By Ruzanna Stepanian and Gayane Danielian
Armenia’s flamboyant Culture Minister Hovik Hoveyan was embroiled in a fresh scandal on Monday as the staff of a state-run ballet school went on strike in protest against his decision to replace their executive director.
The faculty of Yerevan’s State College of Dance Art said it will not resume classes until Norayr Mehrabian is reinstated in his post. They challenged the competence and integrity of the new director chosen by Hoveyan.
The appointment of Karen Gevorgian, a senior official from the State Pedagogical Institute, came after Mehrabian’s unexpected decision to resign under alleged pressure from the minister. The latter met with a furious reaction from the college faculty when he attempted to introduce Gevorgian to them on Friday. The “Haykakan Zhamanak” daily quoted one of the professors as saying that he was jostled and “kicked out” by the angry staff.
According to Hovannes Divanian, the college’s artistic director, Gevorgian arrived there with a group of armed bodyguards. “When they came, I said, ‘Mr. Hoveyan, you have acted illegally’,” Divanian told RFE/RL. “Gevorgian is not a specialist. As you know, this college mainly trains ballet dancers. He has nothing to do with ballet.”
Divanian claimed that the new director tried unsuccessfully to woo subordinates with a promise to raise their modest salaries. “They think that everything can be done with money,” he said. “They are wrong. We work for art, not for money.”
Gegham Grigorian, the director of Armenia’s State Opera and Ballet Theater, expressed his solidarity with the protesters, saying that he is “shocked” by the minister’s actions. What a disgrace,” he said. “It is inadmissible to make such appointments without consulting with anyone.”
“Maybe some people view such posts as gasoline stations where one can make lots of money. They are badly mistaken,” Grigorian said.
Hoveyan declined a comment on Monday. “From now on, Mr. Minister will not give interviews and will only speak live on television so that journalists don’t distort his statements,” a spokeswoman said.
It was the chief of the Culture Ministry’s staff, Gagik Manasian, who agreed to speak to RFE/RL instead. He insisted that Mehrabian himself decided to quit on August 4 and faced no pressure from the ministry. He also defended the choice of a new director, describing Gevorgian as an experienced professional.
Hoveyan’s staffing policy came into question even before the dance college row. He already sparked an uproar by naming members of his Orinats Yerkir Party to run several state-run cultural institutions shortly after taking over as culture minister last April. One of those decisions was subsequently reversed by a Yerevan court.
Hoveyan’s appointment by Orinats Yerkir was widely seen as an effort to offset the damage caused to the party’s credibility by the previous culture minister, Tamara Poghosian. The party is led by parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian and is often accused of resorting to populism and demagoguery.
Hoveyan track record and public statements have been just as controversial, however. In particular, his use of slangy and rude language at a news conference last spring drew a stern reprimand from Minister Andranik Markarian.
The former poet further raised eyebrows last month when he singled out the ability to organize funeral services from the traits which he believes young Armenians should develop to meet the challenges of adult life. And a few weeks later he opined that major statues in downtown Yerevan, most of them created in the 1960s and 1970s, are already too old and should be replaced. He said they haunt city residents at night and “interfere with their dreams.”