A regional governor notorious for reportedly violent behavior has triggered yet another scandal after apparently bullying and insulting young environmental activists protesting against open-pit mining in Armenia’s southeastern Syunik province.
Amateur video circulated through the Internet shows Surik Khachatrian telling the activists to “shut up” and calling one of them a “shrimp” as they confronted him in the village of Kajaran over the weekend.
Khachatrian also warned the most famous and outspoken of the protesters, Mariam Sukhudian, “Behave yourself so that nothing happens to you.” He said nothing when another protester asked him to elaborate.
Sukhudian and other activists denounced the “threat” at a news conference held in Yerevan on Wednesday.
The incident occurred just one week after Khachatrian controversially avoided prosecution for assaulting a businesswoman in Yerevan last month. Law-enforcement authorities said they will not press charges against him because he hit the woman, Silva Hambardzumian, only once and did not injure her.
The Armenian government and the ruling Republican Party, of which the governor is a member, have also pointedly declined to censure the governor.
The young environmentalists travelled to Kajaran to show solidarity with villagers angered by a government decision to give large swaths of communal land to a German-owned company mining copper and molybdenum in the mountainous area.
In accordance with that decision made last April, the Zangezur Copper-Molybdenum Combine (ZCMC) is to receive 181 hectares of land in Kajaran and several nearby villages. The company’s majority shareholder, the German metals group Cronimet, says the transfer stems from its agreements with the government and will benefit Armenia economically.
Many Kajaran residents led by Rafik Atayan, believe, however, that mining operations in the area would spell an ecological disaster for their community and lead to a mass exodus of its population. Atayan resigned as mayor and ended his membership in the HHK in protest last week.
The Yerevan-based environmentalists echoed these concerns and voiced strong opposition to the mining project as they crossed paths with Khachatrian and other Syunik officials in Kajaran. One of them videotaped the tense conversation and posted it on the Internet.
Khachatrian was visibly annoyed by the activists’ pledges to resist the land transfer together with local residents. The YouTube footage shows him telling Sukhudian to “calm down” before issuing her with a more stern warning.
“So what could happen to her?” asked one young man. Khachatrian did not reply.
Khachatrian, better known to most Armenians with his “Liska” nickname, went on to tell Sukhudian to stop “scolding the state.” “Thank you for coming here but we stand by these people,” he said. “Nobody is going to kick these people out of this place. Their homes won’t be destroyed for nothing. I want you to understand that.”
The governor again lost his temper moments later when another young woman from Yerevan tried to join in the conversation. “You shrimp, shut up,” he said.
“Go to your country and preach there,” Khachatrian told another protester, a Diaspora Armenian who has lived in Armenia for more than a decade. “But this is my country,” hit back the young man.
“Nor is this your country,” Khachatrian continued, turning to Sukhudian. “If it was your country you wouldn’t talk like that.”