What Was #ElectricYerevan?
Armenia’s Brave Uprising, Explained
words by Mike Runey
additional reporting by Nastya Stanko and Oleksandr Nazarov
edited by Randy R. Potts
produced by Maxim Eristavi
In late June 2015, thousands of protesters took to the streets of Armenia’s capital Yerevan to protest a planned 17 percent hike in electricity prices. Protesters demanding the government rescind the price hikes began blocking Yerevan’s downtown Baghramyan Avenue. Dubbed “Electric Yerevan,” the protests drew global attention when protesters resisted police attempts to clear the protesters in the early hours of June 23rd.
Images of unarmed protesters flying through the air from the force of water cannons, hundreds of arrests, more than a dozen injured, three hospitalizations, and attacks on journalists covering the scene galvanized the protests, which soon spread across the Caucasian nation of three million. Tweets with the hashtag #ElectricYerevan began trending on Twitter and international media began a contentious debate on the movement’s relationship with Ukraine’s Euromaidan protests. The attempts to stop the movement by force backfired as many more Armenians came out in solidarity the next day, some wearing protective gear in case the water cannons made a second appearance.
As images and video of the crackdown spread across old and new media, similar protests began to spread to cities and towns across the country:
With the Armenian government raising electricity costs to cover the debt owed by a Russian electric company, thousands have taken to the streets in the Armenian capital of Yerevan. But #ElectricYerevan has spread to the surrounding countryside, with other large towns joining in the protests.
Hromadske’s Nastya Stanko went around to the smaller cities where protests have taken place.
“When we found out about what happened in Yerevan, when police had dispersed the protesters, our first thought was to go there, in the capital, but we’ve contacted others on Facebook and decided that it’s also important to protest here, in our hometown,” one protestor from Vanadzor, Armenia’s third largest city, said. “At first we have also been against the electricity price raise, but seeing the dispersing, it was the last drop. We want to do something, we want to fight for something.”
Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan had come to a deal where the government would cover the cost of the electric company’s debt instead of raising electricity prices. This has not been welcomed by the majority of people, who believe the government is still stealing from the people.
“And the fact that it’ll be covered by the budget money… well, it’s our money. It’s like, “OK, if we’re not taking it from your right pocket, than we’ll take it from your left,” remarked one protestor. “Also, it’s a nonsense to take money from our military budget, when we have a frozen conflict on our land.”
// Video by Nastya Stanko and Oleksandr Nazarov. Filmed 06.27.2015
On June 27, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan announced his government would subsidize the difference between the old electricity rates and new ones. The organizers, a group called “No to Robbery,” urged the protesters to accept the offer, but most booed and refused. The police threatened to break up the protests again that evening, but eventually backed down.
On the night of June, 28th, 2015 Armenian protesters were back together on Baghramyan Avenue, after some left to Freedom Square following the activist Vaghinak Shushanyan, who implored protesters to leave the area before police would attack.
“It was a responsible step,” said Shushanyan. “I didn’t want the people to be beaten by police, and to have this responsibility on me.”
He continued, “We have coordinated the process. It’s a shared responsibility… We will have a re-organisation of those who try to help our movement. Everything will become more clear.”
After the Baghramya-Freedom square split, a new group of organizers took over the movement and demanded the government do away with the price hikes completely. In the following days, the protests began to lose steam as the government refused to budge and fatigue began to set in among the protesters. By July 6, the protesters had dwindled to a few hundred. Police were able to dismantle the barricades and forcibly open Baghramyan Avenue without attracting international criticism.
Organizers officially ended Electric Yerevan four days later.
WHERE DID IT COME FROM?
Armenia is a small, landlocked former Soviet republic bordered by Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Despite boasting a wealthy, influential global diaspora — including former OJ Simpson lawyer/90's teen heartthrob Robert Kardashian — it is the poorest country in the region and has struggled with corruption since independence. Before Electric Yerevan, it may have been most famous as the place Kanye West played a free concert and then jumped into a lake.
The seeds for Electric Yerevan were planted in early May, 2015 when Armenia’s electricity monopoly, Electric Networks of Armenia (ENA), asked the government to raise rates by 40 percent — the third price hike in as many years. A private company formed from four old state-owned electric utilities, ENA itself is an unintended consequence of the Armenian government’s attempts to reduce corruption and cronyism in the 2000s. Since 2006, ENA has been owned by a Moscow holding company, Inter RAO. Inter RAO’s chairman is Igor Sechin, often referred to as Russia’s second most powerful man and a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The USSR’s disintegration did little to lessen Russia’s influence over Armenia, and Inter RAO’s purchase of ENA is just one example of how that influence has only strengthened in the last decade. In late 2014, Armenia agreed to join Russia’s putative rival to the European Union, the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).
