Tonight, people are gathering once more on Baghramyan Avenue, a major street in downtown Yerevan, to continue a nonviolent demonstration against a proposed raise in electricity costs. The protest began on June 19th, but it is what has happened in the last seven days that has made this movement so significant for Armenians.
On the night of June 22-23, police attempted to disperse a crowd of several thousand people by force, using a water cannon on nonviolent protesters and making over 200 arrests. The following day, the numbers of people gathered in protest grew even stronger, as organisations such as Amnesty International, the OSCE and the Human Rights House Foundation condemned the police violence. This video from a local news source shows the first nine minutes of the police operation.
On June 27, Armenian president Serzh Sargysyan announced that there would be an audit into the (Russian-owned) energy company responsible for the price increase, and in the meantime the state would absorb the cost of the tariff hike. Protesters viewed this offer as a delaying tactic, refusing to clear the area under they received a guarantee that citizens would not pay for the mismanagement which drove the company towards bankruptcy.
Last night, police threatened to use force to “restore order” to the city if the protesters did not disperse by a certain time. However, the crowd remained in place, and the deadlines issued by the police passed without violence (see drone footage of the stand-off). The number of protesters dwindled, as some crossed the barricades and set up camp in an alternative location near Freedom Square. At daybreak, there were still several hundred people left on Baghramyan, many of them sleeping on the ground, and their numbers began to increase again towards evening.
It’s not exactly easy to decode everything that’s happening at a distance of 3000 miles, but tonight seems like a good time to set down a few observations about the nature of the protest up to now. The first two points reiterate some of the main arguments being made in the media, while the third and fourth are more related to my own research topics. I owe a huge debt to my friends on social media, and to the creators of the Electric Yerevan website, for sharing/collating so much of the information I’m relying on for this post.
- This is not about party politics
The protests taking place in Yerevan and other Armenian cities have not been coordinated by an opposition political party and are not aimed at achieving outright regime change. Until today, the main spokespeople for the protest were a group of young people in their 20s, calling themselves “No To Plunder,” who had previously organised protests against government plans to increase the cost of public transport. Last night, some of these young people were among those who moved to continue the protest on Freedom Square, while the majority of other protesters remained on Baghramyan. This makes clear that the “No To Plunder” activists have been catalysts for change, but not full leaders of the movement.
A number of opposition MPs have been seen at the protests, but they have appeared alongside actors and other celebrities, suggesting that they are using their public profile to try to defuse tensions between protesters and police, rather than attempting to exploit a political opportunity. Meanwhile, it appears that no major political figure has emerged to take on the role of mediator between the protesters and the government – unlike the protests in Kiev, when a number of political heavyweights, including former presidents, attempted to negotiate a way out of the impasse in 2014. This points to how deeply discredited both government and opposition are in the eyes of the public. However, it is less the absence of an effective opposition and more the memory of lethal violence after the 2008 elections that may shape the “apolitical” strategy of the protesters.
- This and Maidan are not the same
As the reference in the last paragraph shows, it’s very hard to analyse events in Yerevan without reference to the Ukrainian Maidan, which looms large in the collective consciousness across the former Soviet Union. However, we owe it to Armenia to accept the framing of the movement as being against corruption and mismanagement. Armenia’s decision to forego an EU association agreement and join instead with the Eurasian Customs Union is an established fact, which entered into force in January this year. Armenia’s potential Maidan moment came and went in 2013, and the general consensus in society – reluctant or otherwise – was that the country couldn’t afford to pay the price, economically or militarily, of turning away from Russia.
However…geopolitical overtones are written all over this, and it wasn’t long before the term “EnergoMaidan” was being spread through Russian and some western media. Protesters were quick to counter this with their own name for the movement, “Electric Yerevan”, and an image was widely circulated online of a light bulb containing a fist with an extended middle finger. Needless to say, there were no EU stars surrounding that image, and generally no pro-European symbolism that I’m aware of being displayed during the protest. A website was also set up to archive verified Armenian, Russian and English language accounts of the protests, and to help popularise the hashtag #ElectricYerevan. A large part of the media analysis seems to be about (correctly) dispelling the myth that this is an Armenian version of Maidan supported by western governments.
However…again…things are not always simple. The heavy-handed way police attempted to deal with the protesters on June 22-3 mobilised people in greater numbers and led to the stand-off that took place yesterday evening. The language of the protest now encompassed not only the electricity prices, but general corruption, brutality and injustice. Had the police once again resorted to force last night, the world might have woken up to a situation far more reminiscent of the Ukrainian scenario. Yet even in that case, it is unlikely that protesters would jump towards a radically anti-Russian position. (The fact that international headlines are currently dominated by the prospect of “Grexit” just serves to shore up the idea that the EU is unable to cope with problems within its borders, let alone support countries on the outside.)
