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Nearly 240 detained in Armenia after protests over price hikes

Serzh Sarkisian

Serzh Sarkisian

Police detained nearly 240 people in the Armenian capital Tuesday after using water cannon to disperse a protest against electricity hikes in the impoverished ex-Soviet nation.

Some 4,000 protesters angered by the planned price hikes marched on the presidential palace on Monday, accusing President Serzh Sarkisian government of failing to combat poverty in the landlocked Caucasus nation.

Several hundred of them remained on the street overnight, holding a sit-in and blocking traffic.

In the early hours of Tuesday, hundreds of riot police moved in to disperse the demonstrators, using batons and water cannon to break up the rally in the most serious confrontation between protesters and police in the past few years.

Plainclothes police also beat up journalists and destroyed or confiscated their equipment, an AFP correspondent reported.

The overnight rally was the culmination of several days of protests aimed at forcing Sarkisian to cancel the tariff hikes, with protests also taking place Monday in several other cities.

Public anger has mounted over the government’s decision to hike power prices by over 16 percent from August 1 in the ex-Soviet country of 3.2 million, already badly hit by the economic crisis in Russia.

“Some 237 demonstrators were detained,” interior ministry spokesman Armen Malkhasian told AFP.

The office of the prosecutor general said it had opened a probe into “hooliganism and disturbing public order.”

If found guilty, the protesters could face a fine of some $100 (90 Euros) or a jail term of up to one year.

Armenia’s health ministry said 25 people, including 11 police, were treated for injuries including fractures.

The opposition Armenian National Congress party boycotted a parliament session in protest against the police crackdown, with other opposition MPs demanding that an extraordinary session be convened.

– ‘Social rebellion’ –

The protest has been organised through social media by a non-partisan group called “No to Robbery.”

“We are masters of our country, we will not allow electricity price hikes, we will not let our people be robbed,” the group said on Facebook.

Some political analysts said the protests could have serious consequences.

“Protesters have no links to any political forces whatsoever. This is a purely social rebellion,” independent analyst Stepan Sakharian told AFP.

“We’re witnessing an unprecedented situation in Armenia where a civic protest movement is taking root amid widespread poverty,” he said, adding: “All this may lead to political change.”

Owned by the Russian state-controlled holding Inter RAO, Armenia’s power distribution company demanded the government raise electricity tariffs due to a sharp devaluation of the national currency, the dram.

Moscow-ally Armenia has been hit hard by the economic crisis in Russia brought on by falling oil prices and Western sanctions over Ukraine.

Exports to Russia — Armenia’s foremost trading partner — have fallen, as have remittances from Armenians working there.

In January, the country joined the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, further increasing Yerevan’s dependence on its former imperial master.

The country is economically isolated as its borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan are blocked due to ongoing international disputes.

In 2008, some 10 opposition protesters were killed by riot police during mass opposition protests in the wake of a contested presidential ballot.

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