Mass protests in the Armenian capital against a hike in electricity tariffs entered their seventh day on Thursday, with both government figures and opposition leaders refusing to blink in a deepening standoff that has brought parts of Yerevan to a standstill.
Hovik Abrahamyan, the Armenian prime minister, accused protesters of violating the country’s constitution and vowed to push ahead with the controversial 17 per cent electricity price hike, despite a days-long stand-off between protesters and police that has raised fears of a serious political crisis in the impoverished former Soviet country.
Meanwhile protest leaders reiterated calls for the move to be entirely abandoned and rejected a call to clear a central thoroughfare that they have been occupying for days.
Some Russian politicians accuse Western governments of organising protests as part of Western plot to drag former Soviet states out of Russia’s orbit.
Largely peaceful protests broke out in central Yerevan last Friday as marchers gathered in the city centre to demand that Serzh Sargsyan, the president, cancel the price rise.
Protesters block a road (KAREN MINASYAN/AFP)
The protests, which have adopted the slogan “No to Plunder” were popularised on Twitter using the hashtag #ElectricYerevan, spilt into confrontation when police blocked a large crowd marching towards the presidential palace on Monday.
The marchers responded by sitting down on Marshal Baghramyan Avenue, blocking traffic on one of the city’s major thoroughfares, until police used water cannon to disperse them early on Tuesday morning.
Human Rights Watch has called for an investigation into reports that police beat protesters, used water cannon indiscriminately, and destroyed journalists’ equipment.
The United States, the EU, and the OSCE, have all expressed concern at the violence. Mr Abrahamyan said an inquiry had been launched into Tuesday’s events.
Hundreds of people spent a peaceful night on the streets and continued to maintain a picket on Marshal Baghramyan Avenue on Thursday morning.
The planned hike in electricity rates would see prices rise more than 16.7 per cent from August 1.
Armenia’s electricity distribution company, which is owned by Russia’s state-owned energy holding Inter RAO, requested the hike in rates to compensate for a sharp devaluation in the national currency.
But the move has caused fury in the country of three million, where the average wage is roughly £200 per month and the economy has been battered by the global economic crisis.
Armenia is a close ally of Russia, hosts a Russian military base, and in January joined the Eurasian Customs Union, a Moscow-led trade bloc that has been posited as a rival to the EU.
Grigory Karasin, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, said on Wednesday that Moscow was counting on the Armenian authorities to find a “compromise” with the protesters.
But some Russian politicians have accused Western governments of organising the protests as part of a Western plot to drag former Soviet states out of Russia’s orbit.
Several Russian MPs on Wednesday called on the Armenian government to expel the American ambassador, claiming that US diplomats were trying to “incite another colour revolution.”
“In the former Soviet space there are only two states that are still friends of Russia – Armenia and Belarus. That is why the Americans are trying to tear away the last of our allies,” Valery Rashkin, a senior Communist MP, told Izvestia.
The comments came after the US ambassador, Richard Mills, issued a statement expressing “concern” over reports of excessive use of force on Tuesday.
The sentiment echoes the official Russian view of the 2014 Maidan protests in Ukraine, which toppled pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, sparking a crisis that has plunged relations between Moscow and the West to their lowest point since the end of the Cold War.
Protest organisers have rejected both comparisons to Maidan and allegations of Western-backing.
“This situation has been caused by the poor management of the Electric Networks of Armenia,” Tevan Pogosian, an Armenian MP, told Russia’s Interfax news agency. “But instead of improving management, some people are looking for ‘Maidans.’”