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'Electric Yerevan' Insists No One Has Pulled Plug On Armenia Protests

Demonstrators dance in the street during the "Electric Yerevan" protest on July 2.

YEREVAN -- Street protests in the Armenian capital that sent shock waves far beyond the Caucasus have gone nearly quiet, with neither side able to claim victory in a battle over electricity prices.

A two-week standoff over makeshift barricades and nightly rallies that are blocking a main throughfare in downtown Yerevan continues, and organizers have vowed to remain on the street.

They oppose a nationwide hike of at least 16 percent in electricity prices from August, announced some time ago but only cleared by the country's price regulator on June 17.

A police threat remains in effect to tear down the largely unoccupied mini-encampment on Marshal Baghramian Avenue, where only a handful of protesters linger during the midday heat but ranks of demonstrators swell for evening rallies.

But tensions have eased significantly since President Serzh Sarkisian signaled a possible compromise on June 27, and competing protest factions have emerged to take some steam out of the movement.

A protest leader and Yerevan city assemblyman, Davit Sanasarian, told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on July 3 that while the government might be "physically" overpowering demonstrators, it lacks "political resource" to repeat the kind of dispersal operation that shocked Armenians and the international public more than a week ago.

And a senior activist from the No To Plunder group that led the first round-the-clock protests in Yerevan, but which has since changed tactics in an effort to take its message to other regions, says plans are continuing for a "public meeting" in the city of Gyumri on July 4.

Authorities appear reluctant to repeat the mistakes that grabbed international headlines on June 23 when police conducted mass arrests and riot policemen trained a water cannon on peaceful participants in a sit-in that began when the protesters' route to the presidential palace was blocked.

On July 3, prosecutors announced the launch of a criminal investigation into possible police wrongdoing in that clash, in which protesters and journalists were injured and reporters (including from RFE/RL's Armenian Service) had their equipment seized.

The daily Hayots Askkhar this week described the protest as "nominally going on...but in terms of substance, it is simply melting away, dying down, like an ice cream in the summer heat."

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The "public meeting" on Gyumri's central Theater Square should provide an indication of whether No To Plunder can muster sufficient support to take its movement beyond the capital.

Meanwhile, in Yerevan, 15 little-known activists stepped into the breech that No To Plunder left behind on July 1 and have vowed to reenergize the protest on Baghramian Avenue.

Sanasarian, a senior member of the opposition Zharangutyun (Heritage) party who is also a member of the city's municipal assembly, told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that the new "Electric Yerevan" organizers' "first task is to sort out this disorganized situation."

He dismissed the notion of "leaders," though, saying, "There are only persons who will be doing hard work...[and] should spend more time here than other citizens, because we are responsible for what is happening here."

In a Facebook chat moderated by RFE/RL's Armenian Service from Baghramian Avenue on July 3, Sanasarian vowed that protesters would stand their ground in the street and continue to press the authorities to meet their demands.

On June 27, President Sarkisian said the Armenian government would tap its funds set aside for a "further strengthening of national security" to "bear the burden" and subsidize higher energy tariffs in the coming months, pending an audit of Armenia's Russian-controlled power distributor.

The Yerevan protesters insisted on July 3 that their demands remain the same: to completely revoke the 16-percent-plus electricity price hike; to investigate the June 23 violence against protesters and punish police officers guilty of excessive violence or ordering the use of such force; and to reconsider current electricity prices with an eye to lowering them from current levels.

Organizers, wary of being portrayed as insurrectionists of the kind that helped to oust the government in nearby Ukraine in early 2014, have resisted suggestions that they harbor broader aims connected to Armenia's strategic positioning.

A small group of would-be protesters who turned up at the Yerevan rally on the evening of July 2 waving EU flags were quickly confronted as "provocatuers" and told to "go away."

Russian officials have repeatedly accused the West of fomenting "color revolutions" in the former communist bloc and pressured Yerevan in 2013 to spurn closer ties with the European Union.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on July 2 warned against "find[ing] it useful to go further and develop these processes in a political direction" in Armenia.

Moscow agreed a $200 million loan on favorable terms to Armenia's government that was signed on June 26, reportedly for the purchase of Russian weapons but leading to speculation that it was a disguised effort to help Armenia cope with its electricity crisis.

Armenian Deputy Defense Minister Ara Nazarian rejected talk of any connection between the "export credit" and the protests, according to RFE/RL's Armenian Service.

Written by Andy Heil in Prague based on reporting by RFE/RL's Armenian Service in Yerevan
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