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Edik Baghdasaryan

Killings in the streets of Yerevan

The Armenian media have been flooded with reports on murders over the last month, sometimes with photographs of the victims as well. The information is drawn from police statements.

At midnight on June 6, 2003 at Mushegh Azatyan (born in 1958) was shot and killed at6 Abovian StreetinYerevan(near the Aviatrans hotel). His nickname was Leningrad Mushegh. He used to be one of the owners of the Oshakan winery, and was considered to be an “authority”, or tough guy. He was shot seven times.

The next day at about 6:30 p.m. at the intersection of Pushkin and Yeznik Koghbatsi Streets, Armen Avetisyan opened fire with a Kalashnikov submachine gun on a VAZ-21023 car without license plates. Arthur Mkrtchyan (born in 1982), the driver of the car, died at the hospital.

At about noon on June 25, 2003 a group of criminals waiting in ambush on the highway leading to the Nubarashen garbage opened fire on a GAZ-31 taxi with AKM submachine guns. The driver, Sashik Hakobyan, was killed on the spot, and Arkady Gevorgyan and Garik Harutiunyan died in the hospital. Artiom Gevorgyan was seriously wounded.

The recent murders taking place in broad daylight in the Armenian capital have shocked the public. “I am afraid for my grandson, a student. I worry all the time that he might accidentally get caught in such a place. I don’t know what is going on, but it is clear that the streets ofYerevanstreets have become dangerous,” said Rima Chobanyan, a 61-year-old pensioner.

President Robert Kocharyan is concerned about the situation in the country, too. On July 1, 2003, during a ceremonial meeting dedicated to the 85th anniversary of the Prosecutor’s Office of Armenia, he expressed it this way: “There should be no room among us for medieval vendettas or thieves' mentality. There should be no extortion or racketeering, criminal vengeance or dishonest competition.” Putting it this way, the president inadvertently acknowledged that these things exist in the country. Hours after the meeting, at 9:35 a.m. on July 2, Karen Mkrtchyan, the dean of the faculty of Russian philology atYerevanStateUniversity, was shot and killed.

The first interior minister of theRepublicofArmenia, Levon Galstyan, is not surprised by the atmosphere of criminality reigning in the country. In fact, he considers it natural. People whose official responsibility it is to prevent these murders and crime in general are only taking care of their private businesses. Galstyan is convinced that the president cannot tame this criminal element, either, because it helped him get reelected.

“This is the result of the elections - the society is criminalized. At the heart of each murder there is a story connected to the elections, I’m convinced. On the other hand, people have no faith in the courts and resort to weapons to solve every problem. That’s how they get justice,” says Vardan Harutiunyan, chairman of the Fund for Support of Freedom of Speech, an NGO.

“Why is the country in this condition?” This is the question that politicians, government officials, and ordinary citizens are trying to answer in the press. For many, the situation comes as no surprise. They believe the main cause is the atmosphere of impunity in the country. “The criminals are not punished, and that’s how it has to be. There is nothing to be surprised at,” Gohar Petrosyan, a teacher, says firmly.

There is a group of people inArmeniawho are not officials, but are escorted by several cars with darkened windows. For them, there are no traffic rules, law enforcement agencies, or laws.

Moreover, when they collide with police cars, or even those of special services, it’s the officers who are punished. Law enforcement officers have even been injured in such collisions in the line of duty. That’s why they keep their distance from these people. In fact, the officers are of less value to the state than these rich men and their “armies” are. They see that the state is behind these people. And these people are mainly criminals, shadow economy godfathers. The men in their escort cars have licenses to carry guns. The state has provided them with weapons. They drive around the city with guns in plain sight, protecting their masters and executing their orders.

Such groups or clans hold monopolies in various spheres of the economy. One has a monopoly on sugar imports, another on gas, the third on flour, and so on. They strive to hold on to these monopolies at any price. They have transferred this monopolistic power into all spheres of life, down to cafés. The can be found in Yerevan cafés, surrounded by a dozen of armed bodyguards, in scenes that come straight out of mafia films.

They speed through the streets ofYerevan, escorted by dozens of luxury cars with license plates in the same series. Naturally, in these circumstances the well-known principle that “everyone is equal before the law” can’t function inArmenia, because people who get rich illegally have standing with the state apparatus, even with law enforcement agencies.

