The Bear in the Room

The protests that gripped Armenia in late June and early July have mostly ended. The protesters that once crowded Yerevan’s central boulevards have gone back to their daily lives, but the effects of “Electric Yerevan,” as the protests came to be known, will reverberate in Armenia’s near to medium future. Many see the government’s willingness to suspend and then cancel the effective 17-22 percent utility rate hike that touched off the protests as a genuine, if qualified, victory. In this view, people power took on Armenia’s powerful, entrenched elites and won. But that perceived victory, while impressive, has only postponed a reckoning with the real issue behind the protests: Armenia’s relations with its ally and geopolitical overlord, Russia.

At first blush, the insistence by both protesters and government officials that Electric Yerevan had little or nothing in common with the “Euromaidan” events that toppled former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich in 2014 makes sense. This was Armenia’s protest, after all, not Ukraine’s. And all too often Maidan comparisons in the West have turned out to be weak geopolitical analogies rather than cogent analyses. In Yerevan, most ordinary protesters appeared to be focused more on the sins of their domestic elite than on those of the distant Kremlin. Given their country’s lopsided economic dependence on Moscow, however, Armenians won’t be able to postpone confronting the Russia factor forever.

For those who took to the streets, the protests were first and foremost about economic fairness and fighting an entrenched and unaccountable elite. From this view, casting blame at Russia was seen as a strategic distraction. “The movement has been helped by the fact that [the problem of economic fairness] is quite narrow and specific,” says Karena Avedissian, a Caucasus researcher at the University of Southern California who has been on the ground since the protests began. “This has kept the protests coherent as well as indirectly highlighting much broader issues of governance and corruption.”

Yet the unspoken reality is that Armenia’s sclerotic autocracy and Russian domination are mutually reinforcing. Armenia’s problems did not occur in a vacuum; instead, its uncompetitive economy and illiberal political system are very much insulated and augmented by its subservience to Moscow. Russian interests own vast swaths of the “commanding heights” of the Armenian economy, which are heavily intertwined with Armenia’s cadres of oligarchs.

Inter RAO, the Russian state company that owns a majority of the Armenian electric distribution company ENA, is only the tip of the iceberg. In 2014, Russian state gas company Gazprom completed a takeover of…

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