President Serzh Sargsyan suspends decision to increase electricity bills but protesters refuse to call off sit-in.
Yerevan, Armenia – In the face of an ultimatum from the police, thousands of protesters in Armenia are continuing to blocking Baghramyan Street, in the capital Yerevan, for the seventh consecutive day, demanding the government cancels a decision to raise electricity prices.
On Sunday, following a proposal by President Serzh Sargsyan a day earlier to audit the electric company and suspend the 17 percent hike until audit results were presented, authorities threatened to break up the protests, but the thousands of demonstrators have refused to move.
Deputy Chief of Police Valery Osipyan had earlier said that Baghramyan would be cleared of protesters at 11pm (19:00 GMT), unless people left peacefully.
“This is a threat, a serious threat against peaceful protesters,” said human rights activist Mamikon Hovsepyan.
“This message is against the Constitution of Republic of Armenian, against the Freedom of Assembly.”
On Sunday evening, activists voted in chorus to sustain the sit-in protest and delivered a unified response to the president’s proposal, saying they were not satisfied with the solution offered by Sargsyan.
“People want to live in peace and to live a better life,” said Hmayak Mkrchyan, one of the coordinators of the protest.
“They don’t want to be cheated, plundered, or taken advantage by the government. We are fighting for a transparent democracy and against illegal decisions made by the government.”
‘Will of the people’
The protest, which some estimates say has seen 15,000 people on the streets, is the among the biggest Yerevan has seen in years.
“We are ready to stay here for as long as we need too,” added Mkrchyan.
“But our rally is a peaceful one and we will not engage in aggression. We will peacefully pressure the government to follow the will of the people.”
Sargsyan had made his move towards appeasing the demonstrators on Saturday, proposing an audit of the electric company and offered to suspend any hikes until the audit results were presented.
If the audit continues past August 1, the date at which the electric company is set to raise prices, the state budget will cover any incurred costs.
If any fraud or poor management is found through the audit, the electric company will face consequences and the price hike will be reversed.
Should the audit find the price hike request reasonable, then, in Sargsyan’s words: “The citizens must abide [by the ruling].”
Some feel the president made a compromise by initiating the audit, while most are not convinced.
“It shifts spending from one pocket to anther, since the burden of the hike remains on tax payers who form the state budget,” said protestor Tigran Martirosyan.
Others said the government concession was just a pretext to justify a forceable dispersion of the protesters.
Police Chief Valdimir Gasparyan said on Sunday that he will deploy riot squads against the thousands of protestors sitting peacefully on the other side of a barricade, made up of rubbish containers, between the police and the protesters,
Late on Sunday, crowds continued to chant: “This country belongs to us” and “Police are citizens just like us.”
The situation remains tense and the real test will come overnight, when the police force is expected to disperse the demonstrators.