Armenia’s Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Alen Simonyan probably didn’t expect that an Instagram post would trigger such a ruckus. The photo in question centers on an unidentified blonde woman posing under a sign that reads, NOBU. The woman’s identity remains a mystery, given that the shadow emitted by the sign’s backlighting partially obscures her face, as the subject looks away from the camera. The post has garnered a lot of vitriol on social media, particularly among Armenians living in California.
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NOBU is a popular chain of upscale Peruvian-Japanese fusion restaurants in Los Angeles. The brand also has locations around the world. According to the restaurant’s menu, entrées alone set patrons back several hundred dollars.
The Instagram post immediately caught the attention of Anna Kachikyan from the online news portal Armenian Report. She pointed out that photos of trips to lavish restaurants are not ideal for a public official from a developing country.
Another person on Facebook questioned the Deputy Speaker’s decision to post pictures of a restaurant which costs “four times the average salary in Armenia.” The caption accompanying the post suggested that his time would have been better spent in meetings with the Armenian community of Los Angeles. This post has since been shared widely on social media and generated a lot of heated discussion on the matter.
Some social media users have even left comments under Simonyan’s Instagram account, shaming him for his display of opulence despite widespread poverty in Armenia. Some comments questioned why the Deputy Speaker was vacationing instead of being hard at work solving the country’s urgent matters. Others still have gleefully jumped on the occasion to ridicule last year’s Velvet Revolution altogether. Simonyan has vehemently denied those charges. He has made some angry responses to hecklers and even blocked Twitter users over the issue. Comments on that Instagram post, by the way, have since been disabled.
For the record, there is no evidence that Simonyan ate at that restaurant on taxpayer money. Simonyan’s vacation also appears to have taken place on his own time and his own dime. According to the National Assembly’s official website, Parliament, which he heads, is currently in recess with the fall session not scheduled until September. Incidentally, an official delegation from the Armenian Parliament was in the United States at the same time that Simonyan posted his photo. Parliamentary Speaker Ararat Mirzoyan made an official visit to Washington, flanked by several other MPs. There he met with local Armenian community leaders as well as US government officials, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Simonyan’s digital saga could have ended with a mildly controversial Instagram photo, but then he decided to take it a step further. On Facebook, he accused unspecified ARF-affiliated “bloggers” of artificially creating a scandal around his photo for self-aggrandizement. “So listen carefully,” his Armenian-language comment read. “I have no bodyguards,” he continued. “Nor have I ever in my life bought anything from any store on Rodeo Drive (a posh shopping street in Beverly Hills) in my 17 visits to LA. I’ve never stayed in a resort either. I’m on a 14-day vacation which I’m enjoying as I see fit, not with your money, nor the state’s money.”
Of the Instagram photos, he explained that he enjoys taking beautiful images and that he did not buy anything at NOBU. “I continue to live like the average Armenian,” he wrote. “I prefer hamburgers made with Armenia’s unrivalled meat, water and vegetables.”
However, his original comment had a much less – shall we say ‘diplomatic’ – tone to it. There, he called on “complainers, liars and slanderers to jump off a bridge.” His comment ended with a phrase in English “PS: don’t use Google Translator. You will never understand what I said! [sic] Good luck and follow my Instagram.”
Simonyan maintains that he has the right to a certain amount of vacation days and that he can spend them at his discretion in a destination of his choosing. He’s right. The Deputy Speaker’s vacation did not conflict with the duties of his office, nor did it happen at the expense of taxpayers. Thus one cannot fault him for violating parliamentary ethics rules.
However, the episode does raise several questions about diplomatic decorum which Simonyan probably did not consider. First of all, if he didn’t pay for his dinner at NOBU, then who did? And why? Armenian officials are usually not allowed to accept gifts worth over $200 in value to dissuade outside pressure on politicians. Simonyan may want to disclose this information.
Though he is not obligated, he probably could have found a few hours out of his 14-day stay in California to touch base with the local Armenian community. The roughly one million Armenians living there, many of whom maintain strong ties to the homeland, would likely have appreciated the courtesy.
While Simonyan is no diplomat, he is a lawyer by training and a long-serving politician. But given his years of experience, his comment about the Diaspora needing translation tools to understand him comes off as incredibly boorish. And yet this isn’t even as obnoxious as his public call to detractors to jump off a bridge to their deaths. The Deputy Speaker’s comments are utterly reprehensible in general, but especially troubling given the number of suicides by that very method in his home country. While Simonyan’s anger at all the heckling might be understandable, his responses were unbecoming of his title and office.
The entire affair may yet prove no more than a tempest in a teapot. Nonetheless, the episode does raise important questions about the expected behavior of Armenia’s new generation of government officials. Of course, Simonyan’s right to vacation in a destination of his fancy is not under question here. But he is a public figure. He should at least be aware that the extravagance displayed on his blue-checkmark Instagram account and his perceived snubbing of the Diaspora are in sharp contrast to an image of an austere and hard-working government which his boss Prime Minister Pashinyan wishes to portray.
Armenia is a young democracy steered by a young generation of politicians. The people should be clear about the kind of decorum expected from their elected officials. In the meantime, an apology by Deputy Speaker Simonyan could be a step in the right direction to mend his relationship with the Diaspora.