By Hovannes Shoghikian
Several dozen taxi drivers parked their cars outside the main government building in Yerevan Wednesday in protest against new government regulations that could lose them and many of their colleagues their jobs.
The protesters honked on the horns as they drove from the southern Erebuni suburb to the city’s central Republic Square in a convoy of some 60 cars, their headlights full on.
The taxi business has had a huge expansion in Armenia in the past few years, creating thousands of new jobs and catering for a growing clientele. The government moved to regulate the thriving industry last March with a decision that set for stringent licensing requirements for tax firms and independent cab drivers.
In particular, they will now have to install electronic fee meters and pay an annual state duty of 200,000 drams ($590) per vehicle. The new rules, effective from August 1, also ban use of cars older than 10 years. Government officials say this 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 business and can afford buying new cars. Some senior government officials are thought to partly or fully control such firms.
The protesting cab drivers, most of them self-employed, made similar claims as they stood outside the government building, demanding a meeting with Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian. But only Arshak Petrosian, head of a Transport Ministry division regulating public transportation, was on hand to hear their complaints.
“By gathering here you are interfering with the government’s day-to-day work,” Petrosian told the protesters before agreeing to meet five of them in his office in the nearby ministry building.
The protest organizers were dissatisfied with what they were told, saying that the official made it clear that the government will not reconsider the new rules. “Mr. Petrosian only said, ‘Guys, don’t worry, we won’t let any of you starve to death, I too was born to a poor family, and will help you find jobs in taxi companies,’” one of them told RFE/RL.
He and other organizers pledged to hold more such protests in the coming days.