Armenia’s leadership has indicated its discontent with the Russian authorities’ failure to stop racially motivated attacks on non-Slavic immigrants in Russia. Such attacks have claimed at least six Armenian lives this year. Faced with domestic outcry against its reluctance to publicly exert pressure on Moscow, official Yerevan is now pressing for tougher Russian action against the xenophobic violence.
President Robert Kocharian and Prime Minister Andranik Markarian showed the first signs of such pressure as they met with the Kremlin’s visiting top representative to southern Russia, Dmitry Kozak, on June 16. The official purpose of Kozak’s visit to Yerevan was to discuss ways of boosting economic ties between Armenia and the Russian regions making up the Southern Federal District. But statements from official Armenian sources suggest that the continuing racist killings dominated much of the discussions. The Armenian leaders clearly used the opportunity to convey their concerns to a close and influential associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Kocharian, according to his office, condemned the “nationalist murders” and urged Russian law-enforcement bodies, widely accused of inactivity and even connivance, to act in a more “quick, steadfast, and understandable” manner. Markarian was quoted by his press service as demanding that Moscow take “serious steps to identify and bring the guilty to justice as well as to avert more such incidents.”
It also emerged that a group of senior officials from the Armenian Foreign Ministry will fly to Moscow on Thursday, June 29, to hold special talks on the issue with their Russian counterparts. “I think that from now on such discussions and exchanges of concerns will be a continuous process,” Armenian Deputy Foreign Minister Gegham Gharibjanian said on June 15. He admitted that the authorities in Yerevan have been “a bit late” in reacting to the problem.
Their reaction (quite strong and extraordinary, given the close nature of the Russian-Armenian relationship) followed the murder of yet another ethnic Armenian resident of Russia. Artur Sardarian, 19, was stabbed to death, apparently by a group of neo-Nazi youths, on a suburban Moscow train on May 25. Sardarian is reportedly the sixth Armenian man killed in Russia because of his non-Slavic looks during the first five months of this year. His violent death came just over a month after the high-profile, fatal stabbing of 17-year-old Vigen Abramiants on a Moscow subway platform. The Russian law-enforcement authorities’ initial refusal to characterize it as a hate crime enraged even the Kremlin-connected leaders of Russia’s large Armenian community.
According to the Moscow-based anti-racism Sova Center, ethnic hatred has already motivated 18 murders and 129 attacks in Russia on dark-skinned immigrants from the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Africa this year. Sova reported at least 28 such deaths last year. Sova and other Russian human rights organizations lay much of the blame on the Russian law-enforcement agencies’ notorious leniency towards skinhead groups, which are believed to carry out such crimes. The skinheads, numbering tens of thousands across the country, seem to operate in a climate of near-impunity, with neo-Nazi and other extremist literature widely available on Russian streets and especially on the Internet.
While condemning the racist violence, Kozak assured Kocharian and Markarian that it is “not specifically directed against Armenians.” He also claimed, “The Russian authorities are doing everything to solve and rule out such crimes.”
Few in Armenia would agree with this assertion, however. A group of Armenian civic groups that staged a small demonstration outside the Russian Embassy on June 5 said in a joint petition that the neo-Nazi elements guilty of the racist killings are operating “with the sponsorship of some Russian state structures.” The protesters also marched to the Foreign Ministry building in Yerevan to demand that the Armenian government finally bring the Russians to task. “I am convinced that if the Armenian authorities took a tougher line the situation would not be so grave,” said Avetik Ishkhanian, chairman of the Armenian Helsinki Committee and one of the protest organizers.
Leaders of local pro-Western opposition parties are even more outspoken in condemning both Moscow and Yerevan. Hovannes Hovannisian of the Liberal Progressive Party branded Kocharian’s regime as a “Russian vassal” in a June 17 interview with the Haykakan Zhamanak daily. “What is being done to Armenians in Russia is part of a state policy,” he charged.
There is also mounting concern among Armenian pro-establishment circles that have traditionally been oriented toward Russia. Vahan Hovannisian, a leader of the governing Armenian Revolutionary Federation, observed with shock on June 16 that Russia is now a far more dangerous place for Armenians than Turkey. And the chairman of the Writers Union of Armenia, Levon Ananian, decried what he described as a deadly “hunt for Armenians” underway in Russia during a recent roundtable discussion in Yerevan.
Such statements, coupled with the increasingly frequent criticism of Russia in the Armenian press, cannot fail to contribute to the ongoing erosion of the traditionally strong pro-Russian sentiment in Armenia. Opinion polls conducted in recent years show a major pro-Western shift in Armenian public opinion resulting, among other things, from Moscow’s perceived hard bargaining in its controversial economic dealings with Yerevan.
“Gone are the days when a Russian orientation was not even disputed in this country,” Alexander Iskandarian, a political analyst and director of the Yerevan-based Caucasus Media Institute, told the Hayots Ashkhar daily. “There is more and more talk here of alternatives, alternative ways of development and geopolitical orientations. And that is good.”
Kocharian apparently had this in mind when he told Kozak that the racist attacks “do not stem from the interests of Russia and the Russian people.”
(Hayots Ashkhar, June 21; Haykakan Zhamanak, June 17; Statements by the press services of the Armenian president and prime minister, June 16; RFE/RL Armenia Report, June 15)