Matthew Luxmoore

Electric Yerevan vows comeback, as ‘Moscow’s soft power has been lost’

Protests in Armenian capital could soon return, but some warn against shunning Russian influence

This is part 5 in an occasional series about tensions between Moscow and the West at key flashpoints along Russia’s borders and in the territories of the former Soviet Union.

YEREVAN, Armenia — On summer days in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, many inhabitants flock to the central Freedom Square to catch the cool breeze that sweeps over the city late in the afternoon and get a brief relief from the heat. This summer, with frequent highs of 100 degrees, has been no exception.

Along with those casual visitors, Freedom Square has been attracting thousands of protesters — and a police crackdown.

On June 19, shocked by the announcement of a 16 percent increase in electricity rates starting in August, thousands of demonstrators descended on the city center to decry what would be the third such hike in less than two years. Steps away from the presidential residence, they commenced a two-week sit-in on Yerevan’s main street.

A violent dispersal on June 23 by police, who used water cannons and temporarily detained 230 activists and journalists, only caused the number of supporters to grow. Within days, the protest was peaking at 10,000 people during the evenings, when an after-work rush joined a committed core who set up camp in the street.

Despite its name, Electric Yerevan was never purely a protest movement about electricity prices. The protests arose at the complex confluence of economics and politics, illustrating Armenia’s difficult relationship with Russia. Like many former members of the Soviet Union, Armenia has struggled to resolve its relationship with Moscow as it seeks to set an independent course but maintain its strong geopolitical ties to Russia.

In economic terms, Armenia’s fate is closely tied to Russia’s. According to World Bank figures, a fifth of the country’s gross domestic product comes from Armenians living abroad, at least 2 million of whom live and work in Russia. With Russia’s economy in recession, remittances have more than halved by some estimates, limiting the lifeline for Armenian residents, a third of whom officially live in poverty. A recent report exposing the lavish lifestyles of executives of Inter-RAO, the Russian-owned monopoly that controls Armenia’s energy grid, served only to sharpen perceptions of the corruption to which the republic has fallen prey.

It seems the Electric Yerevan protests were not fundamentally directed against Moscow. When they began, claims of a revolution concocted by the West like the one that ousted Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych last year were aired on Russian-owned media outlets, reflecting the Kremlin’s fear of similar unrest in Armenia.

The protesters have been quick to distance themselves from such comparisons. “This is our problem. It’s not about other countries. It’s the problem of Armenia’s citizens,” protest leader David Sanasarian said July 8, two days into a public hunger strike.

A former Soviet republic, Armenia is reliant on Russia for most of its military and economic needs.

Despite their public focus on internal issues, in private the movement’s leaders admitted that Russia was key to the broader context. In September 2013, Armenia abandoned plans for an association agreement with the EU in favor of joining Russia’s economic bloc, the Eurasian Union. Largely a unilateral decision by President Serzh Sargsyan, the move was predicated on Moscow’s security guarantees. Armenia’s unresolved conflict with Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh continues to claim casualties monthly, and Russia maintains a military presence at a base in Gyumri, Armenia’s second city.

According to Richard Giragosian, the director of the Yerevan-based Regional Studies Center, Moscow’s soft power in Armenia has been waning amid a drop in economic appeal and the exposure of corruption involving companies like Inter-RAO. Opaque responses by Yerevan and Moscow to recent crises, such as the brutal January murder in Gyumri of an Armenian family by Russian conscript Valery Permyakov, have caused outrage in Armenia and accusations of government incompetence and weakness. On June 26, Moscow decided to hand Permyakov over to Armenian law enforcement, and a few days later it extended a $200 million loan to Yerevan for military modernization. Giragosian ties both moves to the Electric Yerevan protests.

“The numbers we’ve seen turn out in support of the demonstration are reflective of the fact that they’ve been able to tap into socioeconomic discontent with a Russian overtone. There’s still a reliance on Russia in the area of security but much less so in economic terms. Moscow’s soft power has been lost,” he said.

Armenia is no stranger to civic activism. In 2008 tens of thousands of people went to Freedom Square to denounce alleged fraud in the election that brought Sargsyan to power. Several people were killed as a result of a police effort to clear the area on March 1. In 2013 there were almost monthly rallies for various reasons on the streets of Yerevan. That July, after five days of marches, sit-ins and hunger strikes, protesters managed to get the government to reverse a decision to raise transport fares.

“These protests are nothing new. They’re a part of Armenia’s political culture, a tradition which exists from independence. Not a single election in the past 25 years has taken place without actions on the street. They happen all the time,” said Alexander Iskandaryan, the head of the Caucasus Institute, a Yerevan-based think tank. 

Protesters in central Yerevan’s Freedom Square.
Matthew Luxmoore

For the moment, it seems Electric Yerevan may be following the same trend. Sanasarian ended his hunger strike three days in, and his pledges to reinvigorate the protest have had little effect. Nevertheless, the government has made concessions. A police investigation into officers involved in the violent clampdown of June 23 resulted in the demotion of a senior figure and reprimands issued against several members of the force. According to Radio Liberty’s Armenia service, the country’s regulatory commission fined Inter-RAO $126,000 on July 8 for what state regulators deemed a violation of consumers’ rights. Pending the outcome of an audit, the government has suspended the price hike.

Despite the abrupt end to a movement that had caused shockwaves across the region, analysts like Giragosian believe a powerful precedent for further action has been set. Previous protests in Armenia were led by political parties keen to advance their aims. Electric Yerevan was different, he said.

“These are nonpoliticized youth, well-educated professionals not affiliated with any political party. And they’re more sophisticated in terms of civil disobedience, blocking the streets rather than staging mass rallies in public venues. These two differences make this profoundly different and far more significant,” he said.

However, like the more skeptical Iskandaryan, Giragosian believes that what was once the movement’s strength — an apolitical agenda depriving the government of any avenue for negotiation — becomes a weakness as lack of leadership or clear aims detract from popular support.

Moscow’s fears of a Maidan-style revolution overturning its close Caucasian ally may not have become reality, but officials in the Kremlin will no doubt be keeping a close eye on developments in Armenia in the coming months. Sargsyan recently reaffirmed his intention to hold a national referendum this autumn or next spring, which may pave the way for Armenia’s transition to a parliamentary system and scrap the post of president when Sargsyan’s term ends in 2018. Critics dismiss the plan as an effort by the incumbent administration to retain power beyond the current limit, and they expect further protests.

Armenia remains a volatile state deeply dependent on Moscow’s military and economic patronage — a state of affairs unlikely to change soon. Whereas in neighboring Georgia, commitment to Western integration dominates official discourse, and EU flags fly from government buildings, politicians in Yerevan make no bones about the imperative to retain close ties with Moscow.

“In March 2008, Georgia said it wanted to join NATO. In August 2008, Russian tanks stood 30 kilometers [18 miles] from Tbilisi. Georgia has lost its Nagorno-Karabakh. It has nothing left to lose,” said Iskandaryan, comparing Armenian-controlled Nagorno-Karabakh to territories that seceded from Georgia in 2008.

“We are not idiots. The EU cannot provide security guarantees. If different decisions had been made, Donetsk [a breakaway region of eastern Ukraine] would be here in Gyumri,” he added.

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