Russia’s government signaled concerns on Friday about the possible impact on Russian-Armenian relations of an uproar in Yerevan sparked by the controversial treatment of an Armenian man prosecuted for a deadly traffic accident near Moscow.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin met the Armenian ambassador in Moscow, Oleg Yesayan, to discuss the fallout from last week’s collision of a heavy truck and a public bus that left 18 people dead and more than 30 others wounded.
The truck was driven by, Hrachya Harutiunian, an Armenian migrant worker. He was arrested and charged with causing multiple deaths through violating traffic rules.
According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, Yesayan offered “sincere condolences” in connection with the bus crash at the meeting. “It was confirmed from the Russian side that there will be a thorough and objective investigation into that case, which will certainly respect the legal rights of the accused,” the ministry said in a statement.
“Mutual concerns were expressed regarding ongoing undignified attempts to exploit that tragedy for inflaming sentiments running counter to the spirit of Russian-Armenian friendship,” the statement added without giving further details.
It was a clear reference to the furious reaction in Armenia to what many people there see as Harutiunian’s degrading treatment by Russian law-enforcement bodies and a xenophobic coverage of the case by the Russian media. A visibly shocked Harutiunian was made to wear a woman’s hospital robe when he appeared before a Moscow court on Monday. Russian state television emphasized his nationality in its reports on the tragedy.
The driver’s wretched appearance led to a barrage of criticism from Armenian state officials, opposition and civic figures and especially the media. Some media commentators accused the Russian government of deliberately humiliating the Armenian citizen.
The Russian TV images also triggered angry protests outside the Russian Embassy in Yerevan. The embassy on Wednesday accused “certain individuals” of exploiting the affair to whip up anti-Russian sentiment in Armenia. It insisted that the fatal crash had “no ethnic implications” but stopped short of criticizing Harutiunian’s televised treatment.
According to a spokesman for the Armenian Embassy in Moscow, Russian officials have assured embassy officials that their handling of the arrested suspect was an unintentional “result of haste.”
However, a report in the “Moskovsky Komsomolets” daily on Friday suggests that the Moscow police are unrepentant about their actions. Citing unnamed police sources, the paper said the Russian investigators consider the scandal the result of a “ploy” by Harutiunian’s lawyers. It said they think that the lawyers “might have deliberately not brought him new clothes so that he appears before the court in a miserable way that will cause pity.”
One of the lawyers, Aleksandr Meltsev, said on Thursday that the defense team would have promptly provided Harutiunian with appropriate attire in hospital if it had been asked to. “We would have brought him new clothes in half an hour,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
Meanwhile, Armenia’s state human rights ombudsman, Karen Andreasian, announced that he will travel to Moscow on Sunday to meet with the arrested driver, his lawyers and “a number of officials dealing with the matter.” Earlier this week, Andreasian condemned Harutiunian’s ill-treatment and asked his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Lukin, to help ensure the due process of law in the investigation.
Russia already faced unusually strong criticism in Armenia after it emerged last month that it has begun delivering $1 billion worth of offensive weapons to Azerbaijan. The Armenian media, opposition politicians and pundits accused Moscow of betraying its sole regional ally. Top Russian security officials dismissed these accusations when they visited Yerevan later in June. The Armenian government, for its part, refrained from publicly deploring the Russian arms supplies to Baku.
Russia’s traditionally close relationship with Armenia is further called into question by signs that Moscow is unhappy with Yerevan’s reluctance to join a Russian-led Eurasian Union of ex-Soviet states and its plans to sign an “association agreement” with the European Union. Vyacheslav Kovalenko, until recently Russia’s ambassador to Armenia, warned of serious damage to bilateral ties earlier this month. Konstantin Zatulin, a prominent Russian pundit and former parliamentarian close to the Kremlin, likewise criticized “the disdainful attitude to the Eurasian integration project in Armenia” on July 16.
Still, Sergey Markedonov, a respected Russian analyst, downplayed the significance of these developments. In an interview with the Yerevan daily “Haykakan Zhamanak” published on Thursday, Markedonov blamed the “very inadequate behavior” of the Armenian and Russian media for the fallout from the Moscow bus crash. “I don’t think that it will somehow affect Russian-Armenian relations,” he said.
Markedonov, who is a visiting fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, also argued that neither President Vladimir Putin nor any other Russian leader has publicly disapproved of Armenia’s European integration drive. “Russia needs Armenia, and Armenia needs Russia,” he said. “The two have mutual interests.”