Scores of people took to the streets of Yerevan on Friday in separate May Day demonstrations organized by the Armenian Communists, pro-government trade unions, unpaid workers of a troubled chemical plant and angry taxi drivers.
As always, the rally organized by the Armenian Communist Party (HKK) was the most high-profile event dedicated to the public holiday officially called Labor Day. Hundreds of mostly elderly HKK members and supporters holding red flags and banners marched through the city center behind a brand brass band playing Soviet music.
The band performed the tune of the Soviet and currently Russian national anthem when the procession reached the Russian Embassy in Yerevan. HKK leaders gave speeches there, praising Russian President Vladimir Putin for cobbling together the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) of ex-Soviet states, including Armenia.
Tachat Sargsian, the HKK’s first secretary, made no secret of his party’s hopes to see the EEU eventually transformed into a single state. “That would be a great economic revolution,” he said, adding that Russia holds the key to Armenia’s economic revival.
Many in the crowd nostalgic about the Soviet past agreed. “Without Russia Armenia will die,” claimed one middle-aged woman. “What happened to our factories? Ask our leaders,” she told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
The Communists were a major political force in Armenia in the 1990s, winning roughly 10 percent of the vote in presidential and parliamentary elections. However, their influence has since declined dramatically. The HKK has not been represented in the Armenian parliament since 2003. Sargsian claimed that it still has 20,000 members.
May Day was also an occasion for a fresh rally by several hundred current and former employees of Yerevan’s Nairit chemical giant demanding more than one year’s worth of back pay. They rallied outside the city’s Opera House where President Serzh Sarkisian attended a May Day concert organized by an Armenian business group for over 2,000 of its workers.
The crowd hoped to confront Sarkisian and voice its grievances shortly before the concert. However, a police cordon prevented it from approaching him. The protesters then marched to the Prime Minister’s Office in Republic Square where they also reiterated their demands that the Armenian government help reactivate the Soviet-era plant that has stood idle for the past four years.
“They [the authorities] are clearly stalling for time, and we are waiting,” one female protester told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “But they must understand that our patience has limits.”
Several other, older Nairit workers spoke of their fond memories of May Day celebrations held in Soviet times when the plant employed several thousand people. “There were parades and a lot of celebration on this day,” said one of them. “It was a true holiday for workers.”
“May Day is not for us anymore,” another worker noted grimly. “It’s not really a holiday for a hungry person.”
Republic Square was also the scene of a demonstration staged by several dozen self-employed taxi drivers. They protested against the recent introduction by the government of new licensing fees and an ongoing strict enforcement of traffic rules resulting in heavy fines imposed on many taxi drivers. The latter are typically fined by violations of parking rules and other min offenses.
“Why do they fine us? Do we steal or kill or kidnap people?” asked one angry cabdriver.
Some drivers are challenging the fines in court. Mkrtich Muradian, a lawyer present at the protest, is now dealing with a number of such cases. “The authorities’ objective must be not to fine but ensure civilized traffic,” he said.