To #Maidan or not to #Maidan

To #Maidan or not to #Maidan: This is the question that the #ElectricYerevan activists are being unwillingly forced to answer.

Over the last 2 weeks, public discontent over a shady decision to yet-again raise the price of electricity, this time by a whopping 20% upon the request of the Kremlin-owned company, Inter RAO, has culminated into 6 days of round-the-clock popular protests attracting as many as 20 000 people, including a sit in on Baghramyan St, one of the city’s main arteries.

The protesters, identified by the trending Twitter hasthag #ElectricYerevan, were angry over the increasingly obvious lack of sovereignty over the country’s energy distribution networks, the majority of which have overwhelmingly been sold to state-run companies in Russia. The claim that the price increase was to cover a $50million deficit supposedly caused by the depreciated Dram further raised eyebrows, as people asked how it was possible for an energy distribution monopoly to run a deficit.

Though this protest is largely understood in Armenia to be the result of a deep-rooted anger at the State for failing to produce the right socio-economic circumstances for growth, while doing little to tackle corruption, the fact that the protesters have accused both their own government as well as Russian involvement by association (electricity distribution being in the hands of a Russian state-owned firm) has lead to a swift condemnation of the movement by the Russian Duma, which wasted no time in branding it an “Armenian Maidan” which needed to be suppressed at all costs.

Putin_Armenia_fascism

“How to make Armenia look Fascist”

This call was further echoed by Russian state-owned media that was present on the scene, who stipulated that US, or western NGOs are responsible for the unrest; implying that the protesters formed a sort of 5th column in a new front of a revived cold-war existing only in the minds of Kremlin strategists. The association with Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution was also debated by Ukrainian and Western news outlets.

As the protesters woke up to hear Russian media accusing them of “orchestrating another Maidan”, they were naturally incensed, producing an even greater backlash against Russian news outlets for portraying their struggle against corruption in the energy sector as part of a western-sponsored anti-Russian conspiracy. This anger, of course, was seen as a validation by the same Russian Press which had made the initial accusation.

In this video; a protester explains to the Russian Journalist why they are truly protesting, and why their coverage is misleading. She was reportedly fired after this video aired.

Over the past 3 days, as the protest’s growing momentum has continued to attract international media attention, the Armenian people’s struggle is increasingly being debated far way from the country’s borders. The protesters themselves are finding their struggle for accountability in energy distribution unwillingly dragged into a wider geopolitical conflict; which many of them care little about. Already, #ElectricYerevan has been joined by hashtags such as #ArmenianMaidan and #ElectroMaidan on social media sites; despite the fact that neither of the two are ever used by the activists themselves.

Russian Journalist being schooled on journalism ethics

Russian Journalist being schooled on journalism ethics

This fear of being swallowed into a larger conflict is understandable. With the recent events in Ukraine still looming over everyone’s heads, the protesters have gone through great lengths to convince the Kremlin that this isn’t a Maidan, that this is protest’s goals are unique.

Obvious similarities:

One point voiced by the protesters on Baghramyan Street was that, unlike the Ukrainian Maidan Revolution, which was fought over the country’s geopolitical direction, and resulted in hundreds of deaths; this protest, by contrast, was apolitical, non-violent, aimed at fighting rampant corruption and the lack of accountability in the country; but with one demand: to stop the electricity price hike.

Incidentally, most of the protesters interviewed on Kyiv’s Maidan Square, stated the exact same reasons for their own struggle: a dissatisfaction with the rampant corruption of the Yanukovych regime, Illegitimacy, and the lack of rule of law. Just like in Yerevan, the Maidan protesters had initially peacefully assembled, and, just like #electricyerevan, had only 1 demand: resume economic talks with the EU. It’s only when the world woke up in the morning to the shocking news that the government had sent in the Berkut to violently clear out the protestors, that people of all political convictions, regardless of views on the West or Russia joined in to protest government repression. Successive violent attempts against the protestors and well documented Kremlin  involvement helped turn public opinion against the government, and Russia’s foreign policy, and only then, were the first calls for revolution being made.

