Burglaries have doubled in Armenia, homicides have nearly tripled and illegal weapons trafficking is up by over 43 percent in Armenia so far in 2009. Sociologists see a connection between the crime binge and a new collection of wildly popular TV crime-thrillers.
"The Trap," broadcast on Armenia's private Shant TV channel, garners the bulk of the criticism. Broadcast twice daily, the star-studded series recounts the adventures of the fictional crime boss Hovo as he "fights for justice" against big business, cops and rival Armenian mafiosos.
"Hovo is a classic character. We need to have an honest criminal, if we don't have honest police officers," said celebrated poet and confessed "Trap" fan Marine Petrosian. "The series is a reflection of real life."
Hundreds of Armenian TV viewers apparently agree. AGB Nielsen Media Research's Yerevan office reports that the series ranks the highest among recently surveyed Yerevan viewers, with just over 40 percent of 120 households surveyed naming it the most watched program.
Two Armenian Public Television crime dramas, "The Price of Life" and "Happy Unhappiness," rank as the second and third most popular programs, the pick of 23.09 percent and 19.05 percent of surveyed viewers respectively. Operating under the mantra "might makes right," the series' characters -- a veritable rogues' gallery -- have become idols for many.
"That's how a true man should be -- the master of his word, a man of principle, who quickly finds answers to questions!" gushed Yerevan university student Aram Galstian in reference to "The Trap's" Gokor, one of the show's "good-guy" criminals.
Sociologist Aharon Adibekian says the characters, portrayed as heroes in episodes saturated with beatings and killings, are helping to change social mores. "New idols, new standards of morality, new ways of conduct . . . are being formed," observed Adibekian, who heads the Sociometer polling center. "And, naturally, youth are the number one target and that results in a tendency towards an increase in the amount of crime."
Armenian police report that overall crime rates increased by 57 percent during the first three months of 2009 compared with the same period for 2008, an unprecedented rise. Five murders occurred in the first half of May alone, they say. Narcotics trafficking has quadrupled, while a particularly sharp increase has also been noted in gang-related violence, domestic break-ins and assaults.
While Adibekian and other sociologists tend to blame television, police primarily attribute the crime wave to Armenia's deepening economic crisis. "We anticipated a situation like this," said Col. Sayat Shirinian, spokesperson for the Armenian police. "Most crimes are socially motivated, with the world crisis directly impacting the situation."
Still, Shirinian contends that "unfair" TV episodes, which "humiliate" police officers, are playing a role. "Scenes showing how easily people are killed and blood is spilled to solve problems affect young people and can facilitate the increase in the number of crimes," he admitted, adding that "the overwhelming majority" of perpetrators of crimes in Armenia are under age 35.
Shant TV programming director Karen Arshakian refutes the criticism directed at the show. Armenians, he says, just want good television. "'The Trap' is an educational film," Arshakian said. "Police officers don't take bribes . . . Even the representatives of the criminal world -- the main protagonists -- are just and fight for justice."
Shant TV casting manager Anna Volkova argues that the "The Trap" characters and episode plots are drawn from everyday life. "This is not about promoting the criminal world. It's about phenomena existing in society, and the way they influence the viewer depends on his or her own perceptions," Volkova said.
As far as the less-than-competent police officers depicted in the series go, sociologist Adibekian agrees that viewers identify with the characters. "Who will believe in the existence of a police officer fighting for justice? There are no such people in real life to make viewers believe in them," he said.
In effect, the criminals who outwit the police officers have become new models for good behavior, noted Yerevan State University social psychologist Nelli Haroian. "Although they are criminals, the protagonists possess positive features," Haroian said. "They are people of principle, sharp-minded, self-confident and, therefore, are appealing to viewers."
While Haroian contends that any influence from the series will only be felt "over time," one Education Ministry official contends that some impact is already discernible in the country's high schools. "Teachers complain that children are using criminals' jargon, [they repeat] whatever they hear on TV, and become uncontrollable," said Narine Hovhannisian, head of the Ministry of Education and Science's secondary education department. "This is a very worrying matter. We don't know where this will take us."
According to Shant TV programming manager Arshakian, series like "The Trap" will only place Armenians in closer contact with reality. "Humans are humans. That's why they are accepted by the public," he said, referring to the show's crime idols.
Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter based in Yerevan.