By Armen Zakarian, Ruzanna Khachatrian and Armen Dulian in Prague
The Armenian government and leading politicians voiced on Thursday serious concern over escalating ethnic tensions in southern Russia, strongly condemning the previous day’s vandal attack on a local Armenian cemetery.
“The situation is really alarming and the Armenian authorities are concerned about it,” said Vahe Gabrielian, the spokesman for President Robert Kocharian. “Those concerns have been conveyed today to the Russian authorities through diplomatic channels.”
About 50 youths reportedly went on a rampage through the Armenian cemetery in the southern Russian city Krasnodar at midnight Tuesday and spent there several hours vandalizing gravestones and monuments. According to the state-run Russian RTR television, the vandals fled before police arrived in the morning.
A senior local police office, Valentin Burlachenko, announced later in the day the arrest of three Russian youngsters, aged between 14 and 17, on suspicion of involvement in the rampage.
The attack, the first in its kind, came amid plans by the authorities in the Krasnodar region to deport hundreds of thousands of Armenians, Meskhetian Turks and other ethnic minorities that they say have illegally immigrated into the area since the Soviet collapse. Many of them are Armenian nationals. Liberal circles in Russia say illegal immigration is used by Krasnodar’s Communist governor, Aleksandr Tkachev, as a pretext to harass dark-skinned people from the Caucasus.
Tkachev pledged Wednesday to oversee the investigation into the cemetery attack. "I won't allow national hatred to be stirred up ... I won't allow the struggle with illegal migrants to turn into inter-ethnic conflicts," he said, according to the Associated Press.
Official Yerevan on Thursday joined the wave of criticism directed at the Krasnodar administration by Armenian politicians. Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian said the attack on the Armenian cemetery heightened Yerevan’s worries. Representatives of the parliamentary parties and groups used stronger language.
“That was a barbaric act aimed at inciting inter-ethnic hatred,” said Aghvan Vartanian of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), which has traditionally favored close ties with Russia. Filaret Berikian, a parliament deputy from the governing Republican Party, said Armenia should reconsider its cordial relationship with Russia unless Moscow takes strong action against what he believes is discrimination of Armenians in Krasnodar.
Oskanian, however, sounded a note of caution, saying that Yerevan believes the Russian authorities will deal with the problem successfully . “We are convinced that with the help of the Russian authorities we will be able to solve the problem and prevent a repeat of such incidents,” he said.
Russian Ambassador to Armenia Anatoly Dryukov, for his part, said the Krasnodar rampage will not affect relations between the two countries. Speaking to reporters in Yerevan, he ducked a question on whether the controversial steps taken by the regional administration correspond to Russia’s constitution and federal laws. Dryukov objected to the use of the term “expulsions,” saying that the Krasnodar authorities are trying to combat illegal immigration.
But according to the leader of the local Armenian community, Razmik Gevorgian, the crackdown has already degenerated into an overt discrimination of the Caucasians. “The situation for Armenians and other dark-skinned people is getting unbearable,” he told RFE/RL by phone. “Many schools and kindergartens in the city are not admitting kids just because they are Armenian.”
Gevorgian also denied Russian press reports that the cemetery attack was carried out by local football fans angry at an Armenian striker of the Kuban Krasnodar team who missed several good goal chances during a Russian championship game there late on Tuesday.
The Armenian parliament, meanwhile, announced on Thursday that it will send an official delegation to Krasnodar early next week which will gather first-hand information and try to defuse the mounting tensions. The delegation will be lead by the chairman of the parliament committee on foreign affairs, Hovannes Hovannisian. Officials said members of the Russian lower house, the State Duma, might join their Armenian counterparts.