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Armenian Protests Peaceful But Demands Unresolved

  • RFE/RL's Armenian Service

Armenian security forces have refrained from another violent crackdown as demonstrators protesting against a hike in electricity prices blocked a central avenue in Yerevan for the fourth day running.

Hundreds of people maintained their vigil near the presidential palace in Yerevan on the morning of June 25, blocking traffic on the city's main thoroughfare.

The crowd grew to an estimated 10,000 by the evening of June 24 after hundreds of mostly young activists spent a second night and third day on Marshal Bagramian Avenue in a continuing standoff with riot police deployed nearby to prevent them from marching to the presidential palace in the Armenian capital.

Most protesters sought to avoid further confrontations with police after a violent clash on June 22, staying behind a row of large trash containers police placed across the road as a barricade.

More than a dozen lawmakers, actors, and show-business representatives stationed themselves between the protesters and rows of police officers through the night in an effort to prevent another forcible dispersal of the crowd.

On June 25, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights voiced concern at reports of excessive use of force by Armenian police against protesters and journalists. The statement called on the authorities to investigate such reports "thoroughly and promptly."

While all sides sought to keep the protests peaceful, there was no visible progress toward resolving demands that have provoked the worst unrest the country has seen in years.

President Serzh Sarkisian has offered to meet with representatives of the protesters in the impoverished former Soviet republic, but they have refused, demanding instead that he announce on television that the price hikes will be scrapped.

Sarkisian hasn't yet commented publicly on the unrest, which is raising concerns about political stability in Armenia. The country is suffering economically because of its close ties with Russia, where the economy is in deep recession.

Russia has a military base in Armenia, and Russian companies control some of the most prized economic assets, including the power grid. The protest was triggered when an Armenian government panel agreed to raise electricity rates sharply at the request of the power company.

The rate decision led to a series of escalating protests and a confrontation with police on June 22, when more than 230 demonstrators were arrested, along with several journalists.

All of them were set free by the next day and senior police officers assured protest organizers afterward that they will not use force again.

As the protests continued on June 24, police officers searched the trash containers tied together by ropes to verify "information" that sacks of stones were stashed inside the bins, said Valeri Osipian, a deputy chief of the Yerevan police.

"Let nobody take offense, because this is being done for our common security," Osipian said. His officers found no suspicious objects.

No To Plunder, a nonpartisan youth movement leading the protests, rallied thousands of supporters in the nearby Liberty Square.

One of its leaders, Vaghinak Shushanian, said the protests will continue until the Armenian authorities revoke a decision by state regulators to raise electricity prices by more than 16 percent.

He said the police crackdown only increased the number of people attending its rallies.

"We are not in a hurry," Shushanian told RFE/RL. "We have one month and 10 days."

The new energy tariffs set by the Public Services Regulatory Commission last week are supposed to take effect on August 1.

Protests also were held in other towns across Armenia, including Gyumri, Charentsavan, Abovyan, and Ashtarak.

In addition to sit-ins and rallies, the protests sometimes took the form of "automobile marches." Protests are also.planned in some Armenian communities abroad.

In Yerevan, hundreds of protesters sat on the road, ignoring police appeals to disperse. Many others sought shelter from the sun under trees and umbrellas as the temperature soared to about 40 degrees Celsius.

Some restaurants, bars, and stores provided protesters with free food and drinks.

When the evening came and the sizzling heat abated a bit, the number of protesters grew to 10,000. People from the suburbs and nearby cities joined the crowds, as well as politicians, artists, scholars, and other celebrities and public figures .

The atmosphere was relaxed and even festive with people shouting chants, singing national songs and dancing.

Some politicians in Russia have suggested that the West or Western nongovernmental organizations had a hand in fomenting the unrest, comparing the protests to those in Ukraine in 2013 that led to the overthrow of a Russia-friendly president.

The Kremlin, however, took a conciliatory tone, voicing hope that the standoff will be settled peacefully.

The demonstrators in Yerevan have denied any links either to foreign organizations or to opposition parties in Armenia. The protesters, most of whom are young, have used social media to organize their actions.

"No one is controlling us from either West or East," said Yeghia Nersesian, a 36-year-old photographer and activist who is one of the organizers of the protest. "We will look after ourselves. Our reputation is what matters."

Seeking to win broader public support for their action, activists handed out leaflets urging people to "join the struggle from home" by making noise with their utensils from their balconies.

They also called on Yerevan residents to switch off the lights in their apartments for an hour as a sign of protest.

With reporting by AP
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