Heated differences of opinion are nothing new in the South Caucasus, but when they come with sluggish police investigations into violence against protesters, locals expect answers. So far, in Armenia, there have been none.
Over the past month, civil activists speaking out against Armenia’s surprise September 3 decision to join the Russia-led Customs Union and against past plans for a public transportation fare hike have suffered attacks in the capital, Yerevan, that left them with numerous injuries. One of the attacked, Haykak Arshamian, a 42-year-old project coordinator at the Yerevan Press Club who took part in September 4 protests against the Customs Union, claims that the Yerevan rally, attended by hundreds, “alarmed” the Armenian government and “this is the consequence.”
“This is a warning message not only to me, but to all those who might attempt certain activities and object to the new stage of Armenian-Russian relations, which have brought to nothing the efforts of building economic relations with Europe,” he told Asbarez.am.
Arshamian suffered rib fractures and heavy injuries to his jaw and facial tissue from a September 5 attack by male youths dressed in black. Another protester, 43-year-old Suren Saghatelian, a board member of the Transparency International Anti-Corruption Center and project manager for the Christian charity World Vision Armenia, received a head injury and a nose fracture, for which he had to undergo surgery.
Officials have offered no official comments on the violence against the Customs-Union protesters. The police launched a preliminary investigation, but filed criminal cases only nine days later. The action came the day after a September 12 statement from the US embassy condemning the assaults.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have expressed deep concern that “the attacks appear to be a concerted effort to intimidate the protestors, prevent them from exercising their rights to freedom of assembly and expression, and send a chilling message to others.”
The decision to sign onto the Customs Union, a proposed trade bloc made up of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, jeopardized Armenia’s plans for closer ties with the European Union, and, to many locals, was an unwelcome reminder of the country’s dependence – in military and economic matters – on Russia. Aside from its strategic presence in Armenia's mining, telecommunications and transportation sectors, the gas-rich country, a prime destination for Armenian labor migrants, holds a 49-year lease on a base near the northern city of Gyumri, and also supplies most of Armenia's energy.
But the violence has not been limited to the Customs Union. In late August, five protesters who had opposed plans for a hike in Yerevan’s public transportation fares also were assaulted in Yerevan.
Protesters in June staged a citywide boycott that forced a reversal on the fare policy, and summoned worries about further unrest against the government.
To date, progress has been made in only two of the five cases concerning the transportation activists, one of which involved a US citizen, Babken Ter-Grigorian. Exactly two days after the embassy statement, the alleged assailants, according to the police report, turned themselves in and admitted their guilt.
Anti-Customs-Union activist Arshamian believes those who assaulted him also could be identified, by looking at footage from surveillance cameras, which scan the area where the attack took place. But he doubts the cameras will be consulted.
“The dynamics of such cases show that they never get solved,” he told 1in.am.