YEREVAN — Dozens of youth activists stopped public buses and minibuses in Yerevan for a third consecutive day on Monday, urging commuters to refuse to pay much higher fares set by municipal authorities. Meanwhile, scores of protesters pushed past police to sit down on the steps leading to the Yerevan Municipality to oppose the price hikes.
The protesters argue that the price hikes are unjustified and will merely go to further fill the pockets of those who own the transportation routes.
Several Armenian celebrities, meanwhile, offered city residents free rides in their cars in protest against the unpopular measure that followed a sharp rise in the price of Russian natural gas imported to Armenia.
In a widely anticipated move, the Mayor’s Office announced last week that the bus fare will rise from 100 drams to 150 drams (36 U.S. cents) while the cost of travelling by less popular trolleybuses will double to 100 drams starting from July 20. Most buses and minibuses in the Armenian capital run on liquefied gas.
The price hikes, which will hit hard many people, were condemned by opposition and civic groups as well as politically active young people not affiliated with any organization. Scores of them took to bus stops across Yerevan on Saturday to urge commuters and bus drivers to stick to the previous fares. Many buses were plastered with leaflets saying that a bus ride continues to cost 100 drams.
Several activists were briefly detained by police for placing leaflets on bus stops but were later released. They said they considered police actions unlawful since they did not break any law and demanded explanations. Nevertheless, the campaign continued unabated and even seemed to gain momentum on Monday. “People, keep paying 100 drams. No extra penny,” shouted one young man.
“Shame on our government and president. They fooled the people,” said another Yerevan resident.
The municipal government raised not only the fares but also daily revenue targets set for the drivers by the private owners of transport companies, most of them government-linked individuals. With tickets essentially non-existent in Yerevan’s public transport system, the drivers are the ones who collect fares. They are typically obliged to transfer at least 25,000 drams to their employers on a daily basis.
Some drivers said they have complained to their bosses, saying that they will struggle to collect enough 150-dram fees from commuters. “They say, ‘Don’t work for us if you don’t like it,’” one of them told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
The transport price rise also prompted condemnation from prominent Armenians who have not been involved in civic activism until now. Hayk Marutian, a popular comedian, started to randomly ferry people in his car on Sunday. Several other public figures, among them two TV show hosts, joined in the initiative publicized by online media outlets. Other, ordinary Armenians pledged to follow suit in messages posted on Facebook.
“Isn’t it shameful to pay 150 drams when some people can’t afford that price?” Marutian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service on Monday. “In recent years we have forgotten a little bit our culture of helping each other. We need to revive it,” he said.
The city authorities have stood by their decision, insisting that the rise in public transport fare rates is a necessary step and reflects the need for further upgrades in the sector.