“The citizens of the Republic of Armenia shall be under the protection of the
Republic of Armenia within the territory of the Republic of Armenia and beyond its borders.”
–Article 11.3, Constitution of the Republic of Armenia
They say a picture is worth a thousand words.
A few weeks ago one picture sent shockwaves throughout Armenia and the diaspora. It was of a man dressed in a colorful robe and slippers, sitting behind bars in a Russian courtroom. His unshaven face, the lines on his forehead, his desperate gaze painting a haunting portrait.
The man was Hrachya Harutyunyan, a citizen of the Republic of Armenia and an Artsakh freedom fighter. Harutyunyan was working as a truck driver in Russia when his vehicle collided into a bus, causing the death of 18 people and injuring many others, including himself. He had traveled to Russia just a few months before the incident to earn enough money to afford a tombstone for his dead son, who had himself served in the army. The degrading treatment he received by Russian law enforcement officials led to widespread anger in Armenia and protests in front of Russian diplomatic representations in both Yerevan and Gyumri.
The initial outrage over Harutyunyan’s treatment was quickly overshadowed by the spontaneous citizen movement against the Yerevan public transport price hike. While media in Armenia are still reporting on the issue, the hype around it died as quickly as it reached its peak. Nevertheless, from the moment it was circulated, that infamous image continued to occupy my mind because Harutyunyan’s tragedy epitomizes so many of the issues facing Armenia today: poverty, emigration, neglected citizenry, even the consequences of an alliance where one party has disproportionate power over the other.
The numbers speak for themselves. According to 2011 World Bank estimates, 35 percent of Armenia’s population lived below the poverty line. That’s more than one in three people. The latest official figures on emigration reveal a new outward wave, with more than 200,000 people believed to have left Armenia in the last 5 years.
Hrachya Harutyunyan’s unfortunate fate is ultimately the consequence of the Armenian government’s failure to care for its citizens, not least its soldiers and war veterans, and to safeguard their right for a decent life upheld and protected by the rule of law.
It is true that since Harutyunyan’s court appearance, the government has tried to make representation to the Russian authorities on his behalf. However, Harutyunyan should never have been in Moscow in the first place. When we have a prime minister who owns offshore accounts and a Catholicos who owns bus routes, by no standard is it acceptable for a soldier—who has put his life on the line for his country—to resort to unfriendly foreign shores for the price of a tombstone for another, deceased soldier.
Yes, the government failed Hrachya Harutyunyan, just like it has failed the thousands who have left Armenia and those that are deciding to leave with every new dawn.
It also failed a freedom fighter just like it has failed many of his comrades in arms.
Since May, Artsakh war heroes have been staging frequent sit-ins in Yerevan, Gyumri, and most recently in Vartenis to protest their harsh socio-economic conditions and demand government support for basic living expenses.
It is both ironic and symbolic that Harutyunyan was subjected to such treatment in no other country than an ally that has so much economic, military and political interests in Armenia. It not only highlights the vulnerability of Russia’s Armenian community, but also serves as another powerful reminder of the dynamics underlying the partnership between the two countries.
While there is no question that Harutyunyan deserved more dignified treatment by Russian law enforcement officials, the bigger issue here remains the Armenian government’s treatment of its own citizens. It is ultimately the government that sets the standard and example for how its citizens are to be regarded. The Armenian government would do well to start living up to its constitutional responsibility of protecting its citizens and safeguarding their rights. Only then can we avoid new Hrachya Harutyunyans, Hrach Muradyans, Vahe Avetians, new non-combat deaths in the army and, yes, possibly even new emigrants.
As Harutyunyan undergoes trial in Moscow, his tragedy will remain a low point for our entire nation.