Civil Resistance in the Republic of Armenia
by Harutyun Voskanyan
The last two and half decades after the decline of the Soviet Union were an important historical transition period for the establishment of new democratic political, social and economic institutions in independent Armenia. Since the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Armenia permanently encountered various socio-economic and military challenges. The transition period of Armenian history is therefore also characterized by ample social and political protests which focused on establishing an environment of justice and transparency.
Initially, most protests aimed for non-violent struggle scenarios. However, police and state security forces initiated various provocations during the demonstrations. They were in civilian clothes within the group of protesters and encouraged people to use violence. This provocative attitude of the regime caused serious obstacles to those social movements. The activists were forced to move from non-violent to violent resistance which was then used by the police as a pretext to arrest people.
The last five years since 2012 were eminent for the emergence of self-organized social groups in Armenia. Their actions aimed at achieving evident success using non-violent methods of struggling, including public meetings, demonstrations or boycotts. They initiated a new wave of protests which fostered the perception that youth activism in Armenia reflected a generation of new left-wing ideas. The Armenian civil society discussed these actions as the emergence of an absolutely new phenomenon in the Armenian post-independent period. It was the beginning of youth eagerness with the purpose of reshaping the official course of internal politics towards social justice.
It is worth mentioning the fact that the majority of the active population is concentrated in Yerevan, which is the capital and the biggest city in Armenia. In Yerevan are all significant political and economic institutions. Since the independence of Armenia in 1991, the center of Yerevan was used as the stage for people to express their political dissatisfaction after presidential and parliamentary elections. These public announcements were often followed by mass protests against total falsifications and illegal technologies after the official results of elections.
Protests for fair public transport
Social dissatisfaction reached a peak after the decision of Yerevan major to increase the fare of public transport enhancing the price from 100 to 150 Armenian National Dram (AMD) in July 2013. This initiative of city administration triggered direct complaint and open resentment by all social groups, especially the most vulnerable people and target groups such as students, who are financially insecure. The decision produced a wave of peaceful protests which were not centralized.
The movement began with spontaneous gatherings of active groups at bus stations promoting the idea to continue to pay 100 AMD as before in order to express their will not to follow the decision of the city major. Further, common citizens started to stop their cars next to the bus stations and asked people if they needed a free pick-up towards the destinations which the owner of cars were headed. This civilian approach of resistance raised the spirit of protesters because they received a broad support by the majority of the population.
Despite non-violent actions and large-scale protest in society the administration did not abolish or cease the law, which reinforced the protests. The major’s group of experts continued to promote the argument that it was not feasible to organize the public transport in Yerevan at the previous fare because the private owners found their businesses unprofitable. However, these official announcements did not prevent broad social actions aiming to stop the law on the rise of the fares.
The non-violent protests did not pass without infringement and provocation by the police. The police tried to find several active participants among protesters and accused them of organizing illegal resistance (2). Further, it became clear for the authorities that the resistance was organized in a truly decentralized manner. This feature was considered the most important precondition for the success of the protest. Consequently, the major of Yerevan had to abolish his decision and the society celebrated its first post-independent social victory.
The second case of social resistance is related to the attempt of the Russian-owned electric company RAUES (Russian-Armenian United Electric Stations), which had the monopoly in Armenia, to increase the electric tariffs by almost 17%. This rise in electricity prices was the reason for a negative reaction by the Armenian society.
Since 22 June 2015 the activists blocked Baghramyan Street, which is one of the main avenues in Yerevan and moved to the residence of president of Armenia. The activists demanded the government to mediate and to work towards suspending the raise of electricity tariffs by the Russian company. The police blocked the upper side of avenue as to prevent the protesters to approach the presidential residence.
The first days of blocking the street were followed by mass arrests and violation of civilians’ right to peaceful assembly and protest. The police tried to violently disperse the protests using water cannons and hard power. They detained more than 250 people (3). However, the oppression did not stop the wave of demonstration and changed the way of planning actions with more brutal slogans and demands. The Russian-led civil society organizations and media framed these civil protests as a politically inclined actions against Russian foreign policy towards Armenia (4). The protests were unofficially called “Electric Yerevan” and the media used this term as the official name. It is important to note that the “Electric Yerevan” movement was not only a social or economic protest. During the manifestations it became obvious that society combined its dissatisfaction with Russian neo-imperialistic aspirations and its dissatisfaction about the stagnated social and political internal situations. The demonstrations also reflected the willingness of the people to shift the political course of the country towards reforms.
Despite the unorganized strategy by certain individual organizers and failure of the planned tactic in the whole process of the social movement, the “Electric Yerevan” was a successful in the end. It was really unexpected for the authorities to see an increasing resistance paralyze the whole socio-political life in the country due to its massive character. The protests ended after the promise of the government to work towards a suspension of raising tariffs in electricity and to initiate the sale of the Armenian Electric System Company to a Russian-based Armenian company.
In both cases, the main reasons for demonstrations were social and economic problems. However it would not be sufficient to consider only these two factors. The real impulse for mass actions resulted from the complex political and economic difficulties which Armenia has faced in the recent two and half decades. It was highly important for the society to experience that changes are possible and that they depend on its will and readiness to use non-violent protests. Non-violent civil actions are perceived as an important prerequisite for building democratic institutions via a smooth and peaceful democratic transition of the entire political system. From the perspective of the authorities, both protests were understood as a clear message to work towards changing their internal policy and to try to initiate profound social and political reforms.
Harutyun Voskanyan is an independent researcher and civil activist, who graduated from Yerevan State University, Russian-Armenian University in Yerevan and Belarus State University in Minsk. Currently, he is managing the foreign partnership department at “Civil Consciousness NGO” in Armenia.
 Iskandaryan A./ Civil protests in Armenia signal birth of leftist ideology – expert, 11.07.2012 http://www.panarmenian.net/eng/news/115429/
 Movsisian H., Harutiunian L./Protests Against Transport Fare Hikes Continue In Yerevan, 23.07.2013 https://www.azatutyun.am/a/25054842.html
 Avedissian K/The Power of Electric Yerevan, 06.07.2013 https://www.opendemocracy.net/karena-avedissian/electrified-yerevan
 Oliphant R./ Armenia’s ‘Electric Yerevan’ protests enter seventh day, 25.06.2015 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/armenia/11699692/Armenias-Electric-Yerevan-protests-enter-seventh-day.html