Joining the EEU was a pragmatic call by President Sargsyan. Twenty percent of Armenia’s GDP comes from remittances from Russia, and Russia backed Armenia in its brutal, bloody war with Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990s. There’s even a Russian military base in the second city of Gyumri, just in case Azerbaijan, which spends three times as much on its military as the Armenian government spends on everything combined, gets any wise ideas.
ENA claimed it had no other way to pay off over $250 million in debt it had accrued due to inefficiencies in Armenia’s outdated energy infrastructure. However, reports published by Inter RAO showed the company was actually quite profitable, with reported revenue of $104 million in the first quarter of 2015 alone.
Armenian investigative reporters, opposition politicians, and government watchdogs began to pile on, and reports of corruption and misuse of funds at ENA and public resentment grew. The deeper Armenians dug, the problem began to look less and less like just a case of a handful of corrupt officials or a greedy Russian oligarch, and more like deep-seated, structural problems in the Armenian energy sector as a whole. It is actually really, really complicated.
After much back and forth, the government approved a price increase of 17 percent. On June 19th, “No to Robbery” took the movement to the streets.
In an interview with Hromadske, “No to Robbery” coordinator Vaghinak Shushanyan said the organization was apolitical and focused solely on reversing the price hike. Shushanyan credited the organization’s widespread support to its strategy of limiting its goals to a few specific demands — increased oversight of ENA, a reversal of the price hike, and an investigation into the violence of June 23rd — and refusal to engage in political horse trading.
Shushanyan left his job to organize the protests and told Hromadske TV that “No to Robbery” and Electric Yerevan was supported by donations of food and water provided by ordinary, sympathetic Armenians.
“Some say we’re anti-Russian or anti-European, but we are just people that want to live peacefully,”said Shushanyan.
The protesters came from across the political spectrum, and all ages and social groups were represented. They occasionally disagreed about the overall thrust of the protest — there were activists talking about regime change, others trying to build a larger anti-corruption movement, and some who insisted it was about electricity prices and nothing more — but they agreed that the protests were by, for, and about Armenians and Armenians alone. Electric Yerevan looked like a protest from a country with a vibrant, active civil society, not a post-Soviet republic known for public apathy and widespread corruption.
Faces Of Electric Yerevan
On June 28th 2015, Hromadske’s Nastya Stanko and Oleksandr Nazarov spent the whole night at Electric Yerevan Camp photographing ordinary protesters.
WHY DID IT END?
The breaking point for the mass street protests was President Sargsyan’s June 27th offer to pay for the price hike out of the state budget. The proposal caused divisions — or possibly exacerbated existing ones — inside the protest movement. No to Robbery’s call to accept the offer quickly led to their replacement as protest leaders. A threat from police to forcibly clear Baghramyan Avenue on the night of June 28th never materialized, and they didn’t try again, opting instead to wait for the protests to run out of steam.
It worked. By July 6th, only a few hundred protesters were present to watch police clear the barricades and open Baghramyan Avenue to traffic for the first time in over two weeks.
This doesn’t mean everyone went home happy, and Armenians have few illusions about the president’s offer. ENA and its parent company, Inter RAO, are still getting paid, and it will be many months before anyone knows if ENA is or even can be profitable. The payment will still come out of Armenian taxpayers’ pockets; the government will just be making the payment for them. It’s possible the offer worked because it was so incredibly vague — President Sargsyan never explained where the money was to come from, and at the time of writing, the government still had no idea.
NOT THE FIRST TIME
This was not President Sargsyan’s first time neutralizing a popular uprising, but his fourth since ascending to the presidency in 2008. His fourth.
In 2008, security forces violently dispersed protesters who claimed the presidential election was rigged. Eight protesters and two police died in the clashes, and at least 130 were injured.
Arab Spring-inspired protests began again in 2011, and while the opposition succeeded in extracting a few concessions, President Sargsyan remained in power. Protests following the 2013 elections, dubbed the “Barevolution” by supporters — apparently a pun on the Armenian word for hello, barev, and which reportedly makes much more sense and is very clever in Armenian — also failed to dislodge Sargasyan.