- Armenian identity is central to the protests
The symbolism of the protests appears mostly national/patriotic. There are Armenian flags being waved, Armenian songs being sung and dances being danced, and chants of “Hayastan, Hayastan” (the Armenian name for the country). Last night, when the crowd was split between Baghramyan Avenue and Freedom Square, they chanted “Miatsum, Miatsum” – the word for Unification, which was a popular slogan during the mass demonstrations which preceded the fall of the Soviet Union and the outbreak of the war over Nagorno-Karabakh. The context for the chant was different, but it can’t help having reminded Russia that Armenia – despite historically viewing the former Empire as an ally – once helped to bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union. By the same token, it must have reminded Armenians of how they once stood up, as a nation, to Soviet domination.
Notably, Russia has been acting in the past week to remedy perceived slights against Armenia. First of all, it was announced that the case against Valery Permyakov – a Russian soldier who was stationed at the Russian military base in Gyumri – would be handed over to Armenian investigators. On January 12 this year, Permyakov left his post and massacred a local family (six members died on the scene and the seventh, an infant, died in hospital). When it was first announced that he would face trial in Russia and not Armenia, there were demonstrations in Gyumri lasting days. This was followed by a rumour that Armenia and Russia were close to reaching a deal on the extradition of Hrachya Harutunyan, an Armenian citizen serving jail time in Russia after a truck he was driving hit a bus outside Moscow in 2013, killing 18 people (Harutunyan was brought to his court hearings in Russia wearing a flowery dressing gown, which caused outrage in Armenia). However, the Ministry of Justice of Armenia has denied that talks are moving closer to a resolution on extradition.
Although neither Permyakov nor Harutunyan featured in the demands of the Electric Yerevan protesters, the fact that their names are now being bandied about shows that the Armenia-Russia relationship is clearly under strain. Even if the movement is not about determining whether Armenia is at heart a “European” or a “Eurasian” nation (leaving aside the socially constructed nature of both those categories), it is on some level about negotiating Armenia’s national identity in relation to Russia’s geopolitical ambitions. It is about claiming freedom and independence for Armenia, establishing a zone – albeit within Russia’s sphere of influence – where corruption is not allowed to go unchecked and citizens are part of the decision-making process. Russia’s response to all this is still far from clear, but if the cynics are right, there would have been blood on the streets by now if Moscow wanted it. However, if the Armenian government cannot bring the situation under control, it remains to be seen how far Moscow’s patience will be tried.
- The protests demonstrate a shift in gender relations
From afar, I’ve noticed that there are plenty of women in the protests, as well there should be. Women played a big part in popular movements at the end of the Soviet period, and they’ve been playing a role in civil society ever since. Although the video footage of protesters squaring off with police seems to show a somewhat masculine face, there is also an obvious female presence on the frontlines. Women have been among those who chose to sleep on the street overnight, sometimes in all female groups, sometimes curled up next to boyfriends or husbands (there have been a few wedding couples photographed at the protest). This simple act of resistance should not be under-estimated – young women in Armenia often live with their parents and have an unofficial curfew of 10pm. The stigma attached to anything approaching promiscuous behaviour is very real for many women. Presumably the majority of those at the protest are well-accustomed to defying gender expectations by this stage, but that doesn’t mean the act of claiming public space is less significant.
Last night the police, operating under this more conservative gender code, called for women (and children) to leave the area before the supposed “deadline” passed. The idea that women should evacuate the protest site was met with ridicule by many commentators on social media. It will be interesting to see the gender breakdown in the new steering committee for the protests, which is being formed tonight – and more interesting to see what, if anything, that tells us about gender politics at the grassroots level. Presumably, it will do better than the Armenian parliament, where just 11% of MPs are women. However, I wonder whether this will be an unconscious reflection of the makeup of the protests, or an active decision to ensure that women have greater representation in decision-making. One thing I do know is that activists from a number of established women’s organisations in Armenia have been present at the protest throughout. While some are present as individuals, at least one NGO created a “mobile office”, moving its staff and some light equipment out onto the street to express their solidarity with the demonstration and create a visible feminist presence in the protest.
While all this points towards the acceptability of young women as active citizens (emphasis on the word “young” because marriage and motherhood are not viewed as necessary tokens of respectability), Electric Yerevan also reminds us that the idea of men as citizens who use nonviolent protest to resist the absolute rule of the state has retained its value. This is an important point to bear in mind about Armenian society, where young men usually undergo 24 months of military service and conscription is a major part of the formation of masculine identity. While it is unsurprising to see that the protest is rooted in strong expressions of patriotism, it does raise questions about how malleable national identity is with respect to gender, and what are the markers of significant changes in the gender code over time. Do protests merely reflect what we already know about a shift in gender relations, or do they accelerate the pace of change? Are social justice and gender equality co-constitutive, and how does this play out in the successes and failures of a movement like Electric Yerevan? These thoughts are fuelling the argument I’m working on at the moment around the relationship between women’s activism and social change.