Armenia detains 48 protesting at energy price hike

Riot police in Armenia detained 48 people on Saturday as they dispersed protests near the presidential palace over soaring electricity prices

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Riot police in Armenia detained 48 people on Saturday as they dispersed protests near the presidential palace over soaring electricity prices, just months after mass anti-government demonstrations left the capital paralysed.

Thousands of protesters gathered in downtown Yerevan late Friday demanding the scrapping of a controversial 16-percent hike in electricity tariffs, an AFP journalist at the scene said.

Chanting “(President) Serzh (Sarkisian) the liar,” demonstrators marched towards the presidential palace where they were halted by cordons of riot police.

Dozens of protesters blocked traffic overnight on a street close to the presidential palace.

Early on Saturday, police officers moved in, seizing protesters one by one and escorting them to police vans.

“In total, 48 protesters were brought to police stations and later released,” an interior ministry official told AFP.

The latest protests broke out after Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamyan said the ex-Soviet country’s government will only subsidize households with lower energy use.

The government had earlier promised to “bear the burden” of higher electricity prices introduced last month in a bid to calm demonstrators.

“The government was telling us lies, they didn’t keep their promise,” one protester, Max Sarkisian, told AFP.

“This is why we’re once again taking to the streets and this time we will not stop until they cancel their decision to increase electricity prices.”

In June and July, mass protests paralyzed Yerevan for several weeks after the government of the impoverished Caucasus country of 3.2 million announced the planned power price hike.

The protest movement gained momentum after riot police in late June broke up a rally using water cannon and rubber batons in the most serious confrontation between protesters and police in recent years.

Armenia’s cash-strapped power distribution company, which is owned by the Russian state holding Inter RAO, said the hike is necessary due to a sharp devaluation of the national currency, the dram.

Anger has long simmered in Armenia over the government’s failure to lift the country out of poverty and the decision to raise household electricity prices proved the final straw.

Armenia, an ally of Moscow, 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, Armenia joined the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, a free trade bloc that also includes Kazakhstan and Belarus, increasing Yerevan’s dependence on its former imperial master.