Armenia is in a state of upheaval, but is there more to the mass protests than anger over planned energy price hikes? A new generation is testing the political establishment.
For days now, thousands of people have been taking to the streets to protest a planned increase in energy prices. In the capital, Yerevan, police have been resorting to violence to clamp down on demonstrators. More than 200 activists and supporters of the social movement 'No to robbery' have been arrested.
But that has not slowed the protests. Crowds of demonstrators continue to come together, including near the presidential residence. Armenian President Serge Sarkisian has long been a target of criticism because of announced constitutional reforms. He plans to introduce a parliamentary system of government, and many in the country say he intends to secure his position of power by becoming prime minister.
When his current second term in office ends, Sarkisian would not be eligible to run again in 2018. In October 2014, he signed off on Armenia's entry into the Eurasian Economic Union, a counter model to the European Union championed by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Yerevan called off its negotiations to sign an association agreement with the EU. Anti-Sargsyan demonstrations were the result.
Dependent on Moscow
Armenia does not have its own oil and gas reserves, making it dependent on Russia. The country's electricity network, the ESA, is owned by the Russian energy company, Inter RAO. ESA says it will increase prices by more than 17 percent as of August. The company says the rise is necessary because of dry conditions over the past year, the lengthy repairs on the Mazamor nuclear power plant, as well as the fall in value of the national currency, the dram.
The chairman of the Armenian Sociological Association, Gevorg Poghosian, says that the Armenian people will bear the main burden of the increase. "From August 1, goods, services and transport will all become noticeably more expensive," he said in an interview with DW. He adds that the economy is already in crisis, with salaries going down, and unemployment and outward migration on the rise. In addition, he said, Western sanctions against Russia are having a negative effect on the Armenian economy.
"Our economy is very closely linked to that of Russia," said Poghosian, adding that Armenian exports are suffering. The amount of money being transferred from Armenians working in Russia is also going down. But Poghosian does not see a link between the economic situation and Armeniaís decision for the Eurasian Economic Union. "Europe is also not experiencing the best of times," he said.
The question of a "pro-Russian or pro-Western alignment" is not an issue at the protests, said Mikael Zolian of Yerevan's Center for Regional Studies. In his view, the movement does not have a geopolitical background.
"The people are against price increases, corruption, and economic mismanagement," Zolian said. He rejects reports in the Russian media claiming that the energy price increases are just a front for protests that are really a revolution staged by the West. "The ESA is a subsidiary of Russia's Inter RAO, but everyone knows that the responsibility lies with the Armenian authorities. And the demands of the demonstrators are directed at those authorities," he said.
He is convinced that the Armenian authorities are to blame for events taking on the character of the Maidan protests in Ukraine because they are not addressing demonstratorsí demands. "When the demonstrators were violently turned back, it just had the effect of bringing even more determined people out on the streets," he said.
A new generation
Sociologist Poghosian pointed to the effects of generational change in Armenian society. "Older people complain about the corruption in the government, but the younger generation wants to do something about it and fight for their rights," he said, adding that this is one of the main causes of the confrontation.
Financial journalist Ashot Aramyan sees things similarly. "Young people got a taste of victory when they were able to stop city officials from raising the prices for public transport and putting up ugly kiosks in the center of the capital," he said. Now, they're convinced that they also have the power to solve other problems.