President Sargsyan was well aware of this the morning when public outcry over his brutal dispersion of the Baghramyan protestors reached his ears, and is hopefully doing everything in his power to ensure that, like in Ukraine, government overreaction doesn’t lead to a Maidan repeat. The Maidan protesters, and the #ElectricYerevan protesters have both created unique countercultures which should be observed in their own right. The common denominator, however, has been the Kremlin’s reaction. Thus, one could argue that Armenia’s and Ukraine’s struggles are similar insofar as any nation’s struggle against corruption would invariably develop along similar lines.

Not exactly the same though:

This isn’t to say, however, that #ElectricYerevan doesn’t genuinely have its differences. To begin with, the very idea of lumping all forms of public discontent together (be it as a CIA conspiracy, or as a seemingly trending call for liberal-democracy), is very dangerous because it tends to gloss over the very real domestic tensions and concerns that motivate the protesters in favor of citing regional trends which may or may not be there, as well removing from the unique character of both protests. #ElectricYerevan, unlike the Maidan, hasn’t seen a rise in leadership of any particular individual, or political party; extremist parties have been denied centre stage, and unlike in Kyiv, the protest lacks a clear geopolitical direction (with some EU-flag weaving members of the “Honourable Fatherland” faction having been shoved out) 

Armenians’ desire to distance themselves from the Maidan movement brings to mind an important question: should the Armenian protesters really reject the Maidan association?  By going too far in distancing themselves from the Maidan protests, the #ElectricYerevan activists risk banalising their own movement for 4 reasons:

1- Implicitly endorsing the Kremlin view on the events of 2014-15 in Ukraine as a violent, Russophobic coup-d’etat:

The only reason why #ElectricMaidan activists feel the necessity for distancing themselves from any association with the #Maidan Revolution of 2014 is because of a decade-long Kremlin-supported witch hunt for “Colour Revolutions”. In the wake of the Ukrainian Revolution, the Kremlin’s propagandists have done such a thorough job of of permeating the notion of the Maidan as a bloody fascist coup to its television audience, that even one of the older protesters on Baghramyan street was suspicious about a rumoured Prague-based “Maidan exporting cell”, which she claimed was planning to hijack the #ElectricYerevan movement. By negating any association, protesters essentially accept the Kremlin-towed line that this view is a correct one. 

2- Implying that the protesters somehow have to justify themselves to the Kremlin:

In trying to convince the Kremlin’s media apparatus that what is happening on the streets of Armenia’s major cities is not another Maidan, the protesters are essentially trying to appease potentially vengeful Russian authorities. Seeing as how these protests are happening in the sovereign, and independent Republic of Armenia; it is idiotic to have to give any explanation to the leaders of a foreign country, for what is essentially a domestic struggle.

3- the more they deny resemblance, the more it is forced upon them:

Ukrainian Maidan participants found themselves assaulted with accusations, speculations and insinuations by the Kremlin’s propaganda machine that they are, or at the very least were motivated by fascist ideals. This in turn helped shift the focus from the real issues on the ground, to debates nebulous fascist influences. Similarly, the more Armenian protesters try to deny any resemblance with the Maidan revolution; the attention is drawn to this view. Furthermore, depending on how local authorities, or the Kremlin react, any counter reaction by the demonstrators will inevitably resonate with Maidan-watchers. 

4- It sets a predetermined path and fate for this movement

Accepting or rejecting similarities with the Maidan essentially sets the 2014 Maidan revolution as the standard for any form of civil unrest in any post-soviet country. Protesters now have to choose between two camps pre-determined camps; which limits the creativity, and demands of their respective movements. Protests, revolutions, or any other sort of civil-society movements need to be analyzed individually.

The short answer to the question “Is #ElectricYerevan another #Maidan?” is NO: #ElectricYerevan is a completely homegrown Armenian popular movement, born out of a real feeling of disenfranchisement, and with a specific set of demands unique to Armenia’s situation. This, however, doesn’t mean that there aren’t any similarities between the two movements (and indeed most movements). The long answer, however, depends on how the Armenian authorities, and how the Kremlin react to these protesters. Ultimately, the real answer is: It doesn’t matter.  Armenians do not, and should not, owe any explanation for their protest movement to the Kremlin, or any outside parties.