Երեքշաբթի, 28. 05. 2024

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Protests in Armenia Are Not Just about Electricity Rates, They Are Also about What It Means to Be an Armenian

For two weeks straight now, thousands of Armenian protesters have filled the streets of the capital, Yerevan, to rally against an upcoming hike in electricity prices. According toThe Guardian, the state utilities commission announced in June that the Armenian Electrical Network will raise electrical prices by 17 to 22% starting in August. The Armenian Electrical Network, which exclusively controls the country’s power grid, has been a subsidiary of the Russian company, Inter RAO UES, for nine years now. Today, it is $225 million in debt, according to Armenian Now.

The reason for the price hike remains unclear. According to non-profit media company Public Radio International (PRI), the Armenian government claims the root cause is depreciation of the country’s currency, the dram. In a meeting on Saturday, June 27, with the economic and political advisors to the Republican Party, President Serge Sarkisian proposed an audit to determine the details of the Armenian Electrical Network’s spending.

As PRI reports, protesters are convinced the hike is the result of mismanagement and corruption at the Armenian Electrical Network. The network’s executives are reportedly swindling the company’s money and spending it on luxury hotels, expensive real estate, and fancy cars.

In an interview via Skype, Babken DerGrigorian, a long-time political activist in Armenia who has been actively participating in the protest, shared his thoughts on the demonstrations. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What sparked the current protest?

Babken DerGrigorian (BD): I like to distinguish between the protest and the movement. The protest is about the hike in electricity tariffs. In the very narrow sense that hike, or the announcement of that hike, is what sparked this current protest. But the movement is about transparency and corruption and that movement has been building up for the last few years. And it has had success over the last few years. It is the only successful political entity that’s been in Armenia since at least the new president has come into power, if not since its independence.

I should back up a little bit and explain the reason for the hike. The electricity company, Armenian Electrical Network, is a Russian company, and is a subsidiary of a larger Russian electricity company, whose majority stakeholder is the Russian state. The Armenian Electrical Network’s Russian CEO announced (I want to say two months ago; it may have been less) that due to mismanagement the company had accrued a lot of debt, and needed to raise tariffs to cover that debt. Interestingly, Ernst & Young does the auditing for this company, and the last few audits were so bad the company hasn’t been able to find financing from abroad. I assume sanctions against Russia might have something to do with that. But, without a doubt, mismanagement and corruption, including renting out luxury apartments in central Yerevan and paying really high salaries, like absurdly high salaries, has something to do with it, as well. The company accrued all this debt, and basically if it doesn’t pay off this debt, it will go under and be unable to provide electricity.

In order to raise the rates, the company had to present its case to the Armenian state regulatory agency, which is an arm of the Republic of Armenia, not Russia. The agency’s decision to allow the rate hike is what triggered the demonstrations. Popular anger is actually geared toward the Armenian state regulatory agency, because it is supposed to be looking out for the interest of Armenian citizens, and didn’t do that in this case.

What are some examples of the movement’s successes, before the current demonstrations?

BD: The movement has had smaller, local successes, which have been tangible. In the summer of 2013, there was a really big protest against a 50% increase in transport fares. That was halted in under a week and six days, purely as a result of popular mobilization. A lot of organizers of the movement and the current protests are veterans of that previous effort. A lot of the rhetoric and value structures that are being represented in the Yerevan protests right now are from that demonstration. The transport protest was itself a product of a previous victory that was the result of another smaller, earlier victory, in which we were able to save a small park in central Yerevan from being turned into retail boutiques. So the movement has been building and building for the last four years at least.

Have the protesters’ demands changed over the last two weeks?

BD: Protesters have made the following demands: (1) repeal of the electricity rate hike; (2) review of the current rate, to find ways for lower it; and (3) legal accountability for the police officers (including plain clothes officers and those who gave orders) responsible for the crackdown against protesters last week. The first two demands haven’t changed. The third one was added after the police crackdown. I think this part of the movement’s simplicity. It’s a very clear, simple set of demands. There is no room for negotiation.

These clear, simple demands have, however, raised a whole host of other issues. For instance, people are starting to wonder why Armenians have to pay for the mismanagement of a Russian company? Why does a Russian company own the exclusive right to electricity distribution in Armenia?

As a part of this inquiry, there has also been an awakening in terms of what it means to be an Armenian citizen and about the rights and responsibilities that come with citizenship. The broader slogan of this and other protests has been: “We are the owners of our country.” It’s this understanding, that it is our right as citizens to demand accountability from our government and that our government is to be accountable to us, that is driving these demonstrations.

What are the chances protesters’ demands will be met?

BD: It’s hard to say because on the one hand people aren’t going to go home, unless there is some dirty provocation by the police, which there have been rumors about, or police repression. There is no room for negotiation or concessions. On June 27, the president announced there will be a new independent audit of the Armenian Electrical Network, and people here weren’t even talking about it, as if it didn’t even concern them. There is one demand to be met, that of the protesters. Period. There is no “or else.” We are not going home until our demands are met.

