Protest Movement Electrifies Armenian Civil Society

07.29.2015
(Photo: BBC)
(Photo: BBC)

The Electric Yerevan protests began on June 19, when protesters gathered on the street to express their discontent with the local power company, the Electric Networks of Armenia (ENA) and its planned 14 percent increase in electricity tariffs from August, the third price raise within the past two years, which would result in a more than 60 percent overall increase in electricity tariffs.

Public discontent was further aggravated by a report revealing evidence of gross corruption and mismanagement at the utility. The report exposed the extravagant lifestyle of the ENA management and revealed that the ENA has accumulated debt by overpaying suppliers and contractors.

On June 23, four days after the start of the protests, roughly 2,000 protesters gathered on Baghramyan Avenue to express their grievances with the ENA management. They were blocked by police forces, and in response the protesters sat down and spent the night there. They were forcibly dispersed by police water cannons and around 250 people were detained.

Images, video clips and anecdotes about excessive police force circulated on social media under the hashtag #ElectricYerevan. The next day, around 4,000 protesters showed up on Baghranyan Avenue, and a few days later, the number of protesters peaked at 20,000.

The organizers of the protests developed guidelines for the protests, including a no alcohol policy, mutual respect, and tidiness, and organized a general assembly consisting of civic initiatives and working groups open to the public with the aim of discussing issues related to the protests. In Armenia, like many other countries, social media has become the main tool for producing a counter narrative to the state-owned media outlets and has allowed the distribution of ideas and the coordination of action and attention of participants.

After two weeks of protests, the police showed restraint while clearing Baghranyan Avenue on July 6. Perhaps the Armenian authorities had understood that police violence would only attract additional protesters, as it did on June 23. The effect of social media and the loose and horizontal structure of the Electric Yerevan protests made it difficult for the Armenian authorities to dismantle.

A reason for the loose and informal structure of the protests can be found in the non-democratic context under which protesters are forced to operate in Armenia. People are afraid to lose their jobs if they participate in more organized movements. In Armenia here is a general mistrust of NGOs and social movement organizations, which are traditionally more structured and technocratic. Civic initiatives like Electric Yerevan are more consensus-based and horizontal in their decision-making process and therefore seek to distance themselves from the NGOs, relying instead on street protests, occupations, or more creative forms of protests.

In fact, over the past few years, protests by civic initiatives have been frequent. Although civic initiatives in Armenia usually address very specific issues, they symbolize the display of informed grievances concerning corruption, government mismanagement, and the absence of rule of law and democracy. The size of the Electric Yerevan protests made it different from the previous protests. Perhaps Electric Yerevan has given renewed power to Armenian civil society to make demands from its government.

Ann Mette Sander Nielsen is a Eurasia intern at CIPE.