President Serzh Sarkisian flew to Brussels on Wednesday evening to attend a meeting of European politicians, continuing to avoid public statements on nonstop street protests in Yerevan against a rise in electricity prices in Armenia.
The protests seemed to be gaining momentum one day after the Armenian authorities tried to quell them by dispersing and arresting young activists camped out on a major street in the city center, just a few hundred meters from the presidential palace. All of them were set free by Tuesday evening.
Thousands more people joined the protesters Wednesday in blocking Marshal Bagramian Avenue for the third consecutive day and demanding that the authorities annul the more than 16 percent rise in energy tariffs. The boisterous and mostly young crowd chanted “We will win!” and “We are the masters of our country!” sang songs and danced there, buoyed by fresh police assurances that security forces will not try to again break up the protests.
No To Plunder, a non-partisan pressure group leading the campaign, called on Armenians to stage similar demonstrations in other parts of the country. In Gyumri, Armenia’s second largest city, hundreds of people have already demonstrated in recent days. Vaghinak Shushanian, a No To Plunder leader, claimed that the protests have also spread to four other Armenian towns.
Sarkisian, who rarely holds news conferences, has not publicly commented on the electricity prices ever since Armenian utility regulators announced more than a month ago plans to raise them for a third time in almost two years. The Public Services Regulatory Commission (PSRC) formalized the price hike last Friday.
Nor has the Armenian president made any statements on the protests sparked by the unpopular measure. He has only offered, through senior police officers, to meet with the No To Plunder leaders and discuss their demands. The activists have rejected the offer.
Sarkisian made a public appearance on Wednesday morning when he attended a requiem service held at the Armenian Apostolic Church cathedral in Echmiadzin for Kirk Kerkorian, an Armenian-American philanthropist who died last week. He avoided contact with journalists after the ceremony.
The presidential press service announced afterwards that Sarkisian will fly to Brussels to attend Thursday’s summit of the European People’s Party (EPP), a coalition of Europe’s leading center-right parties. It said Sarkisian, whose Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) is affiliated with the EEP, will deliver a speech at the gathering.
The Armenian leader travelled to the Belgian capital one day after representatives of the European Union, the Council of Europe and the OSCE criticized the use of force against the Yerevan protesters as well as police attacks on more than a dozen journalists who covered the crackdown.
The Armenian authorities swiftly pledged to address the criticism, with Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian saying that they are investigating the “shortcomings” reported during the police operation. “We once again reaffirm our commitment to democracy, fundamental freedoms and human rights in Armenia,” Nalbandian said in written comments released late on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, it emerged that Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian met on Wednesday with Robert Nazarian, the chairman of PSRC. Abrahamian’s press office issued no statements on the meeting.
A PSRC spokeswoman, Mariam Stepanian, claimed that the meeting was planned “long ago.” She declined to give any details.
Speaking to RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am), Stepanian also defended the electricity price rise, saying that it is based on “economically substantiated facts.” “The commission set the tariffs at a minimum level, below which a reliable exploitation of Armenia’s power generation and distribution facilities is impossible,” she said.
Both the PSRC and the Armenian government insist that higher energy tariffs are necessary for ending massive losses incurred by the Electricity Networks of Armenia (ENA), the debt-ridden national electric utility. The ENA, which is owned by a Russian energy giant, had requested an even sharper price hike on the same grounds.
Critics, among them leaders of Armenia’s main opposition parties, dismiss these arguments. They claim that the ENA’s losses result from inefficiency and mismanagement.