Some of these people occupied the National Assembly in the recent parliamentary elections-- they succeeded in buying the necessary votes-- and became legally immune, since Armenian legislation provides parliament members with immunity. The political domain has become criminalized, and the customs, morals and manners of the criminals have made their way into the legislature. But these men spent their time in casinos, restaurants and saunas. One person I talked to characterized it as a criminal revolution. A new system of values is taking shape inArmenia. These values are dictated by men who got rich illegally.

In this situation, the struggle between the clans is fierce. The mafia structures and clans wage their own wars. They take revenge on each other because they know they will not be punished. They kill because they can. And because it makes business more profitable. Over the last month, four people were killed inYerevanas a result of armed clashes between these clans. In one case, the war between two clans has been going on for a year now. One side is a member of the parliament, businessman Samvel Alexanyan, the other a former member of parliament, Ruben Gevorgyan. As a result of this conflict, four people have been killed and several others wounded in the space of a year. Law enforcement officers, naturally, have not intervened, although they know all about it.

The prosecutor’s office has arrested several people in connection with the crimes, and are searching for several others. It is clear that some police officers are connected with the criminal groups. The evidence of this is information published in the press and never refuted, according to which two of the men who committed the murders were hiding in the house of an officer of the criminal department of the local police.

There is another interesting fact against this background - in the beginning of June 2003, 31 notorious thieves from all over the former Soviet Union were inYerevan. They came to take part in the anniversary of the death of a thief nicknamed “Svoi (His Own) Raff”, famous during the Soviet era. Among the visitors was the godfather of CIS thieves, known to all as Khassan. This was the first time in recent years that so many thieves had gathered in any country of the CIS. Of course, among other things, they discussed some organizational matters inYerevan. According to press reports, they were met at the airport by the head of the Criminal Investigation Department of the Yerevan Police. The thieves’ security was virtually assured at the state level.

The profession of hired assassin, too, is becoming accepted inArmenia. People make money this way, and killing is gradually becoming a profitable business. It is hard to say how much an assassination costs, but a Karabakh war veteran told me, “There are veterans who live in abject poverty, they would agree to kill for whatever money they could get.” It is indeed impossible to give concrete figures on the prices for hired killings. The only official information is related to the December 28, 2002 assassination of the Chairman of Public Television of Armenia, Tigran Naghdalyan. According to a statement released by the prosecutor’s office, the killers were offered $50,000, which later went up to $70,000.

Former Interior Minister of Interior Suren Abrahamyan, who resigned after the terrorist act in parliament on October 27, 1999, associates the murders of the last month with the presidential and parliamentary elections: “The authorities had retaining power as their goal, and their didn’t distinguish between the means, the forces and the ways, including the involvement of the criminal element, to achieve that goal. What happened during the elections has gone unpunished because it happened under state patronage, through the law enforcement agencies at the level of police department chiefs. Naturally, a sense of impunity has developed among the criminal element allied with the authorities. They consider themselves un-punishable, like during the elections.” He also believes that these processes have become uncontrollable. The minister doesn’t ignore another possibility, either: The president wants to create the perceived need for a strong hand. “Serious activity is expected in the fall, and the government will need a strong whip to punish unruly groups,” concludes Suren Abrahamyan, a retired general who worked in the police system since 1972.

On July 1, 2003, at the 85th anniversary of the Prosecutor’s Office of Armenia, the president also said, “The clashes between criminal groups that have taken place lately, the shootings and murders, have raised questions that I haven’t yet received answers to from the Prosecutor’s Office or the police. The public expects a speedy and appropriate response.” Many perceived this as an instruction to law enforcement. Rumors are already circulating about resignation of the Chief of Police, Haik Harutiunyan. If the murders are not solved, if clan members are not punished, then a scapegoat will be found in the state structures. In this way, an attempt will be made to show the public that the government is worried about what’s going on.

The latest assassinations have thrown society into the grip of hopelessness. There is no trust in law enforcement, since it seems as if they always know who committed the crimes and who ordered them, but nobody is punished as a result.

And the police protocols keep announcing new killings.

P.S. As this article was being written, another clash between two armed groups took place in the second largest city inArmenia, Gyumri. The leaders of both sides were killed - Serob Grigoryan, the director of Gyumri Trans, Ltd, which services the Yerevan-Gyumri highway, and Jirair Harutiunyan, former rector of the Gyumri Pedagogical Institute. More than ten people were wounded, among them passers-by. The clash took place 50 meters from the Prosecutor’s Office. Our sources tell us that it was motivated by economic interests.

This article was written specially for Transitions Online