BY ARA KHACHATOURIAN
On Saturday, July 13, 46-year-old Artsakh war hero Hrachya Harutiunian set out on his job in Russia as a truck driver transporting gravel. Near the village of Oznobikhino outside Moscow his truck malfunctioned and hit a passenger bus, killing 18 people and injuring 40.
What followed, however, raises critical concerns of racism and xenophobia against Armenians in Russia—an issue that has grabbed many a headline in the past—as well as a closer look at the emigration problem plaguing Armenia and the state treatment of war veterans.
Immediately after the accident the Russian authorities initiated a criminal investigation and charged him with vehicular homicide.
Russian state television and other media outlets were also quick to blame Harutiunian. Some legal experts and journalists in Moscow suggested, however, that technical faults may have caused the disastrous crash. They said the still unknown owner of the old truck, rather than the driver, may therefore be primarily responsible for the tragedy, reported RFE/RL.
Harutiunian was taken to a court in Moscow to face criminal charges on Monday. Television pictures showed him sitting in a cage, clad in a woman’s housecoat and wearing slippers. The 46-year-old was unable to utter any words, having apparently still not recovered from post-traumatic shock. A Russian state TV report derided his “mooing” and accentuated on his ethnic origin.
The images caused outrage in Armenia, with critics accusing the Russian authorities of violating the presumption of innocence and fanning negative popular attitudes towards migrant workers from the South Caucasus and the Russian North Caucasus. The Armenian human rights ombudsman, Karen Andreasian, expressed serious concern in a letter to his Russian counterpart on Tuesday, added RFE/RL.
Meanwhile, Armenian officials have been scrambling to ensure the public that they are on top of things, with the Russian Embassy in Yerevan issuing assurances that due process will be applied in Harutiunian’s case and condemning efforts to “politicize” the incident.
Members of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation Nigol Aghbalian Student Association and the Yerevan branch of the Armenian Youth Federation held a protest in front of the Russian Embassy in Yerevan, and while waving a woman’s housecoat demanded fair treatment of Harutiunian.
The sad crux of the situation is that Harutiunian had taken the job in Moscow to raise funds for a proper tombstone for his son, Serob, who died a year ago after completing his service in the Armenian Armed Forces, according to Hrachya’s brother Hayk.
In the last 20 years Russia has become home to the largest Armenian population outside of Armenia with Moscow and Krasnodar serving as centers for Armenians emigrating there. For the past several years, Asbarez has reported on numerous incidents involving racially-motivated hate crimes against Armenians in both cities and Russian intolerance toward Armenians has been chronicled.
Through a controversial Russian government-backed program hastening Armenian migration to Russia, which until last year was sanctioned by Armenia’s authorities, thousands of Armenians have moved to Russia. While there, they have had to endure insurmountable socio-economic hardship in order to survive
While Russia is deemed as a strategic partner to Armenia and endeavors to increase its influence in the region, the issue of treatment of Armenian citizens who are forced to migrate to Russia has not been on the agenda of bi-lateral discussion between leaders of the two countries.
On the domestic front, this roadside accident, as tragic as it is, has also brought to the surface the harsh realities of emigration from Armenia, or rather, the poor socio-economic conditions that cause Armenians to emigrate.
During his presidential campaign Serzh Sarkisian said in an interview with RFE/RL that “in no circumstance can a country be a prison for its citizens,” pledging to create conditions in Armenia that are compatible with the countries to which Armenians move. In another interview with broadcast media affiliates in March, Sarkisian blamed Armenia’s woes on what he called “rampant cynicism” among the population and condemned the “forces” that were fueling the flames of the cynicism.
During Sarkisian’s fist term, reports indicated that emigration from Armenia rose with Sarkisian not making any strides in creating “conditions in Armenia that would be, if not like, then at least close to the conditions that our citizens seek abroad,” as he said in the aforementioned interview.
Hrachya Harutiunian fell victim to the skewed policies of the Armenian government which is unable to provide its citizens with adequate jobs and an opportunity to thrive in their own country. What is even more sad is that those who fought for our country in the Karabakh war are also not immune to the disastrous policies of the Armenian government.
Civic organizations in Armenia should protest Russia’s ill-treatment of Harutiunian and others, while the foreign ministry must make the plight of Armenians in Russia a priority discussion point with Russia.
At the same time, the same civic and political organizations must ramp up their advocacy on behalf of Armenian citizens and must demand from the government to take concrete steps and halt the outflow of Armenians from the homeland.