Persistent poverty used to be quietly endured, but protests are rising against a political leadership that long ago lost the trust of the people. Still, it is a long way from Kiev.
YEREVAN — There is little to differentiate downtown Yerevan from western European cities. There are cafés at every turn, entertainment centers aplenty, well-kept parks everywhere, even luxury cars. But once you leave the center of the Armenian capital, towards the outer slums and tower blocks, the picture changes dramatically.
There are many towns throughout the country that look like the outskirts of Yerevan, where protests have sprung up to denounce steep increases in electricity costs in a country plagued by poverty and unemployment.
Anant is a student who lives with her mother, the two making do on an income of 120,000 dram ($300) a month. To save money, they often switch off the electricity.
The issue of electricity for Armenians has traditionally been a painful one. Those who are older remember that there was no light at all in the 1990s, and a power supply that was available for just a few hours a week. In the 2000s, the economy started to develop and some of these problems were resolved.
But electricity supply again became a problem in 2013, when the cost of one kilowatt rose from 30 dram (6 cents) to 38 dram (8 cents) during the day, and from 20 drams (4 cents) to 28 drams (6 cents) at night.
There was another increase in 2014. But starting Aug. 1, a third rise in cost is expected, this time by 16.7%. There is anxiety and unease every time the price goes up, but this time, the collective patience of citizens has just about run out.
There is no unified heating system in Armenia, which is why many families use heating devices that create hefty electricity bills. According to official 2013 data, 32% of the population is considered poor, and this includes families whose average income per adult per month is less than $100. At the same time, 17.6% of the population is unemployed, while in larger cities, the figure is between 25% and 30%. Among younger citizens, that figure is as high as 50%.
A link with Kiev?
Many Russian websites and even major media outlets reporting on the protests are trying to find a link with the Maidan protests in Ukraine. One even illustrated this with images of an Armenian protestor waving a blue and yellow flag. The problem is that the picture turned out to be a fake.
Many local residents share their fears that the price increases will hit hardest in winter when many families will have to shell out $60 a month — a fortune by local standards, especially for low-income families. There are also fears that these increases will trickle down to the costs of products and services.
Observers believe that Armenia's poor are "politically passive" and that the protests in Yerevan involve not so much the poor, but the middle class.
"It is a new generation that wants to be heard," says Grant Mikaelyan, a political scientist from the Caucasus Institute.
As for the other towns where there is political unrest, Gyumri and Vanadzor are traditionally critical of authorities. In the 2013 presidential elections, the opposition candidate received between 60% and 70% of the vote there.
Also, per-capita gross domestic product is two to three times lower in those places than in Yerevan. In Soviet times, these towns were the center of industrial production, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the 1988 earthquake, these areas have declined.
"If there hadn't been the events in Ukraine, no one would be paying attention to what is happening in Armenia," Mikaelyan says. "The protests in our country are nothing new. They always happen, and of course they are nothing like Maidan. People are unhappy with the authorities, especially after the crisis of 2008, when the economy started to decline."
But the current surge in civic activity is taking place amid a new political landscape, he says. "The thing is that in parliament there is practically no alternative opinion. The mood of the opposition has no outlet in society, and this is the result. It boils over into the street. There is a lack of trust in politicians of every level and of the political system in general."
This confirms what the protesters in Yerevan's Baghramyan Avenue are saying. "The voice of the people is us, not them," says Maxim, one of the protesters from this so-called "Yerevan-style Maidan." But Maidan, which overturned the regime, it most definitely is not. At least, not yet.