Thousands of people faced off with riot police in Yerevan late on Monday after blocking a major street on the fourth day of demonstrations against the latest increase in the prices of electricity in Armenia.
The mostly young protesters were confronted and stopped by security forces as they marched towards President Serzh Sarkisian’s offices to demand that he reverse the more than 16 percent price rise. They responded by blocking Marshal Bagramian Avenue leading to the presidential palace.
The protest leaders representing a non-partisan group called No To Plunder dismissed repeated police warnings to end the march or face its violent dispersal by hundreds of riot police deployed nearby. They also rejected Sarkisian’s offer to meet with several of them and discuss their demands.
The chief of Yerevan’s police department, Ashot Karapetian, and his deputy Valeri Osipian personally communicated the offer to the crowd through megaphones.
“We have nothing to discuss with him,” Maxim Sargsian, one of the No To Plunder leaders, told Osipian as he led the protesters to Marshal Bagramian Avenue. He and other leaders of the pressure group said the president should simply ensure that the price hike is annulled by the Public Services Regulatory Commission (PSRC).
The PSRC is a nominally independent body setting utility tariffs in the country. It has strongly defended its unpopular measure, saying that it is needed for ending massive losses incurred by the Electricity Networks of Armenia (ENA), the national electric utility. The ENA, which is owned by a Russian energy giant, had sought an even sharper price rise.
“If you don’t want to listen, why are you here?” an exasperated Karapetian shouted as he was jeered by the protesters sitting on the ground on the blocked street later in the evening. They responded by chanting anti-government slogans and signing songs.
The senior policemen repeatedly told the activists that the march was not sanctioned by municipal authorities and will be forcibly ended unless they unblock the street. The national police service reiterated this warning in a written statement.
Several rows of security forces clad in full riot gear and backed up by water cannons started charging towards the protesters about one hour after the start of the standoff. But they stopped moments later and did not move further in the following hours.
The police were clearly in no rush to use force, with Osipian approaching the crowd time and again and urging it to end the protest. At one pointed the police colonel even sat down to talk to activists, drawing cheers from them.
Monday’s march followed a three-day sit-in that was staged by No To Plunder activists in Yerevan’s Liberty Square. Thousands of people rallied there on Friday.