Surik Khachatryan, the governor of Armenia's southern Syunik province, has been making headlines in the last month for all the wrong reasons. After allegedly assaulting Armenian businesswoman Silva Hambardzumyan in a Yerevan hotel, Khachatrian avoided prosecution for assault because law enforcement agencies considered that he hit her “only once and did not injure her.”
This week, however, the controversial governor has been filmed in a video insulting and threatening environmentalists, including well-known activist Mariam Sukhudyan, in the village of Kajaran, located 50 miles from the border with Iran. The activists were there protesting a mining project that they say will harm the environment and cause residents to leave, another exodus that Armenia, which is facing an emigration crisis, can't afford.
The mining company on the other hand, says the project will help the country economically, but the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Women has initiated a petition on social change site, Change.org, calling for Khachatryan's dismissal:
The Coalition to Stop Violence Against Women demands that Surik Khachatrian, governor of Armenia ‘s Syunik province, be immediately sacked for assaulting a woman.
The public slapping by the governor of businesswoman Silva Hambardzumian at Armenia Marriott hotel Yerevan in November, did not even receive public condemnation by our government. And recently, during his visit to Kajaran, Surik Khachatryan has threatened eco-activist Mariam Sukhudyan. This would be unacceptable in any civilized society. When a man, especially a government official displays such violent behavior and the government does not at least condemn it or punish it, it is a message to all that violence against women is condoned and an accepted practice in Armenia.
The Coalition condemns all forms of gender based violence. We consider that such acts reinforce a culture of violence and encourages violence towards women which is so rampant among Armenian families. We ask that the governor be sacked for such uncivilized behavior.
At time of writing, the petition had 524 out of 3,000 signatures and was slowly making its way through Armenian social media circles on Facebook, including on the page of a bicycling NGO and that of the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Women where Lara Aharonian, co-founder of the Women's Resource Center in Armenia, encouraged members to sign the petition:
If we stay silent, this is not going to stop, he needs to leave!
In the public group page Save Teghut Forest, championed by Sukhudyan and created to raise awareness about one of the many urgent ecological issues facing Armenia, group member Nora Kayserian did the same:
Please sign the petition to help throw out this fool!
Meanwhile, the two part amateur video posted on YouTube on Monday has been widely circulated on social networks and has garnered almost 30,000 views combined. With the group in heavy coats as winter settles in, Khachatryan can be seen engaged in a heated conversation with Sukhudyan and other eco-activists who traveled to Kajaran to protest against the sale of large portions of land to Zangezur Copper-Molybdenum Combine (ZCMC).
When Sukhudyan presses him about standing by the villagers who oppose the mine, Khachatryan tells them to “shut up” and warns them to behave to avoid anything happening to them. “Why have you come here to do my job?” he asks Sukhudyan, who tells him that she does not want his job, but came only to support local residents.
“If you protect the rights of these citizens and force the reversal of the government's decision [to sell the land], which I know you have the power to do, I'll go about my business, but because I see that no one is standing by these villagers, I've come to be by their side,” she says in the video in Armenian.
Khachatrian tells the group in the footage that the homes of villagers homes will not be destroyed, but when another activist steps up to speak, the governor hurls an insult at the young woman, calling her a “dragonfly” and telling her to talk less. And when a Diasporan Armenian activist speaks up, Khachatrian tells him to go to his own country and preach there instead.
“But this is my country,” responds the activist, who has lived in Armenia for more than decade. No wonder then that the footage prompted Yerevan-based artist Kassouny to create a caricature of Khachatrian, complete with a fire-breathing dragonfly and boxing gloves, which he shared on his Facebook fan page.
Rafik Atayan, Kajaran's mayor, resigned last week over the transfer of land to ZCMC while at a press conference held after her assault Hambardzumyan accused Khachatrian of misappropriating more than $200,000 worth of mining equipment from a firm that belonged to her. No stranger to controversy, Khachatryan was also accused of beating up a teenage boy in 2008, but again cleared of charges.