YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — Armenia's premier has rejected demonstrators' demand to annul a hike in electricity prices, a stance that signals no end in sight for the worst unrest the ex-Soviet nation has seen in years.
Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamyan said Thursday at a Cabinet meeting that the protesters, which swelled to more than 10,000 as the heat abated in the evening, are violating the country's constitution and won't succeed in bending the government's will. He said the government could offer compensations to the poor to help cushion the price increase.
His comments came as thousands of protesters continued their round-the-clock blockade of the capital's main avenue for a fourth straight day and demanded that President Serzh Sargsyan cancel the price hike.
Police, who broke up the rally Tuesday only to see the demonstrators return to the streets immediately after, haven't interfered since then and the protests have gone one peacefully.
Hundreds of protesters remained sitting on the road through the day, a barricade of large trash containers separating them from police. Others sought shelter from the sun under trees and umbrellas as the temperature soared to about 40 C (104 F) earlier in the day.
Vaghinak Shushanian, one of the protest organizers, challenged the premier to come and face the crowds.
"What he says is absolutely irrelevant," Shushanian said. "They clearly don't understand the seriousness of our intention to stay here for long."
Eduard Mhitarian, a 22-year old protester, said the protesters will stay on the street until the government meets their demand.
"We won't get tired, we will go until the end," he said.
The bulk of the demonstrators have avoided political slogans, and even slapped a few chants calling for the president to step down.
Sargsyan has offered to meet representatives of the protesters, but the demonstrators have refused and pushed for the reversal of the policy.
The 17-percent price hike has been approved by the government's regulatory panel following a request of the nation's power grid, Electric Networks of Armenia, which is controlled by Russia's electricity giant, RAO UES.
Russia is Armenia's main economic partner and ally, a member of the Eurasian Economic Union, an alliance of ex-Soviet nations which the Kremlin sees as a top foreign policy priority.
Armenia also hosts a Russian military base, and the protests in Yerevan have raised concerns in Moscow.
While the Kremlin has played the dispute down, saying it expects the authorities and demonstrators to negotiate a settlement in line with the Armenian law, some Russian lawmakers are alleging that the West could be behind the riots.
The protest organizers, mostly young people who have relied on social networks to stage the rallies, have scoffed at such claims. They strongly deny affiliation with any Armenian or foreign political forces.
Under the hashtag #ElectricYerevan, the protests became a hit on Twitter. The activists also used creative ways to broaden public support for their cause, handing out leaflets that offered people to "join the struggle from home" by making noise with their utensils from their balconies.
They also called on Yerevan residents to switch off the lights in their apartments for an hour as a sign of protest.
Following the failed attempt to end the protest by force, the government appeared to take a wait-and-see approach, and both sides tried to avoid any moves that would inflame tensions.
The mood at the rally was peaceful. Bars, cafes and stores brought food and drinks to protesters, and some demonstrators offered them to police.
A senior police official praised the protesters for keeping the city clean.
At some point, protesters offered officers to play soccer. Deputy police chief Unan Pogosian responded by saying they would take the offer once the standoff ends.
Changes spelling of the Armenian president's name in line with his office preference.