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Armenian Civil Society Scores Tactical Victory

Armenian youth activists demonstrate against bus fare hikes outside municipal offices in Yerevan earlier this week.

Armenian youth activists demonstrate against bus fare hikes outside municipal offices in Yerevan earlier this week.

Apparently capitulating in the face of mass public protests, in a written statement on July 25 Yerevan Mayor Taron Markarian announced the "suspension" of a 50 percent increase in the cost of municipal transport that went into effect five days previously.

Meeting just hours earlier with representatives of the three political parties with seats on the municipal council, Markarian refused point-blank to rescind the price increase from 100 to 150 drams ($0.24 to $0.36), which he argued was essential in order to guarantee safe and "civilized" transportation. Markarian said the city council will set up a commission, on which NGOs will be represented, to come up with an optimum solution that would include special tariffs for low-income households.

From the first day the new fares took effect, young civil society activists have urged passengers not to pay the increased price. They argued that it is illegal insofar as it was never put to a vote on the municipal council and Markarian's decree announcing it was never made public.

Dozens of artists, TV hosts, and other celebrities backed the protest campaign, stopping at bus stops to offer people free rides in their cars. More than 200 other motorists reportedly joined a "free car" initiative promoted through Facebook.

Bus company owners, for their part, argue that the price hike is the inevitable consequence of a recent rise in the price of Russian natural gas. Harutiun Arakelian, director of the Davit company, one of 48 that operates bus services in Yerevan, told a press conference on July 24 that "if companies are forced to continue operating with the 100-dram tariff, they will consider going out of business."

The protest has mobilized hundreds of mostly young civil society activists, far more than participated in a three-month protest in the spring of 2012 against the illegal construction of kiosks in Yerevan’s Mashtots Park. Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian finally ordered they should be demolished.

Gor Hakopian, one of the organizers of this week's protests, estimated that 80 percent of the participating protesters are doing so for the first time. Hakopian convened a training course on July 24 for young activists to advise them how to respond in the event of a confrontation with the police.

Young activists also played a prominent role in monitoring the May 2012 parliamentary election. U.S. Ambassador John Heffern subsequently gave a positive assessment of "effective grassroots campaigns" by Armenians "promoting positive change."

Heffern added that "according to a recent USAID assessment, civil society in Armenia is the second strongest anywhere among the republics of the former Soviet Union."

Echoing that praise, Armenian Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian (no relation to the president) described the young activists' engagement as evidence that "a strong civil society is taking shape in Armenia." Addressing the weekly cabinet meeting on July 25, he stressed that the protest is non-partisan and is of " a social nature; it is for social solidarity and against poverty."

"Understandable motives are guiding the young people who are raising this issue," Sarkisian added. He stopped short, however, of explicitly endorsing the protest.

It is not clear whether the prime minister’s comments occasioned Markarian's volte face just hours later. Meanwhile, a second government official, Transport Minister Gagik Beglarian, told journalists on July 25 that he "will do all he can" to ensure that fare increases are limited to no more than seven or eight of the existing 170 intercity minibus taxi routes, and that the price rise is no greater than 10-12 percent. Beglarian did not explain what criteria would be used to select routes for which the fare will go up.

Many Armenian analysts are convinced that most companies that provide bus services are owned by government officials or their cronies or family members.

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.