On the evening of September 25, 2001, Poghos Poghosyan, a native of Javakhk, was sitting at the famous Poplavok cafe in central Yerevan when he saw his former classmate, then-President Robert Kocharyan walk out, accompanied by the late world-renowned singer Charles Aznavour. “Privet, Rob,” he said in his casual Russian from his table. Ten minutes later, he was declared dead by paramedics who found him in the restaurant’s washroom, where Kocharyan’s bodyguards had just brought him for “a talk.”
While news of the murder was initially suppressed, the media eventually broke the story, which provoked widespread outrage and protests. In a rare sign of Armenia’s previous oligarchy caving to public pressure, the bodyguard, Aghamal Harutiunyan (who went by the underworld nickname ‘Kuku’) was thrown under the bus, but his punishment was light. He was charged with involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to a year of probation for the murder. Kocharyan went on to conclude two terms as president, ending in 2008 with the greatest recession in Armenian history and the controversial deaths of 10 people.
But no, say his supporters, Armenia’s second president brought an unprecedented decade of prosperity and lifted the country from its post-Soviet rut. These accusations, as well as the trial he is currently awaiting, are just as politically motivated as the new post-revolutionary ‘coup’ plotters that are behind it.
Some of his most desperately zealous advocates have already rallied around a new cause célèbre which they hope accurately contrasts the ‘dark autocratic nature’ Armenia with the beautiful paradise that it was under the enlightened dictat of Kocharyan. The perfect symbol of resistance to the new reality? Subway girl.
Pro-Ancien Régime bloggers like Narek Malayan had a field day sharing a viral video depicting a girl standing in the Yerevan Metro when a campaigning Nikol Pashinyan hands her a pamphlet for his side in the upcoming constitutional referendum. She promptly rips it up and throws it back at the Prime Minister’s face. The Prime Minister’s response, or rather lack thereof, is most interesting in this incident. Pashinyan, unfettered, simply walked on to the next commuter and then the next until he left the wagon at the next station reminding people to vote in April.
The video sparked a lot of commentary on Armenian social media with a small number (essentially those tied to the former regime) praising her brave resistance to the tyranny of a paper pamphlet, while most condemning her actions as inappropriate or defending them as her right to self-expression.
Of course, for Malayan and all the others who have helped elevate this person (whose Facebook profile shows her to be an equally enthusiastic Kocharyan supporter) to the level of Ancien Régime martyrdom. The irony that had she acted that way under the rule of her beloved second President she likely would have also found herself being declared deceased by paramedics in a dirty public bathroom…seems lost.
But to me, the most interesting afterthought over this episode is how mundane it all was. The Prime Minister clearly hasn’t lost any sleep over the issue, and for most of the voting public, the incident’s value for funny meme potential has already run out. In an odd way this crusader for Kocharyan’s rights helped uncover a very uncomfortable reality for her and her supporters: that Armenia, for the first time in modern history, is on its way to becoming the democratic country we all wanted.