All the while, he has managed to avoid significant international scrutiny. This is due, in no small part, to Armenia’s proximity to Azerbaijan, its authoritarian leader Ilham Aliyev, and Ilham Aliyev’s spectacular Twitter account, which combines bland political and economic announcements:
… with borderline declarations of war and insults aimed at Armenia:
The international community is always more tolerant of the second-most authoritarian leader in the region.
THE SHADOW OF EUROMAIDAN
From the moment photos of the June 23rd crackdown broke on Twitter, international media began making comparisons to November 30, 2013, when Ukrainian Berkut special forces violently cleared Kyiv’s Independence Square (Maidan Nezaleznosti) in an early morning raid. Supportive Ukrainian media outlets began calling the protests ‘ElectroMaidan’ and ‘TariffMaidan.’ In response, Russian state-owned media described Electric Yerevan as a “color revolution” backed by Western governments and foreign NGOs.
In a typical example, Sputnik contributor Andrew Korybko wrote the organizers “want to install an anti-Russian government that would withdraw Armenia from the Eurasian Economic Union and break the historical friendship between both states, following the model spearheaded by EuroMaidan’s post-coup authorities.”
Official statements from the Russian government were more benign. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin urged compromise and downplayed talk of “provocation from within.” In early July, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov took a stronger line and obliquely tied Electric Yerevan to Euromaidan and earlier “color revolutions.”
Protesters bristled at the comparison, although the conflicting international narratives (and Twitter’s character limit) often made it difficult to tell which definition of “maidan” — the Ukrainian popular revolution or the Russian coup — each protester was using.
Whatever their definition, the protesters fought any and all attempts to fold Electric Yerevan into the a larger international narrative. They rejected Ukrainian misleading media coverage portraying an increasingly isolated Russia losing its closest friends, and countered Russian attempts to credit NATO or the US with instigating the protests by hijacking reporters’ standups with clever posters.
After the streets were cleared, the government began to take measures to rebuild public trust. Police involved in the crackdown were reprimanded (and one demoted) and a separate body, the Special Investigative Service, announced it was looking into attacks on journalists. They even fined ENA $126,000 for violating consumers’ rights.
And what are the protesters up to? Getting revenge on the cops who blasted them with water cannons, for one:
Someone else turned Yerevan’s police chief yelling “stapveq” (calm down) at protesters into a dubstep track:
It’s hard to say how popular President Sargsyan is, as no one has published an Armenian public opinion poll since early 2013. But a July Gallup poll found that 95 percent of Armenians supported the protesters and their tactics. In response to official attempts to walk back the statement that the government would bear “the full burden” of the rate hike, about 100 protesters attempted to reignite Electric Yerevan by taking over Bagramian Avenue on September 1. They failed to overpower local riot police, and six protesters were detained but released by the end of the day.
Tension remained high throughout the summer, as questions over how the price hike would be financed never went away. Amid reports that the government would subsidize small and medium-sized businesses rather than scrap the hike altogether, No to Plunder called for a march on September 11, 2015 to again demand a full repeal. During the march, a group of protesters broke off from the approved protest route and moved towards Baghramyan Avenue. Although the protesters succeeded in blocking the street, their numbers paled in comparison to the masses that brought Yerevan to a standstill in the summer, and riot police were able to clear the street the by the end of the day. The famous water cannon even made a subdued appearance. Forty eight people were detained, but all soon released.
Better coordinated police tactics and the split between No to Robbery and more radical protesters stemming from the former’s reaction to the June 23 to the streets in full force. Even if Electric Yerevan fails to reemerge, looming issues that with the potential to start mass protests are not hard to find, and include rumors of similar price hikes for water or gas. and a proposed constitutional amendment that critics insist is a ploy for President Sargasyan avoid being term limited out of power in 2018.
A final wrinkle is the utility that started everything in the first place, Electric Networks of Armenia, is in the process of being sold to an obscure Cypriot shell company owned by Samvel Karapetian, an Armenian-born Moscow businessman with a net worth of $4.6 billion. What Karapetian would want to do with the lossmaking firm and the political headaches attached to it are anyone’s guess.
To learn more about modern civil uprisings, watch Hromadske’s interview with Johns Hopkins professor Maciej Bartkowski:
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