At first glance, the connection between a fatal July 13 traffic accident outside Moscow and Armenia’s strategic partnership with Russia may not be obvious. But, to many Armenians, a link exists, and it comes in the form of a woman’s yellow-and-pink flowered bathrobe.
The robe, worn in court by 46-year-old Armenian truck driver, Hrachya Harutiunian, who is charged with causing the crash that killed 18 people and injured 30, has sparked a massive outpouring of anger in Armenia at what is seen as a deliberate humiliation by Russia, long touted as the country’s “closest friend.”
Russian officials claimed that Harutiunian was dressed in the robe (and bedroom slippers) only because his own clothes had been ruined in the crash. But the explanation fell on largely deaf ears.
With his head buried in his hands, the weeping Harutiunian, a veteran of the Nagorno-Karabakh war with Azerbaijan, quickly became a symbol of other alleged recent affronts by Russia – in particular, Moscow’s $1 billion arms deal with diehard Armenian foe, Azerbaijan. Photos of the bedraggled Harutiunian and a video report by Russia’s state-run RTR TV that described him as a “mooing Armenian murderer” fueled protests on July 16 and 17 outside the Russian embassy in Yerevan and consulate in the northwestern town of Gyumri.
In Armenia, as elsewhere in the South Caucasus, perceived public affronts to a man’s dignity can quickly spell trouble. A response to defend that dignity is considered obligatory. In this case, though, protesters and others saw the “humiliating, belittling” insult as directed not only toward the Armenian defendant, but Armenians in general.
Discontent has been growing for months against Russia for supposedly not treating Armenia as an equal, and, in this macho, conservative society, the sight of an Armenian veteran dressed in a woman’s robe proved the last straw for many.
The anger with Moscow began brewing in Armenian political circles last month, when it became known that Russia, which holds a 49-year lease on an army base in Gyumri, had sold $1 billion worth of armaments to Azerbaijan, including 18 powerful BM-30 Smersh multiple-rocket launchers.
Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev characterized the deal as “purely commercial,” but some Armenian analysts call it purely treacherous. “This is an important expression of Russia’s cynical policy, demonstrating . . . that the complementary policy [of building close ties with both Russia and the West] is no longer acceptable” to the Kremlin, commented Stepan Grigorian, director of Yerevan’s Analytical Center of Globalization and Regional Cooperation.
Armenian-Russian relations undergo periodic strains, but the publicity about the arms deal with Azerbaijan appeared “a deliberate calculation to let Armenia know that it should no longer rely on them,” argued political analyst Aghasi Yenokian, director of the Armenian Center for National and International Studies.
Analysts link that alleged shift in attitude to Armenia’s pending Association Agreement with the European Union, scheduled for signature this fall. Yerevan has dodged joining the Russia-led Eurasian Customs Union, a sort of post-Soviet alternative to the EU, and Moscow has not hidden its irritation. On July 11, Konstantin Zatulin, director of the Commonwealth of Independent States Institute, warned that “Yerevan should not forget that Russia is Armenia’s security guarantee, not the European Union.”
But many Armenians would like to forget just that. Russia’s hold on Armenia’s economy – via energy, railway, telecommunications and as a market for Armenian labor migrants – doubles as a noose, some say. The recent increase in prices for Russian gas, on which Armenia depends, and subsequent protests over higher transportation fares in Yerevan, only underlined that dependence.
Against that backdrop, Russia’s behavior toward Harutiunian and offhand attitude toward arms sales to Azerbaijan have delivered the message that “’I own you and will do whatever I want to,” argued parliamentarian Lyudmila Sarksian, a member of the opposition Armenian National Congress faction.
Opposition leader Raffi Hovhannisian, the former presidential candidate, agrees. “If Russia, our strategic partner, is supplying a billion dollars’ worth of weaponry to a country that wants to erase Armenia and Karabakh from the world map, what kind of strategic partnership is that?” he asked reporters on July 17. The treatment of truck driver Harutiunian should serve as a further “alert,” he added.
Sociologist Aharon Adibekian, head of the Sociometer Research Center, believes, though, that, ultimately, the truck-driver scandal will have only a “temporary” impact on ties between Armenia and Russia.
“There have been similar cases when passions flared up, but public revolts such as this do not have a tangible impact on global politics,” Adibekian said. “This is a merely emotional upheaval, and public memory is short.”
Hovhannes Sahakian, secretary of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia’s parliamentary faction, concurs. The outcry over Haruitiunian’s court appearance “has such a resonance just because its timing coincided with the arms deal with Azerbaijan, but they shouldn’t be connected to each other”
Nonetheless, sensing themselves on the defensive for Armenia’s policies toward Russia, pro-government politicians such as Parliamentary Speaker Hovik Abrahamian have condemned the treatment of Harutiunian as “unacceptable and inhumane” and called for those responsible to be held accountable.
Statements by the Russian embassy in Yerevan and Ministry of Foreign Affairs indicate, however, that Moscow sees Armenians’ anger more as an attempt “by certain people” to try and “manipulate the tragedy” of the traffic accident and “ignite anti-Russian passions.”
Some Armenian observers have echoed those allegations, claiming that either “certain Western elements” or Russia itself, in a supposed bid “to get rid of their commitments to Armenia,” stand behind the protests and criticism.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin has stressed that investigation of the accident will be fair. Harutiunian, who faces seven years in prison, currently is undergoing psychiatric treatment in Moscow.
Gayane Abrahamyan is a freelance reporter and editor in Yerevan.