YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — Riot police armed with water cannons on Tuesday forcefully dispersed demonstrators who blocked a central avenue in the Armenian capital to protest a hike in electricity prices, arresting more than 200 people.
The scope of the protest and its tough dispersal represented the most serious unrest Armenia has seen in years, raising concerns about political stability in the impoverished ex-Soviet nation that hosts a Russian military base and is part of a Moscow-dominated economic alliance.
About 5,000 demonstrators marched Monday to the presidential headquarters, but were stopped by phalanxes of riot police backed by water cannons.
The protesters then sat on the road, blocking traffic and ignoring repeated demands by police to leave.
They refused the government’s offers to appoint representatives to present their demands to President Serge Sarkisian and demanded that he attend the rally.
Police repeatedly told the demonstrators to disperse, but several hundred remained there through the night. Riot police eventually moved to break up the protest early Tuesday, using water cannons.
Some protesters resisted police and threw rocks at the officers, who responded by beating them with truncheons.
Armenian police spokesman Ashot Agaronian said that 237 demonstrators were detained. He said seven demonstrators and 11 police officers were injured.
Early Tuesday, police also broke up a small rally in Armenia’s second-largest city of Gyumri held in support of the main protest in the capital, arresting 12 people.
The demonstrators were demanding that the government reconsider its decision to increase electricity prices for households by 17-22 percent. Initially they weren’t making any political demands, but later some participants in the protest called for Sarkisian’s resignation.
The opposition Armenian National Congress’s faction in parliament walked out in protest against the rally’s break-up during Tuesday’s parliament session and demanded the release of all those who were detained.
Raffi Hovannisian, the leader of the opposition Heritage party who challenged Sarkisian in a 2013 presidential election, also denounced the government over the crackdown on the protest, calling it “the national shame.”
Sarkisian, who is serving his second term, hasn’t yet commented on the protest.
The landlocked country’s economy is hobbled by the longstanding closure of its borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey over the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh and depends on close ties with Russia.
Russian companies control some of the most prized economic assets in Armenia, including the country’s power grid whose price hike triggered the protest.
The protest was organized by activists, who recently had succeeded in blocking a hike in bus ticket prices.
“We will come to the end to defend our rights,” one of the protest organizers, 28-year old lawyer Rimma Sarkisian, said over the weekend. She said they weren’t affiliated with any of Armenia’s political forces.
Alexander Iskandarian, the head of the Caucasus Institute, an independent think-tank, said the protest reflected “the radicalization of opposition activities.”
Another protest is set to be held later on Tuesday.