Will spring arrive in Armenia before winter?

 Will spring arrive in Armenia before winter?

Mehmet Fatih Oztarsu

7 August 2013

Will spring arrive in Armenia before winter? <br><i>by</i> <b><br />
Mehmet Fatih Öztarsu*</b>

The economic woes plaguing Armenia have contributed greatly to the development of the Armenian culture of protest. With every passing day, Armenians have begun to become more informed and to see in themselves the real ability to run and direct their own country.

And so, for the first time ever in this post-Soviet era, Armenians are really realizing the importance of reckoning with the leaders and oligarchs who are running the country.

Over the course of the past two months, there have been a series of topics -- all of which have had economic troubles at their roots -- that have been the focus of some very interesting protests. In May, protests started after announcements of increased fees for natural gas purchased from Russia; these protests then increased in proportion to the increases in costs in other areas announced by the Armenian administration. While Yerevan began to pursue a range of alternative plans following the natural gas crisis with Russia, plans made in the Armenian capital to engage in an energy barter with Iran -- giving electricity in exchange for natural gas -- were backed away from after it was determined that Russia would not be happy about this.

When Armenians were then informed of 30 percent increases in electricity costs before they had even had time to get over the 60 percent hikes in natural gas prices, tensions rose throughout the country. Many opposition party fronts, like the Pan-Armenian National Movement and the Heritage party, took to the streets to underscore the point that the needs of Armenians are more important than Russian interests. And when the people poured into the streets to protest the government, the authorities, surprised in the face of these unexpected protests, did step back. The national atmosphere softened when the authorities promised that cost increases in energy would be made gradually and in low amounts and that Armenians would also be able to take advantage of assistance from the state.

The implementation of fee increases

Still trying to solve the country's considerable energy needs, the government decided to implement fee increases in a range of different areas. This time around, following the protests centered on natural gas and electricity costs, protesters from the Karabakh region began to fill the city squares. Complaining about poor living standards and that the government was not taking an interest in them, protesters accused the Karabakh-rooted Armenian authorities of treason against the nation.

Protester Haçatur Haçaturyan asserted that while the country's leaders had at one time fought on the same front as the nation, they had now forgotten their once-comrades-in-arms and had brought Karabakh to the national agenda for the purpose of their own interests. Another protester, Volodya Avetisyan, who was an army reserve brigadier, said the thousands of other fighters from Karabakh would be prepared, if necessary, to fight against this Armenian administration.

And so by now, the agenda was focused on the failed leadership of the country by an unskilled administration. Just as the nation had been looking at some of its very real problems, an announcement of fee hikes in the area of mass transportation set the tension levels in the national atmosphere even higher. The Yerevan Municipality, declaring that bus fares would go from 50 to 100 drams and that minibus fares would rise from 100 to 150 drams, said that this decision had been made to help increase the quality of mass transportation services. Now, the chain of fee increases that had begun with natural gas fee hikes was showing up in every area of life for Armenians. Thousands of people, whose socio-political movements were organized over various social media platforms, moved into action just a few hours after the latest fee hike announcements were made in the hopes of forcing the Yerevan Municipality to reverse its decision. The capital's city squares filled with angry protesters as people declared that not only did they not recognize the latest fare increases, but that they would not be riding mass transportation vehicles at all in the times to come. The protest movement, called “We will not pay 150 drams,” quickly attracted thousands of supporters. And with protests that lasted seven days, for the first time in Armenian history, a civilian movement was successful in getting a city municipality to shelve a decision on fee increases.

During the same period of time, another protest, called the Free Vehicle movement, represented a different sort of first for the country. The Free Vehicle movement saw taxi drivers and private car owners working to transport protesters refusing to ride mass transportation vehicles to wherever they wanted for free.

The '150 Dram' protests

The “150 Dram” protests -- which for the first time ever saw the questioning of the oligarchy and the calling for punishment of bureaucrats who were unfairly profiting from their own interests -- brought about another interesting situation. During these protests, it was revealed that the head of the Transportation Department of the Yerevan Municipality, one Henrik

Navasardian, was in fact the owner of a bus line, and certain figures in parliament were owners of various taxi and private bus lines.

It was simultaneously revealed that Navasardian's bus line, Dyako-Art, was legally owned by his 22-year-old son Andranik, and that the prime responsibility for the running of this company lay with his relative, Artak Navasardian. While details of the situation began to trickle out, various media organs began looking into the incredible level of investments held by Armenian bureaucrats like Navasardian, asserting that while this situation might in fact be somewhat acceptable, the insistence by Navasardian and other members of the ruling elite on new fare increases would not be accepted by the people of the country. When details were further revealed that another of Navasardian's sons, Davit Navasardian, was the owner of Motion Time, a company providing advertising services for mass transportation vehicles in Armenia, the situation took on scandalous proportions. Even now, throughout Armenia, protests are still ongoing, calling for the resignation of the current oligarchy.

The Armenians, calling for the resignation of not only Prime Minister Tigran Sarksyan but also many mayors and government ministers, may turn to a number of different options if their leaders maintain their level of failure and economic problems. If the energy crisis in particular remains in place until wintertime, it seems clear that many different and new types of protests might be seen in Armenia in the time to come, though there is also great curiosity as to what sorts of reactions the protests will elicit not only from Armenian President Serzh Sarksyan, who has amassed his own fortunes, but also from other top leadership figures.


*Mehmet Fatih Öztarsu is a strategic outlook expert on the Caucasus.