Thousands Protest in Armenian Capital Amid Economic Hardship
Thousands of protesters rallied near the presidential residence in the capital of Armenia in the South Caucasu in the first shock wave of discontent over economic hardship sparked by recession in regional heavyweight Russia.
Undeterred by police batons and water cannons used to disperse protests earlier in the day, when police detained more than 230 protesters, mostly young people waving Armenian flags marched toward the president’s residence in Yerevan on Tuesday evening before halting in front of rows of riot police clad in body armor and holding shields.
Sanctions over Russia’s role in Ukraine, including restrictions renewed by the European Union on Monday, have exacerbated Russia’s economic downturn but also damaged the economies of many former Soviet states, which still have close ties with Moscow.
While many people are firmly pro-Moscow in Armenia, Yerevan’s government, led by President Serzh Sargsyan, still attracted some domestic criticism by spurning closer ties to the European Union in favor of a Russia-led economic bloc that joins other former Soviet states Belarus and Kazakhstan.
Armenia, a landlocked country of some three million, has seen crucial remittances from Russia fall by as much as half this year in dollar terms, central-bank data show, causing devaluation in the Armenian dram and quashing growth expectations for this year.
Thousands of Protesters, some waving European Union flags, marched on the president’s residence late on Monday after several days of rallies in Yerevan’s Freedom Square against planned electricity power price increases.
The price rise was passed in Armenia’s parliament after Russia’s Inter RAO, which owns Armenia’s domestic power monopoly, demanded a higher price for power.
By Tuesday evening, some protesters posted pictures on their Twitter accounts of trash cans piled as barricades against riot police forces, reminiscent of the strategy used by antigovernment protesters in Ukraine that ultimately ousted former President Viktor Yanukovych.
Yerevan’s deputy police chief Valery Osipyan told Interfax news agency that 237 had been detained Tuesday and some were facing jail time of up to two years for a gross violating public order. Most of them were later released, according to officials.
The U.S. Embassy in Yerevan said in a statement that it was concerned about reports of “excessive” police to disperse crowds “as well as several reports of abuse while in police custody.”
The OSCE, the European rights and security watchdog, criticized the use of police force and called for investigations into the use of force against journalists.
Armenian Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandiyan said Armenia was committed to democratic freedoms.
Richard Giragosian, director of Yerevan-based think tank Regional Studies Center, said “the economic crisis and the underlying sense of economic hopelessness lack of opportunity this is what is bringing people out into the streets.”
“The government is attracting criticism because it’s seen as too weak as an interlocutor with Russia, whether it’s joining the Eurasian Union, or damaging its association agreement with the EU,” he added.
Ties have been strained between Russia and Armenia since a Russian conscript on Russia’s base in Gyumri murdered six members of an Armenian family, sparking protests outside the Russian embassy.
Proponents of a pro-Western foreign policy are working to renew ties with the European Union in the framework of a looser agreement between Yerevan and the European bloc.