YEREVAN (RFE/RL) — Hundreds of people rallied in Yerevan on Monday as the opposition Yelk alliance continued to campaign for major tax cuts which it says are needed for reversing recent increases in the prices of fuel and some foodstuffs.
Addressing the protesters, Yelk leaders again blamed the price hikes on government-drafted legislation that raised excise taxes collected from fuel, tobacco and alcohol. The fuel prices rose by over 10 percent immediately after it went into force on January 1.
The new Tax Code also raised income taxes for Armenians earning well above the average wage in the country. Yelk wants to have this scrapped as well, saying that the authorities should boost their tax revenue by cracking down on tax evasion and corruption instead.
“We demand that the tax rates be brought back to the pre-January levels,” one of the bloc’s leaders, Nikol Pashinian, said through a megaphone as the crowd marched through downtown Yerevan.
He and other Yelk leaders announced that they have drafted corresponding amendments to the Tax Code which they hope will be debated at an emergency session of the Armenian parliament. They said they will start collecting signatures for that purpose in the National Assembly on Tuesday.
Yelk, which controls 9 of the 105 parliament seats, needs the backing of at least 27 lawmakers in order to force such a parliament debate. It remains to be seen whether it will be backed by the Tsarukian Bloc, the other opposition group represented in the parliament.
“We hope that we will collect the necessary 27 signatures and the extraordinary session will take place next week,” Pashinian told the protesters after the march. He did not say what Yelk will do if it fails to collect them. Nor did he announce a date for the next anti-government rally.
Yelk staged its first protest against the price hikes on January 19, attracting only several hundred protesters. Monday’s demonstration was hardly bigger. Its organizers repeatedly urged more Armenians to join the campaign.
“The authorities must see that they are in trouble if they are to take real steps,” said Pashinian. “Prices hikes will continue until the authorities see that Armenia’s citizens say no to them in a tangible and visible way.”
Another Yelk leader, Edmon Marukian, downplayed the relatively poor attendance at the rally, saying that the opposition alliance will also use the parliament “platform” to keep the government under pressure. “We are taking multifaceted actions,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
The ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) has a comfortable majority in the parliament and can easily block any opposition bill.
Prime Minister Karen Karapetian downplayed last month the socioeconomic impact of the higher prices of fuel and products such as meat, butter and potatoes, saying that inflation in Armenia remains low. Karapetian also defended the higher income tax rates, saying that the government needs more revenue to boost its expenditures.
Other government officials have said that the more progressive tax will put a heavier financial burden only on high-income individuals. They argue that 90 percent of working Armenians will not have any additional sums deducted from their wages.