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.
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 the police. 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.
Some bus riders heeded such calls. One man said the driver of his bus barely objected when he paid 100 drams. “He was almost silent,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
“Shame on our government and president. They fooled the people,” said another Yerevan resident.
Some drivers readily accepted the 100-dram signs. “No problem,” one of them told an activist, drawing cheers.
Many other commuters chose to go along with the new fees, however. As one woman explained, “People paying 150 drams simply feel too embarrassed to pay 100 drams.”
Indeed, 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 price hike was denounced as illegal by the opposition Zharangutyun (Heritage) party represented in Yerevan’s municipal council. Stepan Safarian, a party leader, said Zharangutyun plans to take the municipality to court.
Davit Sanasarian, another Zharangutyun councilor, said the party will also demand an emergency session of the city’s Council of Elders. The opposition-leaning Prosperous Armenia Party, which has the second largest faction in the council, signaled support for the initiative.
Municipality officials have said that higher fares are needed to prevent transport firms from becoming loss-making. The ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), which has a majority in the council, supports this stance. Galust Sahakian, a deputy HHK chairman whose family reportedly controls several minibus routes in Yerevan, suggested that critics of the measure set up a bus firm of their own in order to understand that 100 drams per ride is not a realistic price anymore.