THE BLOG
07/13/2015 05:12 am ET Updated Jul 12, 2016

Small Electric Yerevan Spark -- A Big Challenge for the Armenian Government

By Hasmik Grigoryan, Analyst at the Analytical Centre on Globalization and Regional Cooperation and member of the Leaders of Tomorrow community

The freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are fundamental rights in a democracy. These rights are also enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic of Armenia.

News about the social movement that started in Armenia in June 2015 instantly spread around the world and was covered by world-famous TV channels, newspapers, and web portals. Demonstrations in Yerevan sparked after the decision by Armenia's Public Services Regulatory Commission (PSRC) to raise the prices of electricity by 16.7%, effective from the beginning of August. The protests became known as "Electric Yerevan" and went viral in the social media. The Electric Networks of Armenia is a monopoly owned by Russia.

Thousands of people gathered in Freedom Square on 19 June led by the "No to Plunder" social movement in order to protest the government's decision. The march in the city unexpectedly grew into a mass sit-in in the center of Baghramyan Avenue - about 100 meters away from the Residence of the President. The protests were dispersed early in the morning of 23 June, when over 200 peaceful protesters were detained. The dispersion triggered a larger wave of demonstrations: people stayed in the central street day and night.

One cannot imagine the 21st century without social movements. Social movements happen when people have disagreement in the political, social, economic, or other fields. They are a part of healthy democracy and help the government to reverse its decisions when they are against the interest of the people. In November and December 2010, a series of demonstrations broke out in the United Kingdom. These were student-led protests against an increase in tuition fees by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government. One could witness the demonstration in Germany, which is one of the strongest economies in Europe. The protests took place in July 2010, against the decision on flight taxes.

Social movements play a huge role in new democracies, as well, in countries in transition towards a democracy, or in authoritarian regimes. In some cases, civil movements transform into political ones and grow into revolutions (for example, the Maidan in Ukraine), and in others, they remain civil, but make an impact. Different theories describe social movements in a different way. Political Sociology for the 21st Century (Research in Political Sociology), Volume 12 (2003) gives different descriptions of social movements. It notes, for instance, that Charles Tilly considers movements as challengers who don't have permanent access to decision makers. And once succeeded, they gain access to them.

Electric Yerevan became a big challenge for the Government of Armenia. It started in small numbers and grew, becoming a huge SOS to the Government. On the one hand, the Russia owned company and the Armenian government are in a difficult situation, and on the other, people who occupied the central street of Yerevan posed a very specific social demand--the demand to cancel the decision.

What is specific to Electric Yerevan is that the protests were not led by any political leader, from either the ruling or opposition parties. It was a purely social movement led by young people and joined by the senior generation. The majority of people did not have any affiliation with the government, business, or political parties. Another important feature was that, during the protests and tense situations, when the police were about to disperse the protests, a "live wall" was "erected" by civil society leaders and some members of parliament. People did not leave the central street for 19 days.

A new culture has now been created in Armenia and in the post-Soviet area, a culture of exclusively social movements, "live walls" serving as a deterrent, and this way, the police and the government are afraid to engage in violence against the demonstrators. The President of Armenia had to announce that an international audit will be conducted, and in the meantime, the burden of the price hike will be born by the government. This is a concession by the Armenian government. However, although not in the central street, but now, this time in Freedom square, people continue protesting, as they consider that what will be paid by the government will still be the money of the Armenian citizens.

The Government of Armenia faced a challenge. It has resolved the situation temporarily, but central Baghramyan Avenue can be occupied by protesters at any time again, if the mistake is repeated. The social movement that started from a small number and grew to 20,000, gaining extensive international coverage, put a challenge in front of the government.

It is time for the Armenian government to rethink its internal and external policy; otherwise, the scenario will repeat, possibly growing larger or transforming into a political movement.

This post was written in the light of the topic "Proudly Small" debated at the 45th St. Gallen Symposium held on May 6-8, 2015.