On the other hand, the Armenian government can’t really meet the protesters’ demand without addressing some really serious issues in terms of its relationship with Russia. For once, it would actually have to stand up to Russia. Over the last five or ten years, especially in the last two or three years, Armenia has increasingly become overly dependent on Russia. There is a colonialist relationship between Armenia and Russia.

Most famously, Armenia backed out of the association agreement with Europe in September 2013 and decided to join the Eurasian Economic Union with Russia after Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Armenian president met for only an hour. This is after Armenia spent three years negotiating and fulfilling commitments to the European association. After three years of reforms, at the very last second, Putin blackmailed Armenia into dropping and joining the Eurasian Economic Union. He was able to do this because Russia owns almost all major infrastructure in Armenia. For instance, the Russians purchased a 20% stake in the gas distribution network that used to be owned by the Armenian state, which is now 100% owned by Gazprom.

More and more, Russia has really dug its claws into Armenia. This is very consistent with Russian foreign policy. The only difference is Armenia is forced to play ball with Russia, because of its ongoing conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh territory. This has created a complex web of overdependence on Russia and a deterioration in Armenian sovereignty. The Armenian people are fed up with the asymmetry in this relationship.

How is the Armenian media covering the protest?

BD: It’s mixed. In the Armenian media landscape, you have the state-owned media and then a number of oligarch-owned media outlets. The line is really blurred between what is private, independent media and what is state-owned. The son-in-law of the president owns a number of media properties. Interestingly, his media outlets have been pretty positive about the demonstrations, which has led people to believe the government would like to co-opt the movement. I don’t watch the state-owned media, so I don’t know how they’re covering it.

On the other hand, you’ve got really vibrant online media in Armenia, everything from Internet TV channels and newspapers, which have been covering the protests really well. One great outlet is civilnet.am. It’s an independent, web-based television channel, that has been providing excellent coverage on the demonstrations, including live-streams of the sit-ins and footage from police stations after people have been arrested. Then there is social media. There is pretty good coverage on Twitter, although there are only a few of us tweeting in English. Then, there is Facebook. Facebook is huge in Armenia. It is used in a really different way than in the West. It is a free space for people to have critical discourse in a way that you just don’t see as much in Western countries.

How is the Russian media covering the protests?

BD: Horribly! To the point where the Russian foreign ministry actually had to put out a statement to the Russian media telling those outlets to stop covering the protests so horribly. Russian media is almost all propaganda. It’s almost all state media in Russia. The one exception there is Dozhd TV, which is similar to civilnet.am. A lot of Russian journalists have come to Armenia and have been basically ostracized by the protesters, because of their shitty reporting. They are really quick to try and frame this as anotherEuromaidan. So, if you have been seeing a lot of insistence that this is not like Maidan, it is in response to the Russian media, the Russian trolls, trying to make this out to be some sort of CIA plot.

Why is it important that we distinguish the Armenian protest from Ukraine’s Euromaidan movement? What are the differences between the two protests?

BD: There is a lot of affinity with what happened in Maidan. What happened in Maidan was Ukraine’s legacy, and it needs to stay Ukraine’s legacy. We don’t want to co-op that legacy. We can have respect for it, but we are doing something different. Among the differences, the protests in Armenia are about an awakening of citizen identity, which probably happened in Ukraine before Maidan and even before the Orange Revolution. In 1994, for example Ukraine was the first post-Soviet country to have a peaceful transition of presidential power, which is something we haven’t had in Armenia.

Armenian protesters actually have to be careful to distance themselves from Maidan. In this part of the world, Maidan has become an almost pejorative term; when you say Maidan people who are used to watching the Russian media automatically think “CIA coup.” Because Russian media has such a large influence in Armenia, it was important from the beginning for protesters to say, “This is not the Maidan. Let us figure our shit out. It’s not the U.S.; it’s not Russia. We’ve got this, guys.” It’s an Armenian-centric movement. Yes, there is a Russian element, but the world does not revolve around Russia. It’s Armenians trying to solve Armenian issues.

Do the protests have implications for neighboring countries, or other countries in the European Economic Union?

BD: I think if anything this will have an effect on the relationship between Russia and Armenia. I definitely don’t see it affecting Georgia, for example. There has been a lot of solidarity with Georgia, which has been great. Georgia had its Rose Revolution in 2013 and has also had a peaceful transition of power. Georgia is, as such, in a different situation from Armenia. In that sense, I think if anything, it’s an awakening for Russia. Russia claims to be Armenia’s biggest partner and supporter and yet it is screwing us over the most. Russia is more responsible for anti-Russian sentiments in Armenia than the West could ever be.

Is there anything you would like to add about the protests?

BD: I think it is important to note this has been years in the making. It did not just come out of nowhere. So, I think it is important to talk about this in context. A lot of the leading organizers here were veterans of the transport fares protest. It is also important to note the lack of leadership from political parties. This entire movement, the broader movement, came out of the political vacuum left by the failure of traditional political opposition parties to achieve anything. This sort of movement, this sort of social mobilization, has more legitimacy in Armenia than all the opposition parties put together. This is the only thing that has actually been able to challenge government policy and promote public opinion.

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