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'ElectricYerevan' Protesters Chafe At Comparisons To Ukraine's Euromaidan

  • Karine Simonyan
  • Robert Coalson

A demonstrator waves an Armenian flag as others shout slogans during a protest against an increase of electricity prices in Yerevan on June 25.

A demonstrator waves an Armenian flag as others shout slogans during a protest against an increase of electricity prices in Yerevan on June 25.

YEREVAN -- As protests in Yerevan and other Armenian cities enter their second week, activists are struggling with a postmodern problem -- branding.

They bristle at comparisons -- whether well-intentioned or not -- with the Euromaidan movement that ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014.

Babken DerGrigorian, an activist who is also a researcher at the London School of Economics and who invented the #ElectricYerevan Twitter hashtag that has been widely adopted, has been adamant on social media that outside observers should avoid slapping the Maidan label on events in Armenia.

"Framing is crucial," he posted on Twitter. "IT IS NOT A MAIDAN! ITS (sic) MUCH MORE IMPORTANT THAN THAT!!!"

Perhaps the main reason why the protesters resist this comparison is because Russian state-controlled media and pro-Kremlin figures have been so aggressive in insisting on it. And when they use the term "Maidan," they mean a U.S.-inspired anti-Russian coup.

Pro-Kremlin analyst and former Duma Deputy Sergei Markov has been one of the most outspoken. The Yerevan events "are an attempted color revolution that has been ordered from abroad," he wrote on Facebook on June 23.

"This attack on Yerevan was expected as a reaction to its rejection of a semicolonial Association Agreement with the EU and its joining to Eurasian Union," he wrote the same day. "Most likely there are many fighters from Ukraine among the demonstrators and they are being managed by an external headquarters run by the same political technologists that ran Kyiv's Maidan."

Russian state-controlled television has also pushed the Maidan comparison, prompting demonstrators to try to shout down Russian journalists reporting from the protests.

"Last night the crowd moved through the center of Yerevan along Marshal Bagramian Avenue, where the embassies of key European countries are located," Russia's Vesti news program reported on June 23. "The prosecutor's office is now interested in the protests. Inspectors are looking into reports that the people are being provoked and incited by some nongovernmental organizations -- of which there are dozens in Armenia, most of which live off of grants from the United States."

As a result of such reports -- which have also included the claim that demonstrators attacked police on June 23, prompting the authorities to respond with water cannons -- demonstrators have been holding up signs with slogans such as "Tell the truth!" behind Russian journalists trying to do stand-up reports from the scene.

Such Russian coverage prompted activist DerGrigorian to concede at least one comparison between Yerevan and Kyiv.

Some protest supporters have tried to counter Russian media claims with humor, setting up a Facebook page featuring mocking memes and other jokes.

In one, for instance, a photograph of protesters playing a game of chess is captioned in Russian: "Armenian activists have received the latest tactical maps from the U.S. State Department. Now they are preparing to storm the presidential residence."

Similar In Motivation, At Least

On the other hand, some Ukrainians and others who argue that Euromaidan was a grassroots popular movement aimed at holding corrupt politicians accountable have been eager to see Yerevan in the same light.

"Yesterday some friends and I went down to Marshal Bagramian Avenue," Oleksandr Bozhko, Ukraine's former ambassador to Armenia, told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service on June 25. "The atmosphere that prevailed there, the particular sense of elevation, the confidence of the people in the justice of their cause, of course, reminded me of Kyiv's Maidan. And it even seemed to me that I had gone back to the autumn of 2013."

The main spokespeople for the Armenian protesters insist that #ElectricYerevan is not an anti-Russian phenomenon, but is narrowly aimed at the repeal of a government decision to raise electricity rates for the third time in recent years and the investigation of possible corruption and mismanagement at the country's monopoly electricity supplier.

They insist the fact that the electricity supplier is owned by a Russian company is irrelevant to their basic contention that ordinary Armenians are being asked to pay for poor management and the government is doing nothing to protect them.

Yelizaveta Khramtsova, a correspondent for Russia's LifeNews channel, says demonstrators consistently tell her to report that their demands are not "political" and they are not calling for a change of government. "There is nothing like in Kyiv here," Khramtsova tells RFE/RL. "I was in Kyiv and I can say that these are two different situations."

"The important thing is that we realize Armenia will not follow the Ukrainian scenario," she adds.

Razmik Avagian, an ethnic Armenian who lives in Sweden but who is participating in some of the protests, says that the international media "make things more complicated than they really are."

Looking Under The Hood

However, despite the efforts by protest spokespeople to keep a laser focus on the issue of electricity rates, some protest participants are expressing much broader concerns that do seem to echo Euromaidan's trajectory.

The Hetq investigative journalism website published a collection of quotations from protesters under the heading "the voice of Armenia's new generation," seeming to highlight a new political awakening.

The concerns expressed in the Hetq survey are far-ranging: "The exodus from the country must be halted." "To change anything in the country, we must first change education." "First, an active society must be formed." "A healthy mindset must be shaped in order that we overcome our slave mentality and fears." "We require regime change."

The #ElectricYerevan movement also echoes Euromaidan in that it is a grassroots and leaderless organization that organizes largely through social media. It is dominated by people in their 20s. The protesters are as skeptical of the political opposition in their country as they are of the ruling politicians. Although the demonstrators are not overtly anti-Russian, they also do not share the uncritical view of Russia often found in Armenians of older generations.

A further similarity may be a drift toward anti-Russianism.

"Everything started after the Rossia 24 channel correspondent distorted news by claiming there are anti-Russian sentiments in Armenia, that there are people here dispatched from Maidan," protester Levon Yuzbashian says. "There is no such thing here. Simply, the Armenian people have risen to their feet. They have stood up for their rights."

And that may be enough to put them at odds with the Kremlin. Analyst Sergei Markov wrote on Facebook that the Armenian government has two options.

"Either to go down the path of Yanukovych or that of [Belarusian President Alyaksandr] Lukashenka," he wrote, referring to Lukashenka's brutal suppression of protests against his allegedly falsified December 2010 reelection. "And I think it will choose Lukashenka's path."

With reporting by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service
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    Robert Coalson

    Robert Coalson covers Russia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. Send story tips to coalsonr@rferl.org

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