Protesters have been filling the main avenue of the Armenian capital, Yerevan, since June 23, when the government of Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan announced a hefty electricity rate hike to pay the country’s electrical grid (smaller protests are also taking place in other cities throughout the country). Armenia is an economic basket case these days, with high and growing unemployment and a third of the country living below the poverty line. Part of the immediate problem is actually the collapse of the Russian ruble and Russia’s economic downtown, which has drastically reduced the amount of remittances coming back into Armenia from Armenians working there. This rate hike, the third in the past two years, is apparently just too much for a lot of people, who are seeing it as a sign of government corruption (a shocking notion in a former Soviet republic, I know).
Sargsyan announced a few days ago that he was suspending the rate hike in an effort to take the starch out of the protest movement, but as these things usually do, the movement appears to have taken on a life of its own. In this sense, the initial violent police response to the protesters has almost certainly backfired (another shocking notion) and helped to give the protest movement a rationale deeper than just some anger over high electric bills.
It’s inevitable that every protest movement that grips one of these post-Soviet kleptocracies in the near future is going to get turned into the next Euromaidan, but there are crucial differences between Armenia now and Ukraine last year. For one thing, last year Ukraine was teetering between establishing closer ties to the European Union and joining Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union; Armenia, meanwhile, is already in the EEU, and where the Ukrainian public was divided on the issue of joining the EEU, a poll taken last year showed that the Armenian public was 64% in favor of joining the EEU. That “West vs. Russia” dynamic that was/is so prevalent in Ukraine just doesn’t exist in Armenia at this point. Of course, that’s not stopping Moscow from trying to characterize the protesters as tools of Western influence, and frankly the smartest thing Western nations could do, if they’d like to see Armenia move out of Russia’s orbit a little, would be to stay the hell out of the whole thing.
What these protests might show is an emerging pattern of popular resistance to corrupt, incompetent oligarchic governments in the former Soviet states, and in that sense they are of a piece with Euromaidan. It’s going to be interesting to see if that trend continues to spread and if it bears any fruit (even in Ukraine, where it’s not at all clear that the Poroshenko government is any less corrupt, incompetent, or oligarchic than its predecessors).
And with that, barring any major news, this place is going to quiet down for the rest of the holiday weekend. I have a freelance piece I need to work on, and I realize we’re way past due for another Islamic History post, so to the extent I do any writing for the rest of the weekend it will probably be on one or both of those things. Thanks for reading and, to my American readers, have a happy and safe Fourth of July holiday!
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