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Armenian Activists Vow To Keep Protesting Power Rate Hikes

Armenian policemen stand along the curbside in Yerevan's Republic Square earlier this week to keep activists from the Rise Armenia movement out of the city center where they planned to hold a sit-in protesting a hike in energy prices.

Activists gathering in the central square of the Armenian capital, Yerevan, this week pledged to keep up the pressure on authorities to reverse their decision to raise electricity prices next month.

A recently formed civic group, Rise Armenia, estimates that the police have deployed more than a thousand personnel to prevent only a few dozen protesters from occupying the central spot of Republic Square where the main government offices of Armenia are located.

Following two weeks of considerably larger street protests a month ago initiated by another civil group, No To Plunder, the Armenian government agreed to fully subsidize the price rise pending the outcome of an international audit of the Russian-owned company that runs Armenia’s power grid.

While a majority of protesters spurned that "compromise" move, the wave of demonstrations eventually subsided. The barricades built by activists on Yerevan's central Baghramian Avenue, just a few hundred meters from the presidential administration building, were dismantled and the protesters were dispersed by the police on July 6.

But Rise Armenia, the more radical group that emerged during those protests, is vowing to keep trying to cancel the rate hike that it says still affects Armenian citizens as taxpayers. Government officials say the 16-percent electricity rate hike starting August 1 will be subsidized through "extra-budgetary" means, without elaborating.

Andreas Ghukasian, a Rise Armenia coordinator, says his group will stay put in Republic Square at least until July 30, when the next government meeting on the matter is scheduled.

The former presidential candidate believes the government will have to decide then on how it is going to subsidize the rise in electricity tariffs. "This decision may become an occasion for a larger-scale protest," he asserted.

According to Ghukasian, the authorities' response to their current campaigns of civil disobedience, including the prohibition of their sit-in in the middle of the square, shows that "they realize that any small-scale action may very rapidly grow into a bigger protest."

"A large-scale propaganda campaign is on in the country to show that the movement has faded away, but the response from the police that we've seen proves that the authorities have a different perspective on this matter," he added.

Police officers have not prevented Rise Armenia activists from holding demonstrations on the sidewalks adjacent to Republic Square, but have warned them that occupying the oval-shaped no-traffic zone in the middle of the square and staging a sit-in there is "unlawful."

Rise Armenia members, for their part, accuse the police of restricting their rights to freedom of movement and assembly.