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.
Apparently taking a cue from Armenia's closest ally, Russia, the Armenian police seem to be thinking that it is time to do something to defend traditional Armenian family values from the onslaught of what they see as growing "gay propaganda."
A draft bill, now scrapped, would have required anyone caught promoting "non-traditional sexual relationships," as RFE/RL reported, to pay a fine equivalent in drams to $4,000. The bill took its line of argument -- and, it appears, its inspiration -- from a recent Russian bill that established a similar ban last month.
In a published statement, police, however, confined their perceived "problem" to “preserving the traditional Armenian family, as traditional values represent the pillar of national survival,” the Russian-language Armenia Today news site reported.
Police claimed that that requires a permit from the mayor's office. Several demonstrators were arrested and released later on the same day.
The series of protests began in the wake of a boycott of public transportation in the Armenian capital after the city government raised fares. Mayor Markarian was forced to decrease the prices, after Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian, for one, commented favorably on demonstrators' campaign, but the protesters continue to accuse the municipality of mismanagement of the city transportation system and have demanded the resignation of municipal officials. Mayor Markarian’s offer to overhaul the public conveyance system has been dismissed by protesters.
Armenia's Barevolution (Hello Revolution) may have petered out, but, in the end, its bus revolution succeeded. After a five-day-long boycott of public transportation in the Armenian capital over a 50-percent fare hike, Yerevan Mayor Taron Markarian on July 25 agreed to scrap the increase.
Some sign of likely change had been in the wind after Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian scoffed at speculation that the boycott was a staged political provocation, describing the campaign as for "social equality, justice and . . . against poverty." Transportation tariffs now stand at 100 drams (24 cents) for buses and marshrutkas and 50 drams (12 cents) for trolleybuses.
Nonetheless, pointed out Hetq Online, the mayor's comments are "somewhat contradictory." While returning prices to their original level, an increase is, he claimed "unavoidable." Though he did not elaborate on the topic, higher prices for imported Russian natural gas, widely used in Armenia as fuel, are thought to have sparked the increase.
A commission made up of "specialists and interested persons" will now sit down to figure out how to introduce a "unified system of payments" for public transportation that could introduce the 150-dram fare without putting "the burden of higher fare rates on socially vulnerable groups . . . " ArmeniaNow.com reported the mayor as saying.
Tempers over a hike in transportation fares in Yerevan cooled on July 24, but a carpooling protest to support residents boycotting city buses continues.
Meanwhile, as some observers scramble to make sense of it all, the time-honored Caucasian pastime of conspiracy theories has begun.
The website www.FreeCar.am, however, remains very much in the here and now. It allows car owners to provide boycotters with the routes and schedules for shared rides, along with the models of their automobiles and contact information. Several Armenian celebrities have been among those car owners who are picking up and dropping off many residents around Yerevan for free.
Meanwhile, Facebook users are joining the page “We Won’t Pay 150 Drams” [the new fare for city buses, over 35 cents] and Twitter users are tweeting updates with the #OccBusYrvn hashtag, a non-sequitur reference to the worldwide "Occupy" protests.
The movement also comes in the form of street rallies. Separate groups of protesters clashed with police on July 23 near the mayor’s office and accused municipal officials of corruption.
The protest is yet another challenge for newly reelected President Serzh Sargsyan, whose victory rival Raffi Hovannisian challenged earlier this year with a streak of demonstrations. And it stems from a similar cause -- many Armenians' inability to make ends meet. Over a third of the country's population of 2.94 million people is estimated to live beneath the poverty line.
A bus boycott entered its third day in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, on July 23, with hundreds protesting against an increase in public and private transportation fees in the wake of a hike in the price of imported Russian natural gas.
Fares have doubled or, at best, increased by 50 percent, depending on the type of transportation. A bus ride now costs 150 drams, which is just 35 cents, but is pinching wallets in this cash-strapped country. And sapping patience among an urban population which has already shown this year how economic hard-knocks can translate into protest power.
One crowd, gathered on July 23 in front of the office of Mayor Taron Margarian, accused the Yerevan mayor of having business interests in private bus companies. Six people were detained by police, but later released. Scuffles with police persisted throughout the day.
Ironically, not a few bus drivers back the boycott, RFE/RL reported. Many Armenian celebrities do, too, taking to the streets and offering ordinary Armenians rides in their cars. The tactic, billed Free Car, is meant to dissuade people from using public transportation and keep the pressure up on the authorities.
Investigators of a brutal Yerevan murder that sparked a popular outcry against Armenia's oligarchs have reduced the incident to merely an argument over fashion sense gone badly wrong.
As Armenian police tell it, the June 29 death of military doctor Vahe Avetian was all about a restaurant taking its dress code very seriously . . . unlike the lives of its customers, apparently. The police alleged that a waiter, David Adamian, bickered with Avetian over his clothes until the two took it outside, where restaurant security beat the doctor and his friends up; in Avetian’s case, the beating led to his death, 12 days later. End of story.
The police account makes no mention of the restaurant owner, multi-millionaire businessman Ruben Hayrapetian, who claims he's in as much shock over what happened as anybody. The prosecutor’s office refused a request by the Avetian family to consider Hayrapetian, a onetime parliamentarian for President Serzh Sargysan's Republican Party of Armenia, as a suspect. Hayrapetian surrendered his seat in parliament after Avetian's death.
But what’s mainly missing in the police account is the big picture. For rights activists and many ordinary Armenians, the incident was not just about one man’s death, but a wakeup call about the ways things are done in the country.
After Avetian's death, many Armenians rallied against what they described as a tradition of allowing thuggish businessmen and their glazed-eyed bodyguards to run rampant.
Amidst a growing public outcry against cozy ties between Armenia's government and business elite, Armenian police on Tuesday claimed that Armenian Football Federation boss Ruben Hayrapetian was not at his Yerevan restaurant Harsnakar when 33-year-old army doctor Vahe Avetian met with a beating there on June 17 that cost him his life.
Criminal Investigations Inspectorate official Arsen Ayvavsian claimed that Hayrapetian, who was interrogated last week, had arrived at the restaurant a few hours before the violence broke out, and had stayed only briefly.
The announcement will most likely only add further fuel to public outrage at Avetian's June 29 death and the brutal beating of two other army doctors with him, allegedly at the hands of Hayrapetian's bodyguards.
As Global Voices Caucasus Editor Onnik Krikorian noted, "[s]uch incidents are not uncommon in Armenia . . . but the latest example comes as the power of the oligarchs in the economically challenged republic is under increasing scrutiny . . ."
Rights activists, opposition groups and many ordinary Armenians contend that Hayrapetian is criminally responsible for the death and beatings and should be held account. Charging that a cover-up is underway, they have petitioned embassies in Yerevan to reject any visa application received from the businessman, who has interests in a variety of economic sectors.