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'Russia Is Russia’s Worst Enemy in Armenia'

The growing "Electric Yerevan" protests that started in Armenia's capital over the cost of electricity are causing anxiety in the Kremlin.

by Will Cathcart and Joseph Epstein
Jul 5 2015, 2:33pm

Imagen por Will Cathcart

As sundown approached in Armenia's capital Yerevan, lines of police officers in riot gear beat their steel shields on the pavement, chanting, "We serve the Republic of Armenia."

On the other side of a makeshift barricade made of garbage bins across Baghramyan Avenue, a main street leading to the Armenian Parliament and Presidential Palace, tens of thousands of protestors — men, women and children — shouted right back at them, roaring "Free Armenia!"

Only a few hours earlier, the gathering seemed like a party. Folk bands played, and few seemed to fear that police would make good on their promise to clear the road by force as they had done with water cannons just five days earlier.

That protest led to the arrests of several hundred people, but the move backfired for the Armenian government when thousands of people flocked back to Baghramyan Avenue to erect the trash bin blockades. The "Electric Yerevan" movement was born.

The protests, which started a couple weeks before, over the price of electricity, has since become part of a larger struggle for socio-economic rights. The advancement of the demonstration has caused anxiety in the Kremlin over whether the protest could take on an anti-Russian sentiment.

Related: 'We Won't Get Tired': Riot Police Deployed in Armenia as Protests Over Electricity Hike Rage On

An Armenian special forces operative prepares to clear journalists out from the buffer zone in between the protestors and riot police. 9Photo by Will Cathcart)

"This is the most recent link in Armenia's quest for justice," former presidential candidate, foreign minister, and opposition leader Rafi K. Hovannisian told VICE News. "It belongs to a long chain of grievances ranging from stolen elections to violations of basic liberties. Having been victimized and dispossessed by others throughout history, Armenia and its leadership must now deliver rights and dignity to its own citizens."

This isn't the first time that demonstrators have blocked main roads in Yerevan to voice their grievances with the government.

Armenians vividly remember a disastrous protest on March 1, 2008, when thousands gathered to denounce what they called fraudulent presidential elections. At that time, riot police forcibly dispersed the crowd with tear gas and live ammunition, killing 10 people.

"We lost brave citizens," said Hovannisian, a member of the pro-Western Heritage Party. "Today there are leaders of different parties, intellectuals, editors, actors, and clergy who come every night to form a human wall between the sides."

'There is an inherent disconnect between public opinion and public policy.'

Hovannisian considers himself the true winner of Armenia's 2008 presidential election, which brought current President Serzh Sargsyan to power. Hovannisian accused Sargsyan of "a sense of impunity," and condemned his 2013 "overnight" decision to abandon three years of preparation to integrate with the European Union after a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in September 2013.

"There is an inherent disconnect between public opinion and public policy," Armenian activist Babken DerGrigorian, a graduate student at the London School of Economics, told VICE News. DerGrigorian has been active on social media, organizing and broadcasting news about the movement. He coined the phrase "Electric Yerevan," and the #ElectricYerevan hashtag, which has been a crucial source of information on Facebook and Twitter.

Related: Meet the Colonel in Charge of Countering Russian Propaganda in Lithuania

The crowd props up five Armenian youth, who take the opportunity to flip off the police. (Photo by Will Cathcart)

The Armenian protesters have repeatedly insisted that Electric Yerevan is not a replay of "Euromaidan," the clashes between protesters and police in Kieve that led to the ouster of Ukraine's pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych in February of 2014. Still, the Kremlin is obviously worried.

Sargsyan is a staunch ally of Putin, and Russia has an important military base in the northwestern Armenian city of Gymumri. But Putin potentially has even more to lose than that.

A successful homegrown protest in Yerevan could inspire similar actions in other ex-Soviet countries, possibly including activists within Russia.

With Russian state media calling the protests a US-funded Armenian Maidan, the Kremlin is hedging its bets in case the Armenian demonstrators succeed in throwing out their government. 

'Russia is doing everything it can to look like a colonizing power; Russia is Russia's worst enemy in Armenia.'

At the heart of the conflict is Armenia's electrical grid, which is owned by a subsidiary of the Russian company Inter RAO. The conflict over the government's clumsy recent attempt to raise electricity rates has exposed how much of Armenia's strategic infrastructure is owned and controlled by Russia — including the country's gas distribution. It has also revealed the mismanagement, bad governance, and corruption that is embedded in Armenia's current structure.

"That's the beauty of this movement," DerGrigorian said. "It is about one single, straightforward issue which highlights many other issues at the same time. Meanwhile, Russia is doing everything it can to look like a colonizing power; Russia is Russia's worst enemy in Armenia."

Many protesters say their goal is to take back their country both from Moscow and from political parties they view as uniformly corrupt. "Politicians are simply not trusted in Armenia," said DerGrigorian.

The movement has marginalized key political players like Hovannisian, one of the country's best-known opposition figures, even as he tries to create a role for himself as an intermediary between the activists and political establishment.

Related: Russian Spies, Suspicious Books, and the New Cold War Emerging in Europe

Members of Armenia's special forces stand in between riot police and protestors on Baghramyan Avenue. (Photo by Will Cathcart)

"These two things are often perceived as, but should not remain, mutually exclusive," Hovannisiansaid. "I am absolutely proud of these people — our people here fighting for a new national identity… Having recently regained independence, Armenia is signing away pockets of strategic assets of our small republic to another, much larger country, which in this case is Russia. Some might say we've even given the controlling package away. This is unacceptable and must be reversed."

In this sense at least, the views of the young activist and the veteran politician are not so far apart. Russia "owns everything here," DerGrigorian joked to a reporter, adding, "They probably even own the chair you're sitting on."

After nightfall, back in the Yerevan Square — after two hours where it seemed like the riot squad was going to attack the protesters with fire hoses and batons at any moment, the officers abruptly turned their backs to the crowd and marched off into the darkness.

The crowd erupted in cheers. It was a victory, however temporary.

Sargsyan announced a partial compromise. He would temporarily suspend the electricity rate price increase by having the government subsidize rates to allow time for an international audit of Armenia's power distribution company. Even so, the protesters refused to leave. They objected to the government using their tax money to pay a price they see as unjust.

Many of Armenia's political elite seemed uncomprehending. "People can celebrate this as an achievement. Otherwise it's just all or nothing politics, and in that case you always get nothing," said Parliament Member Edmon Marukyan, an independent.

Marukyan's concern wasn't only theoretical. He warned that if 10 protesters could be killed in 2008 — a time when Armenia was much closer to the West than it is now — what might happen if the protesters today continue to refuse to disband?

Follow Will Cathcart and Joseph Epstein on Twitter: @Cathcartian and @EpsteinJoseph

Watch the VICE News documentary, The Russians Are Coming: Lithuania's Operation Lightning Strike