Notes From Hairenik
March 16, 2009
A couple of days ago I read that yet another journalist had been beaten, this time at Brusov Institute in broad daylight. Some journalists were trying to enter the institute, which is known for its linguistics department and is attended mostly by young women, to interview the rector, Suren Zolian, on allegations of corruption. The photojournalist Gagik Shamshian never made it to the rector's office because the "security guards" at the institute beat him up by kicking him repeatedly in the balls after throwing him to the floor, according to the news story. Not a brave way of handling someone adamant in doing his job--that is, reporting the truth. They could have just picked him up and thrown him out on the sidewalk to get their point across. Real security guards would have done just that.  But why assault the guy in such a harsh, cowardly way? The ombudsman Armen Harutyunyan complained about the incident publicly, not that it will make a difference or that anyone will necessarily care. 

It's not uncommon for someone in Armenia to have bodyguards if he feels that his life is in danger. For instance, someone seeking revenge for being swindled may want to harm a businessman, or perhaps a tough guy wants to rub out his competition. But why a rector?  

They have a bodyguard academy here that will teach young men how to fire guns, use self-defense tactics, and so forth. I've seen advertisements on television for this type of training. Sometimes a catch a glimpse of a guy with a pistol in its holster under his jacket stretching his arms in a cafe, presumably to show off. Once I saw a guy with a Kalashnikov rifle strapped across his shoulder, partially concealed by his coat, buying flowers from a vendor on Tumanyan Street.

But when the head of an educational institution needs personal protection, you have to wonder what exactly is going on in society. Presumably this man is not only extorting bribes from his own students, he is most likely involved in some sort of business dealings that would jeopardize his safety.  How do the students tolerate such behavior from their own rector?

Incidentally, last week some students from a youth organization called Miasin started pasting up posters with photographs of professors at Yerevan State University who they claimed were corrupt. Nothing severe happened to the kids, however.

On a related note, I heard a rumor about a host of a TV variety show called "Two Stars" which broadcasts on public television named Felix Khachatryan being fired by the station's producer. Apparently a kid was singing an innocent song about a little mouse, or "mgnik" in Armenian. Felix then made a comment that it was nice the show had its own cute mouse.  But here's where things get interesting. In case you don't know, the head of parliament and big-shot businessman/oligarch, Hovik Abrahamyan, is known by the nickname "moog," or mouse (in this sense a full-grown one). The station's producer took offense for some peculiar reason at Felix's remark and after an argument between them he was axed. This info was printed in a newspaper called Hraparak, but how factual the story is could be anyone's guess. Then I heard another rumor that Felix was being pursued by others who were agitated with him for making that remark. Quite a bit of news tidbits are circulated by word of mouth here, and facts (if not made-up stories) are undoubtedly filtered out the more the information is relayed to others along the gossip chain. 

The bodyguard/wise guy way of life, real or not, is the fashion nowadays. I've heard many stories of people being assaulted, even forced to be pulled over while driving their cars to be beaten. Even traffic cops have taken blows. 

It's normal for young men especially to act tough and be rude. They are influenced by what they read, hear and even see, as you can view television soaps about fictional local mafias on a nightly basis. Those especially who are connected to people who have some clout with oligarchs or less important figures, not to mention those pretending that they do--in other words guys suffering from a "mafia complex"--seem to think they can do whatever they want, including beating people up. 

On my street I literally see a gang of teenagers hanging out every evening in front of the bookmaking parlor adjacent to my building, acting up and shouting to one another late into the night. These spoiled punks drive their vehicles at top speed around the block, all the while honking their horns for no reason other than to attract attention. Once in a while I hear squabbles on the corner of Vartanants and Hanrabedutyan and kids from all directions run to where the fight is in full swing. Rude, indifferent behavior from young men or teenagers in public is now the norm, something that was not obvious just a couple of years ago. I can say that in my neighborhood, ever since the betting parlor and the "Amsterdam" nightclub opened around the corner on the quiet Tpakrichner Street over a year ago, things have gone downhill. Lately I've been avoiding going out for walks at night so that I won't notice these jerks hanging out, as acid starts to build up in my stomach from resentment when I see them acting stupid or loitering, constantly looking over their shoulders. Society is headed in the wrong direction, and I can't imagine it turning around in the near future, unless there is a cultural renaissance on the way, which is unlikely. Admittedly, I have recently been having doubts about indefinitely remaining here.


Anonymous Anonymous said...
Garbis, do you really see a difference between now and a couple of years ago? I am interested in most objective answer.

Blogger Christian Garbis said...
I do see a difference, because the "mafia complex" as I call it was not as apparent, it wasn't as obvious then as it is now. It seems everywhere I turn I see gangster types loitering, strutting down the sidewalk and driving brand new Japanese black SUVs. A couple of years ago you didn't see soap operas about the Armenian mafia on TV, but now the main stations like Public Television, Shant and Armenia all televise them. The gangster way of life has become normal and mainstream, whereas two years ago that wasn't the situation. In the last two years there has been a huge rise in the popularity and ambition of luxury. It's conveyed in magazines, television advertisements, fancy cars and boutique clothing stores that have been popping up everywhere. Yet the overwhelming majority of the population cannot relate to a luxurious way of life--only the mafia types dream about it and are able to live it. The present situation is completely absurd.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
This cultural shift is quite troubling if true. Sooner or later it will be followed by a rise in the level of violence in the society.
With all the problems of post-Soviet Armenia, I was impressed by a relative lack of violence for all these years. You know what I am talking about: the fact that people could walk everywhere anytime, that girls would not be in danger if they are alone in the evenings, etc., etc.
What you are saying is that the atmosphere of general safety is vanishing. Or am I reading you wrong?

Blogger Christian Garbis said...
I haven't seen a change in general safety yet. There are no apparent muggings still, or at least I have not seen or heard about them. I've also never been harassed for being an "outsider" although things may be different soon, you never know. With this ongoing crisis will come a lull in business, which means the mafia way of life will be threatened, and parallel to that associated fear may be petty crime.

Anonymous Lori said...
I just discovered your blog, and as a fellow expat living in yerevan, i can really relate to what you are talking about. re:this blog, it has changed in the 3 years since i have been here, definitely more mafia... there has been a slight rise in basic street crime (though minimal compared to many other places), but i wonder if the cause is the new mafioso culture or the economic crisis. Lori