YEREVAN -- The demonstrators thronging the Armenian capital to protest against corruption and an electricity rate hike have made headlines both for their determination and for a nearly invisible leadership that relies on asking "the people" to make key decisions.
When thousands of people marched on Yerevan’s central Marshal Bagramian Avenue on June 22, upset at the government’s decision to increase the cost of electricity, people wondered who had organized and was leading the demonstration.
Some observers suggested one of the country’s long-standing opposition leaders or political parties was behind the rally, which police forcibly dispersed with water cannons while more than 200 people were detained and at least 18 injured as police chased drenched demonstrators down the street.
But No To Plunder, the nonpartisan civic movement leading the protests that have brought up to 10,000 people into the streets for three days running, had no eminence grise calling the shots.
The movement’s main known leaders -- the youthful Armen Mkrtchian, Maksim Sarkisian, and Vaghinak Shushanian -- keep a low profile and have intentionally sought to keep their distance from the established opposition parties and leaders.
They have even limited any elected officials attending the demonstrations to speaking only about the controversial hike in the electricity rate, as a private person, with no political agendas allowed.
Tens of thousands of people have participated in the rallies, which began on June 22.
Shushanian was active in last year’s No To The Mandatory Pension Law campaign, which successfully forced the government to postpone implementation of a new pension scheme for private-sector employees until 2017.
“We are not in a hurry,” the twentysomething Shushanian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service at the rally site on June 24. “We have one month and 10 days,” he said, referring to the August 1 date on which the 16 percent increase in the electricity rate is due to take effect.
“We will keep fighting with the same demands till the end,” said co-leader Sarkisian -- no relation to Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian.
Protesters at the No To Plunder rally -- being held a few hundred meters from parliament and the presidential palace -- are being urged by the leaders from displaying any political banners and are told to keep their chants and protest songs focused on the rate hike and alleged corruption with the Russian-owned firm that controls Armenia’s power grid.
Many of the most enthusiastic demonstrators come from the country’s large IT sector, which boasts more than 8,000 workers in the country of 3 million.
But the crowd at the No To Plunder rallies also includes students, blue-collar workers, pensioners, and others, with several prominent artists and other public figures also coming out late on June 23 and placing themselves between the front of the rally and the rows of riot police stationed meters away.
Mkrtchian (left) and Maksim Sarkisian (center)
The tech-savvy leaders of the movement and their most loyal supporters used social media -- primarily Facebook -- to organize the first demonstration on June 22.
Though Shushanian, Sarkisian, and Mkrtchian are recognized as leaders of the rally, they claim not to make any major decisions about the movement without consulting first with the protesters assembled on the avenue.
After the leaders tentatively agreed on June 23 to meet with President Sarkisian to discuss their demands, they stood on a small table and, using a simple bullhorn, crowd sourced the decision by asking the demonstrators whether they supported it.
After some debate, the crowd shouted down the idea of such a meeting. The leaders then informed General Hunan Poghosian, deputy chief of the national police, that there would be no chat with the president.
The inclusive decision-making mechanism of the No To Plunder movement has moved one analyst to dub it “the collective brain.”
Although protesters at the rally talk about establishing “social justice,” eradicating corruption and officials’ looting of the economy, even ending Russia’s economic dominance of Armenia, the mercurial leaders of the No To Plunder movement say the main goal is for the government to “cancel the decision to increase the price of electricity.”
“Their water cannons won’t scare us,” said Shushanian. “We will be creating problems for them every day."
Written by Pete Baumgartner and Harry Tamrazian, based on reporting by RFE/RL's Armenian Service