A Swinging Russian Mood In Yerevan


Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso, Italy
Dec 10 2013

Mikayel Zolyan | Yerevan

“To the barricades!”: protests in the Armenian capital against the
visit of the Russian President as Armenians are divided over joining
the Customs Union with Moscow

” ‘What are you doing here?’, some people were asking me” says Anton
Ivchenko, an activist who took part in a protest in central Yerevan on
December 2, the day Russia’s president Vladimir Putin visited Armenia.

“I am an ethnic Russian, and people assume I should be happy about
Armenia joining the Customs Union” continues Anton, “but I am a citizen
of Armenia”. Anton, who describes his political views as anarchist,
says that joining the Customs Union, which he sees as a prelude to
the resurrection of the Soviet empire, is complete madness.

“Understanding this does not depend on one’s ethnicity” he says. “Even
some of the policemen understood this”, recalls Anton, who was
detained, after he broke through the police lines, waving a black
anarchist flag.

Yerevan, le proteste del 2 dicembre (Foto Epress.am)

Protesters took to the streets in downtown Yerevan on the day of
Putin’s visit, with revolutionary slogans (e.g. “to the barricades!”)
and Armenian flags (some protesters were also holding Ukrainian
flags). The number of the protesters was not very high, less a
thousand, partly due to police measures. Obviously authorities did
not want anything to cloud the Russian president’s visit, therefore
from early morning the police started rounding up activists in order
to prevent the expected protests. Several activists were taken from
their homes, and some were detained while attempting to hang anti-Putin
banners in the streets. Olya, one of these activists, says that “as
soon as we raised the poster, which said “Serzh’s daddy is coming”,
three police cars arrived immediately”. Olya and her friends were
taken to the police station for several hours and released when
the protests were over: Olya says this is a method police often are
use to sabotage protest actions. When, in spite of the detentions,
demonstration finally started at midday, the police closed the streets
where protesters were marching, scuffles broke out and several dozen
activists were detained. On the whole, more than a 110 protesters
were detained during the day.

The Ukrainian virus

Apparently, the mass protests in Ukraine, which inspired some of the
activists, also added to nervousness of Armenian authorities. However,
police overreaction may have backfired: it turned a relatively small
protest into a major news story.

Nervousness of Armenian authorities was understandable. Putin’s state
visit acquired a special importance in the wake of the September 3
statement regarding Armenia’s willingness to join the Customs Union
with Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus. The announcement also meant that
Armenia would not proceed with the free trade deal with EU, which was
expected to be initialed at the Vilnius summit of Eastern Partnership.

After Ukraine also refused to sign the agreement, the Vilnius summit,
which was expected to become a triumph for Eastern Partnership policy,
became instead a show of EU’s weakness. Accordingly, Armenia, which
only several months ago had been considered one of the success stories
of Eastern Partnership, suffered the diplomatic consequences of its
sudden U-turn: at the summit Armenia went largely unmentioned at
the summit and only a vague statement containing general phrases was
circulated on behalf of Armenia and EU.

The East-West divide

Thus, Putin’s visit was extremely important for Sargsyan, who needed
to reassert his positions on the regional scene. He also needed to
show Armenian society that the choice to join the Customs Union was
the right one, i.e. that Armenia will benefit from it more than it
would have from the EU free trade deal. Therefore, the government was
particularly happy about the announcement that the Russian gas price
will be set at about $190 per thousand cubic meters. However, the gas
deal was somewhat tricky: Armenia had to relinquish its remaining 20
% share of the ArmRosGazProm, the formerly Russian-Armenian company,
which controls gas distribution in the country. The gas story became
even more complicated, when several days after the Russian deal,
the Iranian ambassador made the deal look even more vulnerable by
suggesting that Iran could have sold Armenia gas at a cheaper price
than Russia. As for other economic benefits from joining the Customs
Union, Putin vaguely referred to “preferential terms” of Armenia’s
membership, but few details were given.

As the protest showed, not everyone was convinced of the benefits of
Customs Union. Olya, the activist, says “I do not recognize Serzh
Sargsyan as a legitimate president who has the right to make such
decisions regarding Armenia’s future… if we follow this path Armenia
may one day effectively become a part of the Russian Federation”.

To Russia with love

Political opposition is however, more circumspect in its statements,
when it comes to Customs Union, even though they do not hold back
from criticizing Serzh Sargsyan. Thus, Armenian National Congress,
the party of former Armenian president Levon Ter-Petrosyan refrained
from openly supporting the protests, even though some of its younger
activists took part in the actions. Besides, there is a consensus
across the political spectrum in Armenia that the security cooperation
with Russia is indispensable in the current conditions, given the
unresolved conflict with Azerbaijan, closed border with Turkey,
and apparent impossibility of joining NATO in the foreseeable future.

While there are few reliable statistic data, it is obvious that the
pro-European attitudes of the young activists, are not necessarily
representative of the views of the majority of Armenians. Thousands of
Armenian families, especially in the impoverished Armenian regions,
depend on the financial assistance they receive from their relatives
working in Russia. Russian media continues to be one of the main
sources of information on the outside world for majority of Armenians.

Russia remains one of the main travel destinations for most Armenians,
who do not need a visa to travel to Russian, but have to go through
a lengthy and sometimes humiliating process of applying for visas
to EU countries. People old enough to remember the USSR often have
a nostalgic feeling about Soviet years, and hope that an economic
alliance with Russia would bring the benefits they had enjoyed in
the Soviet times, such as economic stability and high pensions.

Gagik, a driver in his early 50s, who works on a bus route from
Armenia to Southern Russia, frequented by migrant workers, is firmly
pro-Russian. When asked about the protests, he says: “What’s the point
of protesting against Putin, he is the one that feeds us… what
would happen if he decides to deport Armenians, who are working in
Russia and sending money home? Are the protesters going to feed these
people?”. “Armenia is a small country”, says Gagik, “who is going to
protect us if tomorrow Azeris and Turks decide to attack? Is it the
Europeans? Is it the Americans? No, it’s the Russians”.

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress


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Emil Lazarian

“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia . See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.” - WS