Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Activism without Borders

I will once again reiterate why I love living in a still maleable and nebulous democracy such as Armenia-- because you can actually play a role in what happens. Your actions can have tremendous ripple effects. In our case- something organized haphazardly in a matter of a few days rippled all the way to the president's office and resulted in a Government response.

Let me try to set up a timeline of exactly what's been going on this month on the civic action front:

1. Arsen Kharatyan, son of a member of parliament, and a die-hard optimist for the progress of Armenia, is a close friend of the Armenian Volunteer Corps. He brought to my attention the issue of several violent racially motivated murders of Armenian young people committed by so-called skinheads in Russia in recent months.

He informed me that the Russian government had largely been looking the other way, barely investigating or arresting anyone for these crimes, and not bringing any of the accused murders to justice. Perhaps worse still was that the Armenian government had not made any formal comments or condemnation of these acts for fear of disrupting the delicate (subservient...) political relationship it has with Russia.

Arsen's organization- the For Science Development Initiative- approached me and asked if we could mobilize the diasporan Armenians (Armenians who were not born in the country) in town to join in and organize a demonstration publicizing this issue.

He asked for our help because he was convinced that people with a Western experience would be more likely to take a pro-active stance and join the demonstration.

I obliged.

2. Below is an excerpt from the e-mail I sent out to dozens of people in Yerevan asking them to join us at the protest:

“A 19-year-old ethnic Armenian man was knifed to death on a Russian passenger train last week by a group of youths shouting "Glory to Russia", Ekho Moskvy radio station reported yesterday…A wave of killings and beatings in cities across Russia has raised concerns about the rise of racist groups in the country.”
– Rueters, May 31 2006

The Issue:
Fellow Armenians, as you may already know, in the last 10 days 2 more Armenian teenagers have been murdered in Moscow, which proves that Russian xenophobia runs deep.

Anti-Caucasus sentiment has reached a new level. We believe that we cannot remain silent about this matter and if the Foreign Ministry and our politicians are not going to speak out, then we as citizens must do something!

The Action:
The Armenian Helsinki Committee and For Science Development Initiative Group are organizing a DEMONSTRATION IN FRONT OF THE RUSSIAN EMBASSY ON MONDAY JUNE 5th.

3. Here's a photo of me getting harrassed by a police officer outside the Russian Embassy on the day of the protest. Apparently "free speech" doesn't mean much to him. He asked rudely to see all of the photos I had taken. I asked him why, and he told me that it's "illegal" to take pictures of the Russian Embassy building. I, obviously pissed off, angrilyscrolled through all the pictures I had taken and said "SEE!" Then he left me alone.

A few minutes later he got right in the face of one of my volunteers and screamed at her "Don't take pictures!!" Before she even had a chance to put the camera down, much less respond, he lunged at her and tried to swipe the camera out of her hands into the ground! I managed to catch it before it fell and shattered and started yelling at this cop like I've never yelled at anyone here before. It earned me quite a bit of attention and now I'm sortof considered a bad-ass...

The demonstration didn't bring an enormous crowd, but there were a fair amount of concerned people there, and a LOT of media. After 25 minutes of hectic interviewing and disorganized clumps of people only half-enthusiastically holding up their signs I made the executive decision that there MUST be a more effective use of our time. Truly it didn't look like a demonstration- if someone drove by they would have no idea what this group of people was assembled for. So, I grabbed a few volunteers and we dragged everyone into a solid formation- we formed one long line facing the Embassy, holding our signs. We stayed like this for another 25 minutes, and I think it ended up fairly effective.

Here's one of many articles that was published about our protest. Myself and many of our AVC volunteers were interviewed by journalists that afternoon. They spoke about their disgust as such racist acts, and that they felt the Armenian citizens should be more pro-active in asking the government to respond. This is just one of many ways in which the presence of our volunteers makes an effect on the development of Armenian society.

Armenian Civic Groups Protest Racist Killings In Russia
By Anna Saghabalian
Published in
Human Rights in Armenia

Several dozen people staged a rare demonstration outside the Russian embassy in Yerevan on Monday to condemn and protest against the continuing racially motivated killings of Armenians and other dark-skinned residents of Russia.

The protesters, most of them representatives of several Armenian civic groups, accused Moscow of connivance and even complicity in the xenophobic violence widely blamed on tens of thousands of neo-Nazi skinheads operating across Russia. They also denounced the Armenian government’s reluctance to bring the Kremlin to task over the killings.

The protest was sparked by the fatal stabbing of a Russian citizen of Armenian descent by a group of rampaging youths on a train in a Moscow suburb. Artur Sardarian, 19, is the sixth ethnic Armenian reportedly killed in Russia this year.

Russian human rights organizations say a total of at least 15 people from the Caucasus, Central Asia and Africa have lost their lives in racist attacks since January. The death toll for the last year is estimated at 28.

