As an estimated 10,000 people in Armenia joined round-the-clock protests over a recent rise in electricity prices on June 24, demonstrators sensed a turning point on the fourth day of this outpouring of discontent. The turning point was evident as scores of normally disengaged, first-time protesters descended on the protest site to show solidarity and support.
Yet this wave of protest represents much more than a display of anger over an energy price rise. And these demonstrations are only the latest in a series of civic actions against the Armenian government.
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This recent round of protests against the Armenian government represents something new and novel. Public demonstrations themselves are certainly not new for Armenia. But the protesters, largely consisting of the young, educated, and empowered, stand as a new challenge for the government.
Unlike the more traditional political rallies and protests of Armenia’s opposition parties, these demonstrations deprive the authorities of any avenue for political negotiation, and the protesters are simply not interested in anything short of concession.
More than energy
While this lack of politicisation served as an important advantage for protesters in the initial period, it is now becoming a weakness, as the need for a strategy for coherent political demands is now apparent. Yet, despite that serious shortcoming in leadership, the momentum of the protests is likely to only deepen, and not dissipate.
Such an outlook of sustained momentum is grounded in the fact that these protests are also about more than energy prices. The discontent is much deeper, rooted in a broader economic downturn, as seen by an already severe one-third decrease in remittances coming to Armenia from abroad. This cut in remittances has hit many ordinary families in Armenia, who depend on the money for basic commodities and food staples.
A second, related element that has only exacerbated the situation is the anger over the arrogance of the Russian-owned energy company in Armenia that has pushed the Armenian government for the electricity price rise.
The Russian connection does not necessarily mean that these protests are directed against Moscow, and they are certainly not a Kiev-style 'Maidan moment'.
The anger and outrage over Russian arrogance was not only rooted in the exposure of lavish spending on luxury vehicles and homes for the Russian executives, but grew due to the company’s refusal to respond to a request by the Armenian parliament to defend the move in the legislative debate over the price rise.
The Russian connection does not necessarily mean that these protests are directed against Moscow, and they are certainly not a Kiev-style “Maidan moment”.
But against the backdrop of a pre-existing crisis in Armenian-Russian relations in the wake of the brutal murder of an entire Armenian family by a Russian conscript stationed at the Russian base in Armenia, any additional public perception of a Russian insult to Armenian sovereignty only escalates tension.
And with the cause of the decline in remittances directly linked to the downturn in the Russian economy, which is the source for roughly 90 percent of all remittances coming into Armenia, there is a broader aspect to such public anger.
But it is also a “crisis of confidence” in the Armenian government that is driving these protests. In fact, one key lesson from the earlier round of demonstrations over the Armenian government’s half-hearted attempt to introduce sweeping pension reforms was that those earlier public protests were based as much on a lack of trust in the government’s capacity to fairly implement the reform as the pension reform itself.
Moreover, this crisis of confidence in the government has also been matched by a destabilising degree of government arrogance, where key decisions are taken with little or no public preparation or engagement. This was most notably demonstrated by the Armenian president’s unilateral and abrupt decision to commit Armenia to joining the Russian-led Eurasian Union in September 2013, which thereby ended Armenia’s hopes to conclude an Association Agreement with the European Union.
No Armenian government has been able to handle public protests. For the Armenian authorities, the traditional response has always been a reflexive resort to force, in varying degrees of excess and abuse. This was most evident in the country’s violent clashes during its 2008 post-election crisis, in which 10 people died and many more were wounded in a violent crackdown on demonstrators by police.
Given its consistent failure to communicate, the government’s inability to strike a delicate balance in response means that there is little likelihood of a negotiated way out of this confrontation. This was only confirmed by the excessive force used by police during an initial attempt to forcibly disperse the protests on June 22, which also included the mass arrests of some 230 demonstrators and journalists.
Thus, while the immediate outlook of these mounting protests in Armenia remains far from clear, it is fairly certain that Armenia faces a long, hot summer of discontent in the weeks to come.
Richard Giragosian is the founding director of the Regional Studies Center, an independent think-tank in Yerevan, Armenia.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.