Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Karabakh: Modest Win for Bus Fare Protestors

Facebook helps mobilise protest movement.
By Knar Babayan
  • Protesters outside Stepanakert municipal offices, September 24. (Photo: Knar Babayan)
    Protesters outside Stepanakert municipal offices, September 24. (Photo: Knar Babayan)
  • Karabakh prime minister Arayik Harutyunyan meets campaigners to discuss the bus fare rise. (Photo: Knar Babayan)
    Karabakh prime minister Arayik Harutyunyan meets campaigners to discuss the bus fare rise. (Photo: Knar Babayan)

Public protests are rare in Nagorny Karabakh, where the Armenian population has been bound by a sense of solidarity since war with Azerbaijan ended two decades ago. But when bus fares in the capital Stepanakert went up by 40 per cent at the start of October, commuters felt enough was enough. 

Fares went up from 70 to 100 drams a ride on October 1. Although the new fare is equivalent to just 25 US cents, many residents of this city of 70,000 said they could not afford it.

“I make a trip to play chess or spend some time with my friends,” 83-year-old pensioner Vachagan Sargsyan said. “If I have to spend 200 drams a day on travel, I’ll have nothing left of my pension.”

Sargsyan was among around 100 people gathered outside the city mayor’s office on September 24 to express their concerns. One of their banners said it all – “We’ll pay 70 but not 100,”

Another participant, Ruzanna Avagyan of the Nagorny Karabakh Refugees group, said this was about more than bus fares.

“Today they’re raising transport fares, and if we remain silent, they’ll start increasing the prices of gas, electricity and water tomorrow,” she said. “I’m here because I cannot afford to pay 100 drams a trip.”

Mayor Suren Grigoryan came out and invited a delegation of 20 to come in and discuss their concerns. Once inside, he refused to talk to them unless the journalists accompanying them left, saying he did not want the conversation to be blown up into something big. The protesters refused his terms, and the meeting fell apart.

When a somewhat smaller demonstration took place on September 29 outside the Karabakh government building, Prime Minister Arayik Haratyunyan met them.

According to Tigran Grigoryan, chief editor of the Artsakhnews.am news site, the prime minister has gone at least some way to meeting their demands, which were now focused on targeted subsidies rather than a blanket fare cut.

Grigoryan, who is also a student, said Harutyunyan subsequently told an audience at Artsakh State University that “the government plans to subsidise [public] transport costs for students and vulnerable social groups both in Stepanakert and in [other] regions of Karabakh. Discussions are currently taking place with the labour and welfare ministry on options for making this mechanism work.”

Grigoryan said the campaign had really taken off because of the rising popularity of social networking websites, which had changed the whole mood in Karabakh. At its heart was a campaigning Facebook page (here, in Armenian) which had helped mobilise protestors.

Fellow-student Vladimir Dolukhyan argues that what really clinched the deal was securing meetings with officials including Prime Minister Harutyunyan.

“We believe that street protests [alone] are no longer effective, so a decision was taken to secure individual meetings with representatives of the relevant government institutions to press for [fare] subsidies for vulnerable social groups,” he said.

The bus fare comes amid rising prices for foodstuffs and other essential goods and services in Karabakh. Last year, gas and electricity prices went up as well, although the government promised to subsidise the latter.

When the bus operators applied to the mayor’s office for a fare increase this May, they cited the rising cost of diesel and spare parts. They asked for the fare to be set at 120 drams, which the mayor’s office cut to 100 drams after commissioning a study on the actual cost.

Levon Chalyan, director of the Stepanakert-Service company, said the firm was constantly shelling out money to run its fleet of Hyundai buses, which took a pummeling from the “pitiable state of the roads” and also needed frequent repairs to their seats. In addition, bus drivers had recently been issued with uniforms.

“All of that requires spending,” he said.

Chalyan’s company says it is running at a loss and only survives because its debts have been covered by the Artsakh Investment Fund, a government agency. The city’s other bus operator, Mher, which has about a third of the market, runs at a modest profit.

Fund director Artak Mirzoyan said the fare increase would generate extra revenue of 100 million drams (250,000 dollars) a year, more or less what his institution was giving Stepanakert-Service in subsidies.

Chalyan said more income would mean a better bus service for the public and a ten or 15 per cent pay rise for the firm’s 62 drivers, who were now on 100,000 drams a month.

A driver for the company who asked not to be named said he was against the fare rise and doubted it would translate into higher wages.

Knar Babayan is a freelance journalist in Stepanakert.

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