Bowing to pressure from thousands of protesters blocking a central Yerevan avenue for the sixth consecutive day, President Serzh Sarkisian announced on Saturday that his government will effectively suspend a controversial rise in electricity prices in Armenia.
Sarkisian said the government will keep the tariffs unchanged for consumers by subsidizing their increased cost at least until the release of findings of an international audit of Armenia’s Russian-owned power distribution network.
Speaking at an emergency meeting with senior government officials, he said he remains “deeply convinced” that state regulators were right to raise the tariffs by more than 17 percent last week. He said he opted for the “meticulous” audit in an effort to address a lack of popular trust in the Electric Networks of Armenia (ENA) utility and Armenian state bodies dealing with the energy sector.
The audit, he went on, will determine whether the more than 17 percent price hike approved by state regulators last week was economically justified or resulted from alleged corruption and mismanagement in the ENA. The loss-making company will be held accountable if it is found guilty of forcing households and corporate consumers to bear the financial burden of fraud among its senior executives, he said.
Conversely, the Armenian government will stop covering the extra cost of power supplies if the ENA is cleared of major wrongdoing, added the president. He gave no estimates as to the monetary value of the subsidy, saying only that the government will tap into “funds that were set aside for further strengthening our security.”
Accordingly, Sarkisian called for an end to the nonstop protests on Marshal Bagramian Avenue, one of Yerevan’s main arteries leading to the presidential palace. He also urged young leaders of the protests to get involved in the planned audit and reiterated his offer to meet them and discuss their demands.
“It is inadmissible to go over the top; the police are capable of accomplishing any task,” Sarkisian warned in a thinly veiled threat to forcibly end the protests.
“For God’s sake, please stop paralyzing the city center,” he said. “The burden of responsibility born by all of us would only increase. Switch to more serene actions. Unblock Bagramian Avenue.”
Activists of the No To Plunder movement, which organized the protests, were not satisfied with Sarkisian's latest offer to defuse the crisis, saying that it did not meet their main demand for the decision on the tariff rise to be revoked. One of them, Vaghinak Shushanian, told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that they are calling on Armenians to turn out on Marshal Baghramian Avenue on Sunday for a vote at 1800 local time that will determine their attitude towards the plan and further actions.
Meanwhile, the thousands of people rallying on Marshal Bagramian Avenue were in no rush to disperse and unblock the street.