By Anna Saghabalian
A group of ethnic Assyrian residents of a village in southern Armenia claimed on Friday to have been denied their share of relief aid to drought-stricken rural areas because of their non-Armenian origin.
The residents of the village of Dimitrov 30 kilometers south of Yerevan accused the ethnic Armenian village chief of misappropriating grain seeds that were due to be allocated to the local Assyrians hit hard by last year’s drought. They said the alleged embezzlement was a result of ethnic discrimination.
Government officials in Yerevan were quick to deny that. “Such abuses are widespread in Armenia and the Dimitrov case is not unique,” said Hranush Kharatian, head of the government’s department on religious and minority affairs.
“This phenomenon exists in many rural communities. The authorities must ensure that it does not exist anymore,” agreed Gagik Aslanian, the deputy minister for local government.
Kharatian said she has visited Dimitrov and found that discontent with the chief executive also runs high among its Armenian residents. “Local Armenians are just as unhappy with the village chief in connection with the grain distribution,” she said.
Dimitrov used to be mainly populated with Assyrians, an ancient ethnic group now scattered around the world. They now make up only a third of the village population.
According to Irina Gasparian, one of the leaders of Armenia’s small Assyrian community, the local Assyrians have repeatedly asked the government and law-enforcement authorities to investigate their grievances but to no avail. She said this only proves that they are discriminated against.
“The case is not solved not because Dimitrov is an Assyrian village but because unfortunately there are other plunderers in our country who cover up such abuses through a network of personal relationships,” Kharatian countered.
But Gasparian insisted that she herself has felt discrimination on her skin. “Officially, there is no discrimination of Assyrians and other ethnic minorities,” she said. “But their representatives never hold government posts or get elected to parliament because of the Armenians’ mentality. Isn’t that a discrimination?”
The Assyrians, Yezidi Kurds, Russians and other ethnic minorities make up less than 5 percent of Armenia’s population. While their leaders rarely report instances of overt discrimination, they often complain about the difficulty of receiving education in their native languages. This problem was highlighted in a May 2002 report by a Council of Europe body monitoring protection of national minorities in member countries.
In a rare collective expression of their grievances, the minority leaders publicly condemned last November a pro-government parliamentarian who said that the non-Armenian ethnic groups should not expect “greenhouse conditions” from the authorities. “We are not asking for anything and have no expectations,” Rimma Varzhapetian, a leader of Armenia’s tiny Jewish community, said at the time.
The Armenian Jews and Yezidi Kurds were recently the object of virulent attacks by an extreme nationalist group. Its leader Armen Avetisian, notorious for his anti-Semitic statements, called for their expulsion from the country. Avetisian was summoned to Kharatian’s department to provide an explanation but did not face a criminal investigation.