Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian on Thursday defended state regulators’ decision to raise electricity prices and urged thousands of protesters to unblock a major street in Yerevan on the fourth day of their nonstop demonstrations against the controversial measure.
Abrahamian also announced that the Armenian government will compensate some 105,000 low-income families for the more than 16 percent tariff increases authorized by the Public Services Regulatory Commission (PSRC) last week. Monthly poverty benefits paid to them will be raised by 2,000 drams ($4.2), he said.
The Armenian Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs estimates that the tariff hike will cost the average family living below the official poverty line only 1,400 drams in additional monthly expenditures.
“I would like to appeal to our activists, organizers of those rallies and say that such actions will lead nowhere,” Abrahamian said at the weekly meeting of his cabinet. “I am calling on them to be more constructive. The government is ready to discuss any issue that is being raised by them.”
Abrahamian insisted that the price hike reflects “objective realities” of the Armenian energy sector. He echoed the PSRC’s arguments that the Electricity Networks of Armenia (ENA) utility needs to be compensated for last year’s depreciation of the Armenian dram, a longer-than-anticipated stoppage of the Metsamor nuclear plant’s reactor and decreased water levels on rivers fueling hydroelectric stations.
The ENA has had to buy larger volumes of much more expensive electricity generated at Armenian thermal power plants. The company owned by a Russian energy giant currently has over $225 million in outstanding debts to power plants and banks.
Critics say, however, that the ENA’s losses are the result of corruption and mismanagement. They also point to the company’s extravagant expenses, including on luxury cars and office space for its senior executives, which have been disclosed by the Armenian media in recent months.
Abrahamian sought to dispel these claims accepted by many Armenians. “I don’t exclude that there have been abuses [within the ENA,]” he said. “But I want to declare with utmost responsibility that regardless of the scale of possible abuses inside the company, not a single penny of them was calculated into the tariff.”
“Such abuses stemming from poor management have hurt the company’s owner, rather than consumers, seeing as its profits have decreased,” added the premier.
Abrahamian went on to assert that failure to raise the tariffs would disrupt electricity supplies in Armenia and lead to the kind of crippling power shortages which the country had endured in the early 1990s.
No To Plunder, a pressure group leading the protests, was quick to dismiss these statements. One of its leaders, Vaghinak Shushanian, said the protesters will not leave Marshal Bagramian Avenue until the authorities meet their demands.
“If he has so much courage, he should come here and talk to us,” Shushanian told RFE/RL’ Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “Let him appear before the people here and say from the podium that … this measure is justified.”
Like senior law-enforcement officials, Abrahamian said that the nonstop protests on the avenue leading to the presidential palace are illegal. But he stopped short of threatening to forcibly disperse the mostly young people demonstrating there.
The chief of the Armenian police, Vladimir Gasparian, also did not voice such threats when he visited the scene and talked to some protesters early in the morning.“Stay peaceful and don’t provoke us,” he said.
Gasparian further said that law-enforcement authorities are investigating violence against more than a dozen journalists, including three RFE/RL correspondents, perpetrated by his officers during Tuesday’s violent crackdown on the Bagramian Avenue protesters. “Who said that we can’t have shortcomings and make mistakes?” he told reporters. “The key thing is to identify and address them.”
Gasparian was accompanied by Levon Yeranosian, one of his deputies who the journalists say personally ordered the violence.