Armenian Opposition Seizes on Street Traders' Anger
Continued demonstrations by street traders whose stalls have been banned in the Armenian capital could feed into wider protests if the decline in living standards is not addressed, analysts warn.
Opposition activists have taken up the cause of the traders, who say they cannot survive without the money they use to earn. (See Yerevan Street Sellers Protest Trading Ban on the start of the protests.)
Levon Ter-Petrosyan, head of the opposition Armenian National Congress, called for the ban on street trading to be lifted when he set out a list of demands to the government to a thousands-strong rally on March 1. (For more on his speech, see Egypt-Style Protest Warning in Armenia.)
On March 3, about 50 of the traders held a demonstration at the government building in Yerevan. Deputy Police Chief Robert Melkonyan, arguing that protests were banned outside the premises, instructed his men to move the protest to the other side of the street, and a clash ensued.
Three members of parliament, Anahit Bakhshyan, Armen Martirosyan and Zaruhi Postanjyan – all from the opposition Heritage Party – remonstrated with police, and got caught up in the confrontation. Bakhshyan was taken to hospital, while Vardges Gaspar, an activist with the opposition Armenian National Congress, was taken to a police station.
Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan said the police force would conduct an internal investigation into the clashes.
But police later released a statement accusing the opposition parliamentarians of provoking trouble.
“In all probability, they tried to alter the peaceful course of the protest, spread tension, and provoke fighting between citizens and the police, who acted within the law to uphold order,” the statement said.
Some opposition activists warn that if living standards continue declining, an outbreak protests could spread beyond the control of the opposition as well as of the government.
“The people will find new leaders. The streets will provide the leaders. No one knows who will take the lead, or where it will go,” Hovsep Khurshudyan of the Heritage Party said.
Protesters in Tunisia last month swept the government from power, inspiring opposition movements all across the Arab world and elsewhere. Analysts warned the Armenian government to learn lessons from that experience before arresting many more people.
“Everything started [in Tunisia] when street trading was banned and a young man who sold goods on the street set himself on fire. Now the mayor of Yerevan has banned street trading,” Richard Giragosyan, head of the Armenian Centre for National and International Studies, said.
Noting that the Tunisian protesters had been angered by unemployment, corruption, nepotism, abuse of power and monopolistic control of the economy, Giragosyan said, “that exists in Armenia as well.”
The proportion of Armenians officially classed as living under the poverty line now stands at 30 per cent. Inflation is high, at more than 10 per cent last year, and is unlikely to fall this year. The government has proposed a temporary cap on the prices of basic foodstuffs.
Supporters of the ban on street stalls, ordered by Mayor Karen Karapetian and effective from January 13, say it was long overdue.
“No one checked the safety of the products sold on the street, and there were no hygienic standards. Street trading interfered with the movement of pedestrians, and there was no chance of conducting inspections,” Armen Poghosyan, chairman of the Consumer’s Association of Armenia, said. “Street trading should just be liquidated; there’s nothing there to regulate. The city has become an Arab market.”
The mayor’s office has suggested that the traders relocate to one of the city’s 30 markets, but they say they cannot afford to rent pitches at the rates they will be charged.
Hasmik Khachatryan, who sells fruit and salad in the city centre, said the authorities clearly had no idea how hard life was for people like her.
“Let President Serzh Sargsyan or Mayor Karen Hayrapetyan offer us street traders a different option,” she said. “Let them suggest an alternative first, and only then drive us into a dead-end.”
Artur Harutyunyan, who took part in a demonstration outside parliament last week, said, “We pay our social security payments, our taxes, and the compulsory fees for using cash registers. What more do they want? I am sure this cannot go on much longer – one day there will be an explosion. This unfairness will catch them unawares, and something like what occurred in Tunis will happen here.”
Gayane Mkrtchyan is a reporter for the ArmeniaNow news site. Sara Khojoyan, IWPR’s Armenia country director, also contributed to this article.