Pro-government youths bullied and verbally abused journalists on Thursday to prevent press coverage of a ceremony during which Yerevan Mayor Taron Markarian received a controversial doctoral degree from an Armenian state-run university.
Markarian was granted a PhD in economics by the Armenian State Economics University following a successful defense of his dissertation on municipal business administration. The ceremony was held behind the closed doors despite a legal requirement that such procedures must be open to the public and the media in particular.
Markarian, who claims to have spent nearly three years writing the thesis, appeared to have sneaked into the university building in downtown Yerevan through the back door, avoiding scores of journalists awaiting him at the main entrance. The latter tried to advance into the building but were confronted by several dozen aggressive youths led by Sevak Khachatrian, the chairman of the university’s student council and a member of the youth wing of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK).
Khachatrian was helped by three other youths. A 2012 picture of the four men, all of them wearing HHK lapel pins, standing alongside President Serzh Sarkisian was found posted on Facebook later in the day.
A police officer guarding the building looked on as the young men refused to let the reporters, among them an RFE/RL correspondent, into the auditorium where Markarian defended his thesis. They refused to identify themselves or give any clear explanations. Some of them mocked, threatened and swore at the press corps.
Koryun Atoyan, the university’s rector who has supervised the mayor’s purported doctoral work, joined the young men and defended their actions moments later. “The defense is public but entrance to the university is not free,” Atoyan said.
In subsequent comments to the lurer.com news service, Atoyan was unrepentant about the actions of the men who clearly carried out his orders. He claimed that their abusive and rude behavior was provoked by some of the reporters. “The defense of Taron Markarian’s doctoral thesis took place in accordance with procedures adopted in Armenia,” claimed the rector.
However, the veracity of this claim was questioned by the Supreme Qualification Commission, a state body that certifies doctoral degrees bestowed by various universities. Lilit Arzumanian, the commission chairwoman, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) that there are no laws or regulations allowing university administrations to restrict media access to such ceremonies.
Markarian, meanwhile, claimed that he had “no problem whatsoever” with the presence of journalists at his dissertation defense. “Honesty, I don’t know what happened, I was inside [the building,]” he told the “168 Zham” newspaper.
The 35-year-old mayor, who is a senior member of the ruling party, sounded satisfied with the defense and insisted that his government position did not influence the granting of the doctoral degree. “My mood is very good,” he said.