The owners of private companies operating Yerevan’s public transport system on Wednesday strongly defended the municipal government’s controversial decision to sharply raise fares in the capital, saying that it will save them from financial ruin.
Yerevan Mayor Taron Markarian, meanwhile, finally publicized the written decision to raise bus and minibus fares from 100 to 150 drams (35 U.S. cents) and double the charge for trolleybuses to 100 drams. It was signed by him on July 19, the day before the new tariffs took effect, sparking angry protests in the Armenian capital.
Opposition leaders immediately pounced on this delay, arguing that under Armenian law government directives cannot come into force before being made public. Representatives of the Zharangutyun (Heritage) party, the sole established opposition group represented in the municipal council, said this means that the higher fares were enforced illegally for the past four days.
“The process was not lawful,” Stepan Safarian, a Zharangutyun councilor, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
Zharangutyun also pressed its demands for an emergency session of Yerevan’s Council of Elders on the issue. The opposition-leaning Prosperous Armenian Party (BHK) reaffirmed its support for the initiative.
The council is controlled by representatives of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), of which Markarian is a senior member.
The directive signed by the mayor says that transport price hikes were requested by the 48 companies operating Yerevan bus routes. The owners of at least two such firms confirmed this. They said the unpopular measure is the only way of offsetting their losses resulting from recent years’ dramatic increases in the cost of natural gas imported from Russia. Russian gas is used, in liquefied and pressurized forms, by virtually all buses and minibuses in Armenia.
“Before the price rises, public transport in the city was on the brink of collapse,” claimed Harutiun Arakelian of the Davit bus company.
Arakelian said transport operators have been seeking to raise their fares since 2008. “If the companies are forced to continue operating with 100-dram tariffs they will consider going out of business,” he warned at a news conference.
Patvakan Mihranian, another operator, also claimed to be making losses. He said the previous prices have prevented him from replacing his Russian-made minibuses manufactured in 2002 with new ones. Mihranian said even 150-dram fares will not generate enough revenue for updating his aging fleet.
Both businessmen also dismissed a widely held belief that public transport is a lucrative business. They said it has ceased to be profitable.
Critics argue, however, most of the minibus firms are owned by senior government officials, pro-government politicians and their relatives or cronies and are therefore unlikely to be loss-making. They say the higher fares are primarily aimed at maximizing profits made by such individuals.
Hundreds of mostly young activists are making this argument in their continuing campaign against transport fare hikes. They urged commuters to continue to pay 50 and 100 drams per ride for a fifth consecutive day on Wednesday. Leaders of the movement pledged carry on with their campaign backed by opposition parties and a growing number of Armenian celebrities that have not been involved in civic activism until now.
“The 150-dram fare is illegal and every citizen has the right not to pay the extra 50 drams,” one of those leaders, a young woman, told an outdoor news conference. “This movement is turning into a social revolt,” said another activist. “More and more people are joining in the fight.”
The campaign seems to have influence many Yerevan residents. Their refusal to pay higher fares caused a brief strike by the drivers of two dozen trolleybuses on Wednesday. The drivers, who also collect the fees, complained that they are unable to meet their increased revenue targets.
“Our daily [revenue] plan has been raised to 28,000 drams from 14,500 drams,” one of them told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “How can we collect that much?”
A middle-aged woman riding in his trolleybus did not relent. “I’ll pay 50 drams,” she said. “I don’t have money to pay more.”