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Armenian Riot Police Deployed Near 'Electric Yerevan' Protest

  • RFE/RL's Armenian Service

YEREVAN – Armenian riot police have been deployed at the edge of a mass protest that has blocked a main thoroughfare in Yerevan, just a few hundred meters from President Serzh Sarkisian's office.

RFE/RL correspondents reported a tense standoff on Bagramian Avenue on the evening of June 26, with hundreds of police forming a phalanx facing as many as 20,000 demonstrators who were gathered for the so-called Electric Yerevan protest.

Protest leaders say authorities have violated a promise not to deploy security forces if the demonstrations against electricity price hikes remained peaceful.

Buses carrying the riot police arrived on the evening of June 26 as the governing board of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia -- including Sarkisian and Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian -- was meeting to discuss how to handle protests that are now in their second week.

Police on June 23 used water cannons and batons to disperse demonstrators in a crackdown that also targeted journalists who had documented the violence.

Earlier on June 26, protest leader Vaghinak Shushanian told RFE/RL that his No To Plunder movement had added more demands for the government to meet before they will lift their blockade of Baghramian Avenue and end their demonstrations.

Previously, the group had one demand -- that the government cancel a planned 16 percent rate hike for electricity due to take effect on August 1.

But Shushanian told RFE/RL on June 26 that his group now insists that police who used force against demonstrators and journalists in Yerevan on June 23 must be punished along with those who ordered them to do so.

Shushanian did not name any specific police commanders.

But Vladimir Gasparian, the chief of Armenia's national police, ultimately is in charge of the force.

Journalists who were targeted by the police violence on June 23 have named at least three police commanders as being responsible for giving orders for lower-ranking police to beat them, smash their equipment, and confiscate memory cards containing photos and videos of the crackdown.

They include two deputy chiefs of the national police force, Levon Yeranosian and Hunan Poghosian, as well as a commander of the force in Yerevan, Valeri Osipian.

Shushanian told RFE/RL as well that the protest movement is also demanding that the government recalculate and revise an electricity rate hike that was imposed in 2014.

Such a rate recalculation would likely lower electricity prices in Armenia.

WATCH: Armenians Maintain Protest (from June 25)

Inter RAO UES, the Russian state-controlled firm that owns Armenia's national power grid, reported a five-fold increase in its earnings from Armenia during the first quarter of 2015 compared to the same period in 2014.

On June 25, the government refused the demands to reverse the contentious electricity price hike that had been approved by Armenia's five-member Public Services Regulatory Commission on June 17.

President Sarkisian offered to meet with No To Plunder movement leaders. But the protest leaders have rejected any talks with Sarkisian unless they also are broadcast live on television and radio so that all Armenians can follow what happens.

Gasparian, the chief of Armenia's national police, visited the protest leaders on Baghramian Avenue during the morning of June 26 -- telling them that no one is allowed to make such demands upon the president. Gasparian also urged the demonstrators to keep their protests peaceful.

The protests have gained momentum since the violent police crackdown on June 23.

Russian ownership of Armenia's gas and electricity supply and distribution networks includes full ownership of the country's gas-import firm, Gazprom Armenia, as well as a major thermal power plant and Armenia's power-distribution grid -- Electric Networks of Armenia (ENA).

ENA managers, led by the firm's Russian general manager, Yevgeny Bibin, has tried to justify a price hike by pointing to the company's low profitability and mounting debt, which have resulted in overall losses.

But many Armenian consumers consider themselves the victims of a corrupt Russian monopoly and oligarchs.

Despite widespread reports of misappropriation and mismanagement by ENA's Russian leadership, President Sarkisian has repeatedly refused calls for an independent audit and criminal investigation into ENA's financial affairs.

Written by Ron Synovitz with additional reporting by RFE/RL Armenian Service correspondents Narine Ghalechian and Sasik Gabrielian in Yerevan)