The Anarchists of Electric Yerevan


29th May 2023

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, anarchism once again became a political force in Armenia. As anti-authoritarians stepped out into a new environment of political openness, things once again began to look brighter. This changed in 2008, when the right-wing authoritarian government of Serzh Sargsyan rose to power, crushing any dissent with an iron fist. As social services were cut to pieces and the state made political opposition increasingly unviable, anarchists gradually rebuilt their strength. Before Sargsyan's dictatorship was finally brought down in revolution, the Armenian people were already rising up in protest against him, such as it was when his government made the decision to increase electricity prices to unmanageable levels.

Here we publish an account from Red and Black Yerevan on the anarchist participation in these protests and how mass action can work to fight the rising cost of living.

It’s 2015. In Armenia, utility prices have been rising for two years now, and the government is once again announcing a decision to raise prices by 40% - ostensibly to pay off accumulated debts to hydropower plants and the electricity supplier (Electric Networks of Armenia), now in its third year and owned by the Russian monopoly RAO UES.

This provoked a wave of indignation and thousands took to the streets.

It started with the right-wing initiative “No to Robbery”, which emerged back in 2014 during protests against transport price hikes. It posted calls on Facebook to join a march in Yerevan on Northern Avenue to Opera Square.

At the time, according to Armenian anarchists, the march was almost taken over by left-wing activists and artists, who were drawing the banners and setting the tone for the chants. But then the organisers, realising what was happening, raising more Armenian flags and started chanting tasteless nonsense about a “strong and independent Armenia.” After the rally it was decided to meet again on 19 June.

Meanwhile, mass spontaneous protests against the tariff increase took place not only in Yerevan, but also in the provinces, where they were rather spontaneous. After all this, the authorities announced that they were raising prices by 17% and not 40%.

At the second action in Yerevan, Armenian anarchists began to take a more active stance. They formed an autonomous anarchist bloc, raised red-black and black-purple flags and distributed leaflets demanding that the supply company be made public.

This time a four-day sit-in was called, during which the cops started to seize the anarchists, and after which people marched to Baghramyan Street, where the presidential administration is located in the 26th house. Police officers with water cannons and APCs were already waiting for the protesters there, but despite this, they were able to organise themselves and stage a roadblock.

By morning there were only 300 people left on the street. But when it dawned and it became clear that it was all about to begin, the number of people swelled dramatically up to 500.

But soon an avalanche of plainclothes cops descended on them. They grabbed people and took them into back alleys and beat them. They dispersed the assembly with water cannons. Journalists who were present on the scene also got beaten up.

A total of 237 people, i.e. the majority of those present, were detained. They were detained for 8 to 12 hours.

This degree of violence stirred up the whole society. On the streets, in public transport, in shops, people were talking about it. The video was reposted en masse on Facebook. And by six o'clock in the evening, the square near the Opera was simply packed with people. In less than 12 hours since the dispersal began, some 8,000 people had returned to the streets under banners. Rallies and strikes also began in Gyumri and other cities.

During this event, the spirit of self-organisation became even more apparent: people began to carry bedding, water and food en masse, both from homes and from neighbouring cafes and restaurants. And the "poor" rally organisers gradually lost influence and were refused offers to form committees and make concessions.

The Russian media reports caused a lot of indignation. Everyone realised that it was a blatant lie. Pro-Kremlin journalists tried to portray the demonstrators as "Russophobes paid for by the state department" and called the rally "Maidan", despite the fact that the participants themselves had been forbidden to bring EU and Ukrainian flags with them. This was not a political but a social protest with elements of struggle against police brutality.

The anarchists distributed leaflets during the protests which read as follows:

"As a consequence of the next price rises, the poor will become even poorer, and those who do not consider themselves poor will be forced to give up their illusions. The most disadvantaged segments of society will be condemned to poverty, while the so-called middle class will join the ranks of the disadvantaged.

Should we get rid of the predatory management of Armenian Power Grids? Yes, we must!
Should we get rid of corrupt officials? Yes, we must!
Should we get rid of the illegitimate president? Yes, we must!

But the only way to put an end to this for good is to get rid of institutions such as ArmPEC, bureaucracy and the president step by step.

Everyone needs to be able to participate fully in the decision-making process regarding electricity distribution. One possible way is to create a joint stock company with equity participation of all residents, as long as the shares are not alienated.

However, on this path we will inevitably encounter:

the police protecting the powerful,
the capitalists and their desire for super-profits,
a state which does not serve the interests of the population,
and the colonisers who use the state as a tool.

To achieve what you want, you have to fight, not make demands. Everyone should be able to enjoy electricity and other basic commodities by exercising their birthright to a decent life. And this right is meaningless to demand, it must be conquered!”

Actions of solidarity with Armenian anarchists took place in Kyiv near the Armenian embassy and were organised by the Black Rainbow. As the Ukrainian anarchists stated: “We express our solidarity with the struggle of the Armenian protesters and fully support their demands. We also strongly oppose the repressive actions of the state, which has brutally dispersed demonstrators defending their social rights.”

Solidarity rallies were also held by leftist Georgian students in Tbilisi, chanting "Solidarity for the Armenian people!" and "Forward social interests!", as well as leftists from Turkey and Azerbaijan. The reaction of leftist social media users from Azerbaijan was remarkable, showing that despite the borders, both nations have a common enemy - capital and the state.

Nevertheless, thanks to the stratagem of the government, which said it was subsidising the debt, some protest leaders began to call for people to get off the streets. Although they failed to convince the majority, the protests began to thin day by day. And a year later, the government reversed its decision to subsidise the debt.

For the anarchists in particular, the other difficulty was that the cops were especially hard on people with anarchist symbols, the protesters were afraid to radicalize their demands, and the organizers did everything in their power to muffle them.

Through disinformation and police terror the ruling class succeeded in dividing society.

As Vadim Damier observed, the defeat of the Armenian protest was largely due to a lack of experience of grassroots protest. Fortunately, Armenia now has a more liberal regime, which makes such events safer. The discussions and lectures that the anarchists wanted to hold back then, we can now do with more security. It's also a lesson that anarchists should be more autonomous and more proactive.

After all, the same conciliatory group "No to Robbery" gained strength during the 2014 protests, in which anarchists simply did not participate, putting the agenda in the hands of very dubious figures, which included, for example, representatives of the Ayazn party and the Constituent Assembly political movement.

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