networks of Armenia (ENA) utility formally requested a higher tariff in a letter sent to the Public Services Regulatory Commission (PSRC) earlier this month. The Russian-owned company cited continuing financial losses incurred by it and the need to repay its outstanding massive debts.
The Armenian government essentially backed the ENA application, with Energy and Natural Resources Minister Yervand Zakharian calling it “totally justified.” Zakharian insisted that the existing energy tariffs are too low to allow the ENA to sort out its financial troubles.
Opposition forces and other government critics dismiss these explanations. They say the electricity network’s losses primarily result from the ENA’s mismanagement and corruption among its senior executives.
The daytime electricity price for Armenian households already went up by 27 percent in July 2013 because of the increased cost of Russian natural gas, which generates more than one-third of Armenia’s electricity. The PSRC raised it by another 10 percent in July 2014.
Although the campaign against a further surge in the tariff was initiated by non-partisan groups, the Armenian opposition seems eager to use it for mounting a fresh challenge against the government. Aram Manukian, a leader of the Armenian National Congress (HAK), said it could serve as a catalyst for the formation of a new anti-government coalition comprising the HAK and other opposition groups.
“This is not only possible but also desirable,” Manukian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) during the demonstration.