Thousands of people continued to hold a nonstop demonstration in Yerevan on Sunday night, rejecting its organizers’ calls to unblock a key street in the city center voiced after concessions made to the protesters by President Serzh Sarkisian.
The No To Plunder youth movement leading the campaign against a controversial rise in electricity prices decided to move its weeklong street protests back to Liberty Square and thus reopen Marshal Bagramian Avenue to traffic.
One of its leaders, Vaghinak Shushanian, announced the decision on Sunday evening in a speech delivered from a barricade erected at the blocked street section. He cited the risk of renewed violent clashes with riot police deployed nearby as well as President Serzh Sarkisian’s announcement on Friday that the Armenian government will at least temporarily subsidize the energy tariffs.
“By staying here longer we won’t be physically prepared to endure more police beatings and jets of water,” Shushanian told the crowd.
“I stand for continuing the struggle with different methods,” he said. “We could again shut down Bagramian Avenue at any moment.”
The 24-year-old activist argued that while No To Plunder has still not received a “clear answer” from the Armenian authorities to its demands for a scrapping of the energy price hike it has succeeded in ensuring that Armenians will not pay more for electricity for the time being.
“With their unity the people have forced the authorities to step back,” he said. “From now on, citizens will continue to pay the old price.”
The speech angered many in the crowd. They responded by jeering Shushanian and chanting “Bagramian!” and “Shame!” Some of them also bitterly argued with other young protesters who backed the decision announced by Shushanian.
Immediately after Shushanian finished his speech, several hitherto unknown activists jumped onto the makeshift podium to make angry statements accusing No To Plunder of betrayal and urging the protesters to remain camped out on the street leading to the presidential palace.
Only several hundred people joined the No To Plunder leaders in marching to nearby Liberty Square. Speaking to RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) afterwards, some visibly shocked activists of the group said that their movement has been hijacked by more radical elements.
“I am begging you to get out of Bagramian,” Shushanian wrote on Facebook later in the evening.
The warning came amid fresh police threats to break up the “illegal” demonstration. In a statement, the Armenian police said they are allowed to use force under an Armenian law on public gatherings.
At one point, phalanxes of police clad in full riot gear and backed up by a water cannon began moving towards the protesters. However, they moved back shortly after several dozen Armenian opposition politicians and prominent public figures lined up in front of the barricade in hopes of preventing violence.
Valeri Osipian, a deputy chief of the Yerevan police, skirted reporters’ questions about crowd dispersal when he again approached the barricades at around 11:00 pm local time. Osipian said only that he wants to warn the protesters to stop breaching “the rules of cohabitation” with residents of nearby apartment buildings.
“We are calling on the police to understand and protect us,” Tigran Khachumian, one of the activists remaining on Marshal Bagramian Avenue told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
Khachumian also said that the new protest leaders are not seeking regime change and only want the Armenian authorities to officially reverse a more than 17 percent rise in electricity fees that was approved by state regulators on June 17. “The people are simply demanding what they demanded yesterday and the day before,” he said.
President Serzh Sarkisian defended the price hike on Friday, saying that it is needed for saving the Armenian energy sector from collapse. Still, he said that the Armenian government will subsidize the electricity tariffs to make sure that Armenian households are unaffected, at least for now, by the price hike.