June 25, 2015 / 3:45 PM / in 3 years

Armenian premier holds out olive branch to protesters

YEREVAN (Reuters) - Armenia’s prime minister held out an olive branch on Thursday to thousands of people protesting for a fourth day against plans to raise electricity prices, offering concessions for the poor.

Protesters gather at barricades made of garbage bins during a rally against a recent decision to raise public electricity prices in Yerevan, Armenia, June 23, 2015. REUTERS/Hrant Khachatryan/PAN Photo

But Hovik Abrahamyan’s government gave no ground over the protesters’ main demand that the 22 percent rise be scrapped, and the initial reaction from demonstrators was skeptical.

The mostly young demonstrators began their sit-in protest in an avenue in the center of the capital Yerevan on Monday, and have pressed on despite police using water cannon and detaining about 200 to try to break up the rally on Tuesday.

“Such behavior (protesting) won’t lead to success,” Abrahamyan told a government meeting. “I call on the activists to get back to constructive (dialogue).”

The protests have increased social tensions in the cash-strapped southern Caucasus nation of 3.2 million which has been hit hard by an economic downturn in Russia, its main ally.

Abrahamyan said the government was considering allocating 2.5 billion drams ($5.3 million) a year in compensation for 105,000 poor families to soften the blow of the tariff rise.

The state regulatory commission decided last week that the price paid by the public would rise from Aug. 1 after the distribution company for Armenia’s electricity network, a subsidiary of Russian firm Inter RAO, said it was needed because the dram has declined.

Protesters who spoke to Reuters were unimpressed by the offer.

“We are not asking for any compensation. We are talking about cancellation of the decision to raise electricity prices and will stay here until our demand is fulfilled,” said Eduard Mkhitaryan, a young protester.

The crowd, which has tended to dwindle during the day but swell again at night, has been using rubbish bins as barricades, and some protesters carry posters with slogans such as “I’m not going to pay! Will you?” and “Stop robbing people!”

The United Nations urged the Armenian authorities to ensure the police do not violate international human rights and called on “all parties to engage in a constructive dialogue and to refrain from violence.”

Writing by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Hugh Lawson

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