Arson Attack on Gay-Friendly Bar in Yerevan Raises Fears of Nationalist Extremism
An arson attack on a bar popular with alternative types in Yerevan has rung alarm bells among civil society activists concerned that ultra-nationalism is on the rise in Armenia.
It used to be a bar with no prejudices. For local and foreigners, the young and elderly, heterosexuals and gay, D.I.Y. was one of the most relaxed drinking spots in Yerevan’s sparse bar scene. That, however, changed at around 5.30am on May 8, 2012 when a Molotov cocktail was thrown through its ground level glass door, causing an estimated $4,000 in damage, and endangering whole families living in the apartments situated above.
One of the few spaces where Women’s Rights, LGBT and other activists could gather, it was immediately suspected that Armenian nationalists were responsible. Speculation that members of a Neo-Nazi group, Dark Ravens Armenia, were irked by the bar’s gay friendly atmosphere and the fact that one of its co-owners, activist and punk rocker Tsomak Oganesova, participated in last year’s Gay Pride in Istanbul, Turkey, abounded.
Predictably, few Armenian news sites reported the news, but the news quickly spread on Facebook and Twitter or through alternative online resources such as CivilNet TV.
“Alleged arson attack towards my favorite #Yerevan bar DIY. Motives not clear yet, possibility of #hatecrime but not confirmed #Armenia,” tweeted prolific LGBT rights blogger Mika Artyan who was later proved to be right.
Reportedly, it took 12 hours before police arrived at the scene of the firebombing, by which time many of the D.I.Y. patrons were already organizing events to meet up and raise fund for the bar’s repairs. Closed-circuit television (CCTV) at least caught the attack on video and it wasn’t long before the culprits were arrested. What happened next, however, was unexpected and ultimately shocking for many civil society activists.
The Shocking Aftermath
While some nationalist-leaning voices, in a likely attempt to misinform, spread rumors that the bombing was undertaken by D.I.Y. itself in order to “attract publicity,” two brothers, Iranian-Armenian Hampig and Mgrdich (Arame) Khapazyan, were named as suspects.
Despite the severity of the crime, however, the Khapazyan borothers were released from custody just days later. And, as word spread that the two men were related to a prominent Dashnak in Iran, Artsvik Minasyan and Hrayr Karapetyan, two Members of Parliament (MP) from the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF-D), posted bail of one million Armenian Drams (less than $2,600) for one. The other was released on written guarantee that he would not leave the country.
Adding insult to injury, not only did Minasyan not deny their guilt, but the lawmaker also justified their actions, calling the two brothers “normal people” who had acted according to “societal & national ideology” against individuals such as Oganesova who “destroy society.” Artyan could only conclude that the ARF-D supported what he termed “terrorism” in Armenia and demanded an explanation from the party.
And with good reason. A second attack on what remained of D.I.Y. occurred on May 15, with the bar being daubed in Nazi Swastika symbols. “Hate crime, no public condemnation by authorities, more encouragement by an MP and now repetition of hate crime, do you see the cycle?” asked on Armenian Facebook user rhetorically. Others such as Yerevan-based Canadian-Armenian LGBT-activist Adrineh McCaan were more forthright.
“For the first time since moving to Armenia, I am afraid. Queer women are in the spotlight — an unfamiliar and not at all good place to be in,” she wrote on her blog, Le Retour in 3 Parts. “[…] now we’re in the spotlight and the wayward glances I get every day anyway have taken on a whole new meaning.”
Eventually, several editorials in Armenian-American newspapers affiliated with the ARF-D expressed concern. “[…] what is uncommon–and disturbingly so–is this act’s connection to the ARF, a social-democratic party that upholds human rights as a fundamental tenet of its platform and ideology. […] By associating themselves with this act, [ARF-D MPs] have condoned the prevailing homophobia that afflicts Armenia today,” read one.
In Armenia, however, even government officials fueled the fire of intolerance and hatred.
“As an Armenian citizen and member of a national-conservative party, I find the rebellion of the two young Armenian people against homosexuals, who have created a den of perversion in our country and have a goal of alienating society from its moral values, completely right and justified,” spokesperson of the ruling Republican Party and Vice-Speaker of the Armenian Parliament Eduard Sharmazanov said.
Another, Chief of Staff of the Public Council of Armenia, Hakob Barkhudaryan, even set up a Facebook page supporting the arsonists, reported Artyan on his blog, until it was eventually taken down for reasons unknown.
But, faced with the increasing backlash from some circles, including the party’s wing in the U.S., ARF-D Bureau Member and Chairperson of the party’s parliamentary bloc Vahan Hovannisyan sought to distance himself from the attack. “The ARF has no phobias,” he told reporters. “It is the ARF contention that curtailing the rights of civilized people or using force against them is unacceptable.”
The ARF-D’s Political Affairs Director Giro Manoyan also condemned the attack, as did party member and Vice-President of Socialist International, Maria Titizian. “The perpetrators of this crime must be punished within the letter and spirit of Armenian law,” she said in her statement that was also published on her Facebook page. “If today their target is the LGBT society, tomorrow it can be anyone else.”
Artyan, however, is not satisfied.
“I am glad to hear all these statements by ARF members and groups from the US,” he told Ararat Magazine. “They condemn hate crime and homophobia in Armenia using the strongest possible wording. However, one important issue remains untouched: Those ARF MPs who endorsed the attackers and encourage anti-gay violence in Armenia, particularly Artsvik Minasyan and Artur Aghabekyan.”
“Vahan Hovhannisyan spoke of ‘no phobia’ in the ARF, but like others failed to address the actions of members of the very parliamentary bloc he is chairing,” Artyan continued. “Unless ARF Dashnaktsutyun addresses the issue of their disgraced MPs, all these good statements will remain insufficient and will not rectify the damage done to the party’s reputation. The MPs should be openly reprimanded and resign.”
Until that happens, he argues, similar incidents will occur again — just as they did on May 21, for example, when Pink Armenia and the Women’s Resource Center marked the United Nation’s World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development with a rally in central Yerevan. Alleging that the march was a Gay Pride event, nationalists infiltrated and disrupted proceedings. They also later launched yet another assault on D.I.Y.
“I am disgusted by the vulgar, aggressive and dangerous display of hatred […] yesterday, where a motley group of fascist youth, ultra-nationalists and […] the disturbing ‘Armenian Aryan’ group ranted and raved about ‘defending’ their version of ‘national values.’ Is this the kind of country that Armenia is becoming?” wrote American-Armenian Director of the Yerevan-based Regional Studies Center, Richard Giragosian, in response on Facebook.
Early data from a 2011 survey by the Caucasus Resource Research Centers (CRRC) supports such concerns, with 76 percent of respondents saying they could not justify homosexuality, roughly in line with the 72 percent in a Pink Armenia poll who believed the government should “fight against homosexuals.” That, say activists and the few politicians who did support D.I.Y. and the country’s marginalized LGBT community, is worrying.
“There is no national interest, no integrity of the country, if an Armenian is not free in his or her homeland,” Heritage Party leader Raffi Hovannisian told reporters after attending a post-blast benefit concert at D.I.Y. on May 18. For now though, all eyes will be on the trial of the arsonists. If convicted, reports EurasiaNet, the two men face a fine of just 50,000-100,000 drams ($125 – $253) plus damages, or a prison term of two months to two years.