Why Have Armenia's Youth Spent a Week Protesting?

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Protesters gesture as a riot police vehicle sprays a water cannon during a rally against a recent decision to raise public electricity prices in Yerevan, Armenia, June 23, 2015. Vahram Baghdasaryan/Photolure/Reuters

What's happening in Armenia?

Protests over planned hikes in electricity tariffs entered their seventh day on Thursday night in the Armenian capital of Yerevan. Police response to the protests, which began last Friday, has been violent: police batons and water cannons were used against peaceful protestors and more than 230 demonstrators and journalists were detained on Tuesday as marchers made their way to the president's residence in the capital, The Washington Post reports. According to officials, most of those detained have been released.

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A protester is hit by a jet of water released from a riot police vehicle during a protest, in Yerevan, Armenia, June 23, 2015. Narek Aleksanyan/PAN Photo/Reuters

Controlled by a subsidiary of Russian company Inter RAO UES, Armenia's power grid, the Armenian Electricity Network, said last month it would raise electricity prices by up to 22 percent due to the devaluation of national currency. Protesters say the new energy prices, which are expected to come into effect on August 1, will be unaffordable. They also blame the increase on mismanagement and corruption within the Network, PRI reports.

"Spread the word, fill the streets and don't pay your electric bill," shouted one organizer this week in Yerevan's Republic Square, recently the site of commemorations for the 100-year anniversary of the Armenian genocide. "If we all don't pay our electric bills, they can't do anything about it," he added. Protesters have also been chanting: "We are the owners of our country."

The protesters are mainly young people who organized through social media, with the hashtag #ElectricYerevan being used to share photos and information on Twitter. They waved both Armenian and European Union flags, The Wall Street Journal reports. The slogan "No to Plunder" has also been adopted by demonstrators, according to The Telegraph.

Armenia, which has seen its all-important Russian remittances drop by half this year—Russian remittances contributed to 21 percent of Armenia's national income in 2013 and 11 percent in 2014, according to the World Bank—and is largely dependent on the Russian economy, has suffered the knock-on effects of Russia's economic strain. Russia's recession over the past year was partly spurred by European Union sanctions related to its role in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Last December, the Russian parliament voted to allow Armenia to join the Eurasian Economic Union, an economic bloc that includes Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

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Protesters gather during a rally against a recent decision to raise public electricity prices in Yerevan, Armenia, June 22, 2015. Hrant Khachatryan/PAN Photo/Reuters

The U.S. Embassy in Yerevan in a statement released on Tuesday said it was "concerned about reports of excessive police use of force to disperse the crowd on the morning of June 23, as well as several reports of abuse while in police custody." The European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) also expressed concern over police violence.

"Freedom of speech and assembly are fundamental rights in any democracy, and we were pleased to see both sides work in a manner that respected these rights and did not escalate tensions," the U.S. Embassy added.

Why are the hikes so important?

The 40% price rise initially requested by the Armenian energy monopoly, the Electric Works of Armenia, would make Armenia's electricity the most expensive among all the post-Soviet states. Even a 16% hike eventually approved by the government is a significant burden for a big part of the country's population. Moreover, this is the third hike in recent years.

Some Armenian bloggers and activists also brought corruption allegations against the Electric Works of Armenia and its CEO Evgeny Bibyn, who failed to show up to a special meeting of the Armenian Parliament that was organized to discuss the hikes. Even though there are various real reasons for raising the prices, many believe that the executives of the Electric Works of Armenia spend money on expensive cars and luxury real estate. These allegations contributed to the protesters' outrage.

How is the Armenian government reacting?

Reluctantly. On Tuesday, the Armenian President Serge Sargsyan announced that he is willing to meet with three or four representatives of the protesters. However, his offer was declined. Instead, the protesters demanded that Sargsyan should just cancel the decision to raise the electricity rates live on television.

Thursday, the country's prime minister, Ovik Abramyan, stated firmly that the decision won't be reversed. He noted that, according to his calculations, the impact of the hikes on an average Armenian family won't be that harsh, and also announced the government's decision to raise subsidies for poor families to help them pay their electricity bills.

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Protesters stand on barricades during a rally against a recent decision to raise public electricity prices in Yerevan, Armenia, June 23, 2015. Hrant Khachatryan/PAN Photo/Reuters

Is Russia involved?

To a certain extent. The company that asked the Armenian government to raise the electricity prices, the Electric Works of Armenia, is fully owned by a Russian company Inter RAO. Inter RAO's CEO is Igor Sechin, a former deputy prime minister in Vladimir Putin's government and, allegedly, one of the closest friends and allies of the current Russian president. On Tuesday, a spokesperson for the company said to an Armenian reporter that the events in Yerevan "now have become politicized, and Inter RAO is into business, not politics."

Russian officials and state media seem to be concerned about the events in Yerevan. The possibility of the protests in Armenia becoming another "color revolution" (a reference to revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia) is frequently mentioned in reports by the Russian state media. Konstantin Kosachev, a head of the international committee of the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian parliament, said on Thursday that "every color revolution began with something like that."

"I wouldn't rule out a possibility that some foreign NGOs are behind this," he added.

Another member of the same committee, Igor Morozov, was even blunter. "Armenia is close to a coup d'etat, and it's going to happen if the Armenian President Serge Sargsyan doesn't draw any lessons from the Ukrainian Maidan," he said. "The American embassy is actively involved in the events in Yerevan."

Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov, however, has been less candid. On Tuesday, he said that Russia is "closely monitoring" the events in Armenia and hopes that the situation will be resolved soon.

Is it really similar to Maidan?

So far, only in a way that all the street protests are similar. No political demands have been made so far except for the rates reduction and, despite all the support from Ukrainian bloggers and being labeled "Electric Maidan" by some media outlets, some of the Armenian activists have openly stated that to compare what's happening in Armenia to Maidan is wrong. "It is against price hike, not ANY foreign state," one of the Armenian bloggers wrote on Twitter.

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Protesters are hit by jets of water released from a riot police vehicle during protests in Yerevan, Armenia, June 23, 2015. Narek Aleksanyan/PAN Photo/Reuters

How can it be resolved?

Attempts to hold talks between Sargsyan and protesters fell through on Wednesday for a second time, The Guardian reports. Armenian news site Panorama reported that an unnamed Russian-Armenian oligarch has been urged to purchase Electric Networks of Armenia in order to possibly push back prices. On Friday, talks on the energy sector were held between Russia and Armenia, and Armenian media is also reporting that Sargsyan and Russia are in talks to conduct audits on Armenia's electricity network. Besides the talks, no substantial plans have been agreed upon to resolve the situation.