Mass youth protests in Armenia target corruption

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Marco Werman: The cost of living is also very much on the minds of people in the former soviet republic of Armenia. It’s a tiny landlocked country of three million people, sandwiched between more powerful neighbors. You would not call Russia a neighbor exactly, but it has a huge influence on Armenia. For one thing, a Russian company owns Armenia’s only electric utility. For the past ten days, thousands of young Armenians have been thronging the streets of the capital, Yerevan, to protest a planned hike in the cost of electricity. Babken DerGrigorian is one of those protestors. I caught up with him this afternoon just after he arrived back in London, where he’s a student. So if you could, in ten words or less, tell me what the protests are really about in Armenia right now?


Babken DerGrigorian: The protests are really about a growing frustration with a lack of accountability and transparency within the Armenian government. So, it’s less about who is in power and more about making sure the institutions of the Armenian state are accountable to the population.


Werman: So, how does that all translate? When you’re in the streets during these protests, it sounds like you’re probably not saying, “Down with the price of the kilowatt/hour!” What are the chants about?


DerGrigorian: The most popular chant would be, “We own this country!” So, that is something that has been said in this protest and in previous mobilizations as well--”We own this country!”


Werman: How have the government and the police been treating you out in the streets?


DerGrigorian: Well, the police initially tried to break up the protests and are using excessive force. They opened a water cannon on us and they tried to repress the mobilization using really heavy-handed tactics; they ran after journalists, intentionally targeting journalists to break cameras. What happened next was that the following day, twice as many or ten times as many people showed up and it turned into people in the tens of thousands. So, the police realize that that was not the best thing for them to do and they have since stopped doing that.


Werman: Did you get hit with the water cannon?


DerGrigorian: I wasn’t there that morning because I had to feed my dog that night.


Werman: You know people who did, though?


DerGrigorian: Yeah, plenty of people did. I was at the police station the morning of and they were still bringing people in. They arrested 250 people, I believe was the final count, which is a really high number of arrests given all the protests that have happened in the last few years.


Werman: So, the government in Yerevan is pro-Moscow; you and other protesters out in the streets saying, “This is our country!” Where’s this all going? Do you plan to step up your demands?


DerGrigorian: The demands have stayed the same, the demands have not widened. They’re very simple demands--we want the repeal of the fare hike, we want a review of the current fare, and we believe that the police that were involved in the excessive force need to be held to account. The thing with these demands is that just by having to address these demands, a number of other issues will have to come to--the government will have to address. So, we don’t think we need to widen the demands, it’s just these demands alone are, I think, valid. The government tried to appease the protestors by suggesting that they can subsidize the fare increase through the state budget and I think that actually got people a little more upset and even a little insulted, because the budget is also filled by the citizens and so that is not accepted as a solution to this. Either way, it comes out of the Armenian citizen’s pocket, so why should the Armenian citizen have to pay for the mismanagement of a private Russian company? I think the bigger story in what is happening in Armenia is this awakening of the identity of the Armenian citizen and the rights and responsibilities that come with that identity.


Werman: I mean, Russia has shown its concern by saying these protests in Armenia could grow into a color revolution. Are you worried at all, Babken, that the government in Yerevan might crack down hard to head off anything like a color revolution?


DerGrigorian: This isn’t a color revolution, and actually a lot of people on the street were very insulted by the way the Russian media has been covering this. The fact that Russia can only see what happens in Armenia through this lens of a color revolution was really problematic for people because this isn’t a Maidan, this isn’t a color revolution, this is Armenia trying to solve Armenia’s problems.


Werman: Armenian protestor Babken DerGrigorian. Thank you very much.


DerGrigorian: Thank you, Marco.