YEREVAN, Armenia — The streetlight on Baghramyan Prospect went off after midnight. Loud whistling and shouting could be heard as the crowd of several thousand protesters faded into blackness. It seemed oddly appropriate for a protest that began over electricity rates. A few demonstrators turned toward the presidential palace at the end of the street and waved a banner popular in today’s Yerevan: It showed a shiny yellow lamp with a middle finger gesture inside it. A couple on a blanket stretched out under the trees, using the shadows for a passionate kiss.
Little lights went on in protesters’ hands, cellphones, and flashlights that swept the scene, cigarette lighters that twinkled like stars. A few young women put hands on each other’s shoulders to resume the kochari dance that Armenians have performed before battles for over a millennium. The crowd grew steadily denser as thousands more joined the rally in the dark.
The eight-day protest movement now called “Electric Yerevan” is full of symbols, underlying meanings, multiplying calls for change, and it even has a rather unexpected heroine: Kim Kardashian as Lady Liberty in her father’s family’s homeland.
The main demand is to stop the price of electricity from increasing by 17 percent. On Twitter, Electric Yerevan published the movement’s diary: It had nothing to do with Arab revolutions, Ukraine’s Maidan uprising, Washington’s or Moscow’s agendas, the activists insisted, smiling to newcomers knowingly, as if to say, wait for a moment and your heart will electrify and that will tell you what we are here for.
The darkness did not stop them; neither did the rain. Thousands of policemen surrounding the protest camp on Saturday did not manage to spoil the movement or the mood—this young generation has no fear, they are sure they will succeed. And some of the changes demanded already are raining down.
Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan declared he was “convinced” that reversing the electricity rate increase would be “extremely dangerous,” but he announced that until an audit is concluded “the government will shoulder the entire weight of the electricity rate hike.” The demonstrators rejected the offer and continued the protest, saying that the absorption of the rate hike would have an impact on all business projects and social programs. The movement demands the rate be rolled back completely.
Other demands were met with greater satisfaction. As the demonstrators kept on dancing on Baghramyan, Moscow agreed to let a Russian soldier, Valery Permyakov, the alleged killer of a family of seven including a 6-month-old baby, be tried in the Armenian town of Gyumri that was the site of the gruesome tragedy last January.
“Moscow also promised $200 million for our defense, finally,” Alexander Arzumanyan, a member of parliament, told The Daily Beast with a proud smile. Previously Russia had been arming only Azerbaijan, seen by Armenians as a hostile neighbor. “But this protest movement is bigger than some demands, it is the beginning of a new political power—these young people are coming to replace us, they will control elections, change international rules, run this country.”
Until very recently, Armenia appeared hopelessly mired in the past, its shrinking population constantly crying over historical tragedies. Now it seems as happy as any nation around, with these young people singing and dancing and celebrating freedom. Can it be that a visit by the relentlessly self-promoting Kim Kardashian in April and a concert by the American-Armenian rock band System of a Down really had such an impact? Many in Yerevan say they believe so. Those splashy appearances stirred up emotions in people longing for the world’s attention.
But, in fact, compared to Armenia’s giant neighbor, Russia, this country already had fertile soil for democracy. The Armenian government did not put much pressure on its opposition, allowing a powerful civil society movement to develop at a head-spinning speed, so even before American celebrities visited Yerevan to spark the electrifying search for changes, Armenians knew what democracy was about and what they hoped to see.
“Hayastan!” people chanted: the country’s name in the Armenian language. Participants were of all ages, and even the smallest ones, held up in their parents’ arms, whispered “Hayastan!” Electric Yerevan activists festooned the protests with their national flag. One stretched for more than 30 meters above participants marching to the protest earlier in the week. The barricade built of plastic garbage containers that blocked the street was topped with national flags. Bicyclers carried them, as did journalists juggling their cameras and girls showing off their summer dresses.
Inevitably, Russian and Russian-backed media–Lifenews, Rossia and VGTRK—have claimed these demonstrations are the nefarious work of Western conspirators staging a new “colored revolution” in a country that has strong ties to Moscow.
The report on Lifenews last week listed similarities between “the scenario” of Electric Yerevan and the Maidan revolution in Kiev last year: cookies supposedly supplied by the U.S. State Department were “noticed” being handed out a Yereant rally; U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland had recently visited Armenia. They seemed to have missed the Kardashian connection.
The media quoted Russian Federation Council member Igor Morozov saying that what he saw in Yerevan was “the first stage of a colored revolution” and that after the peaceful rally well-trained troops would replace the civil society and change the social demands to political.
Moscow clearly does not believe that any protest could have genuinely local roots. “Why do they say pure lies?” asked Armenian MP Nikol Pashinian. “Now Armenians know that Russian propaganda is phony. Russia, who we have strong ties with, is pushing us away with its own hands,” he told The Daily Beast in the midst of the crowd.
A few meters away, rows of police watched Pashinian, who is an emerging political star and serious rival to the current president, Serzh Sargsyan. Activists from Pashinian’s newly created Civic Contract party gathered him and The Daily Beast reporter into a tight circle. “We want to turn Armenia into a legitimate state; this young generation of Armenians came here to see justice,” said activist Gegham Vardanyan, a graduate of Moscow State University. “We want to see our country reformed in a way our neighbor Georgia managed to reform in the last decade.”
Justice still remains a question, however. On Sunday morning Yerevan’s police, who last week detained over 200 protesters, gave the Electric Yerevan movement an ultimatum to clear the street to the presidential palace before 11:00 Sunday night or police will have to “restore public order.”