Few of the perpetrators of those killings have been arrested and brought to justice, with Russian law-enforcement agencies and courts notoriously lenient towards them. A case in point was the trial in Russia’s second largest city of St. Petersburg of seven teenagers who were convicted of collectively stabbing to death a 9-year-old Tajik girl but were sentenced to only between 18 months and five years in prison last February.

In a petition handed to Russian embassy officials, the organizers of the Yerevan protest suggested that the neo-Nazi groups guilty of the attacks are openly operating “with the sponsorship of some Russian state structures.”

“There is no way such illegal acts could have been carried out for so long and so indiscriminately without the backing of some state structures,” said Avetik Ishkhanian of the Armenian Helsinki Committee.

The protesters also marched to the Armenian Foreign Ministry to condemn its failure to publicly criticize the Russian authorities for their failure to stop the violence. Armenia’s ambassador in Moscow and other diplomats say they regularly raise the issue with Russian officials. But the organizers of the protest insisted that Yerevan is scared of openly challenging its ex-Soviet master and closest ally.

“I am convinced that if the Armenian authorities took a tougher line the situation would not be so grave,” said Ishkhanian.

“The Armenian authorities are not doing anything to stop the killings,” charged another protester, Arsen Kharatian. “Their failure to speak out is a crime in itself.”

Sardarian’s violent death came in the wake of an uproar caused by the killing of another young Armenian. The 17-year-old Vigen Abramiants was stabbed to death on a Moscow subway platform on April 22. The crime, which has still not been solved, prompted an outburst of anti-Russian rhetoric in the Armenian media which dealt a further blow to the traditionally strong pro-Russian sentiment in Armenia.

5. Below is our first yardstick measuring a succesful effect of our demonstration. I've highlighted in blue the sentences that I believe refer directly or indirectly to our efforts in Yerevan at the beginning of this month. I will once again reiterate why I love living in a still maleable and nebulous democracy such as Armenia-- because you can actually play an active part in its future.

Kocharian, Markarian Press Russians To Tackle Racist Murders

By Emil Danielyan

Published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (www.ArmeniaLiberty.org)

Official Yerevan stepped up its hitherto timid pressure on Moscow to prevent further racist killings of ethnic Armenian residents of Russia, with President Robert Kocharian and Prime Minister Andranik Markarian raising the issue with a visiting senior Kremlin insider on Friday.

The two men told President Vladimir Putin’s representative to southern Russia, Dmitry Kozak, that they expect tougher action against Russian neo-Nazi groups responsible for the increasingly serious violence, indicating their dissatisfaction with measures taken by the Russian authorities so far. Kocharian said the Russian law-enforcement bodies, widely accused of inactivity and even connivance in the deadly attacks, should act in a more “quick, steadfast and understandable” manner. “

The interlocutors condemned nationalist murders committed in Russia in recent months and noted that they do not stem from the interests of Russia and the Russian people,” his office said in a press release.

Markarian, for his part, urged Moscow to take “serious steps to identify and bring the guilty to justice as well as to avert more such incidents.” At least six ethnic Armenians were beaten, stabbed or shot to death this year in a wave of xenophobic extremism targeting dark-skinned immigrants from the Caucasus, Central Asia and Africa that has plagued Russia. The Russian authorities’ failure to solve the vast majority of those crimes has is increasingly raising eyebrows in Armenia, contributing to the erosion of a traditionally strong pro-Russian sentiment there.

The Armenian government has been attacked by local civic groups, opposition parties and prominent intellectuals for its reluctance to bring the Kremlin to task. Kocharian’s and Markarian’s remarks were apparently Yerevan’s first high-level criticism of Moscow’s handling of the violence. They came the day after an official announcement that senior diplomats from the two countries will hold a special meeting in the Russian capital on the issue later this month.

According to Markarian’s press service, while condemning the racists murders, Kozak said that “they are not specifically directed against Armenians” and that “the Russian authorities are doing everything to solve and rule out such crimes.” He also cited a “good treatment” of hundreds of thousands of Armenians living in Russia’s southern regions.

However, reports of vandals desecrating Armenian churches and cemeteries in the area have not been uncommon in recent years, and at least one of the local governors, Aleksandr Tkachev of the Krasnodar Region, has irked Armenian community leaders and Russian human rights activists in the past with xenophobic statements.

Kozak, who was accompanied by Russian regional officials, also discussed with the Armenian leaders economic cooperation between Armenia and southern Russia. Kocharian and Markarian pointed to the persisting high transportation costs involved in bilateral trade, with the latter urging the Russians to do more to restore rail communication between Russia and Armenia via Georgia.

Kocharian was quoted by his press office as noting with satisfaction that the lack of “efficient transport communication” between the two countries does not prevent Russian companies from “playing an increasingly large role” in the Armenian economy.

1 comment:

Mike Hart said...

Way to go. I'd love the opportunity to engage government in this way.