Dozens of activists in Armenia campaigning against rising electricity prices gathered in capital Yerevan’s main square on Monday evening in an attempt to occupy its central spot.
The Armenian police, however, put up cordons preventing the activists from entering the so-called “carpet” – an oval-shaped no-traffic zone in the middle of the square.
Earlier, members of the recently formed pressure group, Rise Armenia, announced the launch of a five-day “street blockading” campaign to be held through Friday in a bid to force the authorities to cancel their decision to raise electricity tariffs by some 16 percent beginning on August 1.
Following two weeks of considerably larger street protests initiated by another civil group, No To Plunder, in mid-June the Armenian government agreed to fully subsidize the price hike pending the outcome of an international audit of the Russian-owned company that runs Armenia’s power grid.
While a majority of protesters spurned that compromise offer then, the wave of demonstrations eventually subsided and the barricades built by activists in Yerevan’s central Baghramian Avenue, just a few hundred meters from the presidential administration building, were forcefully dismantled and the protesters were dispersed by police officers on July 6.
Rise Armenia, the more radical group that emerged during those protests, has vowed to keep up the pressure by staging more street demonstrations. But its leaders also say they will carry out other activities to try to involve as many people for their fight as possible.
David Sanasarian, one of the leaders of the movement who is affiliated with the opposition Heritage party, earlier said that as part of the awareness campaign Rise Armenia is going to distribute leaflets among as many as 600,000 households across Armenia, which will mean that virtually every citizen in the country with a population of about 3 million people will have an opportunity to learn about the movement against the price hikes.
Rise Armenia members as well as other activists engaged in what have popularly been known as Electric Yerevan protests continue to demand that the authorities revoke the decision on raising the electricity tariffs and even consider lowering them.
They also want police officers responsible for the breakup of a June 23 protest to be removed from the system and prosecuted. They say they are not satisfied with the recent decisions to demote and “reprimand” several police officers in connection with the crackdown condemned by rights groups.
“We are continuing our struggle, we are not having a rest during the summer heat. We have a goal, a problem before us and are going to try to solve it,” Sanasarian told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service (Azatutyun.am) before the start of the Monday evening actions.
In a statement Rise Armenia had said it intended to have a 72-hour sit-in in the middle of Republic Square, stressing that the number of participants at any time would not exceed 90. Under Armenia’s law on freedom of assembly, a rally consisting of fewer than 100 participants does not require any special notification procedure.
Sanasarian said that No To Plunder activists did not consider it “expedient” at the moment to join their current street campaign, but did not rule out that they would join them during some other actions in the near future.
The activist also did not exclude that after August 1 their movement may join the forces that oppose the controversial constitutional reform initiated by the current administration.
In the meantime, without being able to start a sit-in in the middle of the square, Rise Armenia activists divided into two groups and started walking back and forth on pedestrian crossings, which at one point resulted in clogged traffic.
Sanasarian and others emphasized that it was part of their “civil disobedience” campaign that formally did not break any law or rule.
At one point the activists’ movements at the crosswalks kept the police really busy regulating the traffic. They also annoyed some of the drivers. At least one of them was demonstratively fined by traffic police officers for not giving way to an activist pedestrian.
Late on Monday, a group of activists began a sitdown protest on the sidewalk next to Republic Square. Scores of police officers remained stationed in the area late into the night.