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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Rock down to Electric Yerevan, they made the prices higher

In Yerevan, the capital of the tiny Republic of Armenia, protests have broken out over an electricity price hike set to take place on August 1st.

Due to Armenia's location and recent history as the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic, Ukrainian and Russian news media outlets have spun the protests to their own agendas. Russian state media has rushed to denounce the protests as the start of a "color revolution". Meanwhile, Ukrainian media has offered its own support, even comparing these protests to the Euromaidan demonstrations that first hit Ukraine in November of 2013 and culminated in the revolution that ousted President Viktor Yanukovych. 

 Neither of these spins may be appropriate towards this chain of protests that is only a few days strong, however. It is true that the Armenian electricity network traces its origins from Russia, but Armenia is much closer to Russia politically than countries like Ukraine. Armenia is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union headed by Russia, and even though Armenians have displayed considerable interest in eventually joining the EU through opinion polls, EU membership is not quite the visible political ambition that it is in Ukraine or in Georgia. Grievances voiced by protestors so far do not seem to be anti-Kremlin or anti-Russian in nature.

Armenia is rated "Partly Free" by Freedom House, an international watchdog organization in the United States. For civil liberties, Armenia earned a 4 and on political rights, Armenia earned a 5. These measurements are done on a scale of 1-7, where the smaller the number, the less repressive the country is, and the larger it is, the more authoritarian it is.

Armenia suffers from rampant corruption and some journalistic self-censorship, but it is still a democratic state in practice. The opposition parties to the ruling Republican Party of Armenia, which include both the pro-Russian Prosperous Armenia party and the pro-E.U. Heritage party, have started to involve themselves in the protests with some MPs symbolically walking out of Parliament. 

As of now, it doesn't appear that these protests will lead to a revolution, as calls for President Serzh Sargsyan's resignation have been rare, but if discontent grows, he may become the subject of the protests. Sargsyan was elected in 2008 and re-elected in 2013, and in both elections the opposition parties disputed the result, claiming his party rigged the voting process. Most of the chants and cries heard in Yerevan's Freedom Square were aimed at corruption.

Similar to what happened in Ukraine, protests ballooned in size as excessive use of force by police was widely documented and shared via social media.

At the same time, Armenia's international relations are in a very difficult rut. Nagorno-Karabakh is still not yet fully resolved. The relationship between Armenia and Azerbaijan is extremely toxic because of past armed conflicts and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, as is the relationship with Turkey due to the refusal of Ankara to recognize the Armenian Genocide or Medz Yeghern (Great Crime) as a genocide. The economy is stagnant as Armenia has closed its borders with both Turkey and oil-rich Azerbaijan.

Turkey's recent election showed that many Turkish people seemed to believe President Erdogan was overstepping his boundaries as a head of state. While the Islamist AKP still came in first overall in the June 7th election, it lost its majority and the Kurdish HDP now holds 80 seats in the Grand National Assembly. That may lead to a new opening of dialogue with the two countries as the large CHP-affiliated newspaper Cumhuriyet (The Republic) did publish a newspaper on Armenian Genocide Rememberance Day with the headline "Never Again" in Turkish and Armenian, and Kurds often admit and apologize for their role in the genocide.

It is still too early to tell what will result from these protests in Yerevan, but the government would do well to address the problems of corruption, disputed elections, and economic stalling before the demands of the people shift from discontent with merely corruption and price hikes to problems with the government as a whole.

Title inspired by Eddie Grant's "Electric Avenue".

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