Mean Streets: A rare look at Armenia’s Capital clans
Editor’s Note: The matter of clan rule is accepted, respected in the 11 districts that make up Yerevan. It is a peculiarity of life in the capital that is as real as reckless traffic and ineffective water delivery. It is not, however, an issue that can be “officially” documented. Veteran award-winning journalist Vahan Ishkhanyan is a student of the history of Yerevan, his home. This report is based on knowledge he has accumulated over many years of reporting about the city, and on information that, though far from official documentation, is nonetheless maintained as fact. It is an understood, but rarely public, account of how the city really works.
Who owns Yerevan?
Like many matters concerning life in Armenia, the question has more than one answer. . .
Officially, legally, constitutionally, the capital belongs to its residents, who through elections choose eleven prefects (the mayor of Yerevan is appointed by the President).
In reality, and in ways that matter most to average citizens and especially to small business owners, the city belongs to organized, sometimes criminalized, clans – “akhperutyuns”, or brotherhoods, that assert their power through their position or connections.
Like the fantasy of Hollywood gangster films, or an episode of “Sopranos”, this capital is owned by factions that sometimes battle for their turf; for their share of the income that is to be had from doing business the old fashioned way – through power and intimidation. They travel the city in convoys of the most expensive SUVs. Restaurants are cleared to seat them, while thick-necked body guards flank tables, pistols tucked into the fold of their sizeable waistlines.
The bosses have nicknames by which they are known, but not called to their faces. Many, too, are Members of Parliament, affording themselves the power to make the very laws by which their businesses are governed. (Recent changes in the Constitution have also yielded separation of powers that gives more autonomy to the National Assembly.)
Clans get shadow incomes from communities, mainly from markets and fairs (and usually do not pay taxes), allocating lands and selling business spaces. Depending on the territory, the prefects of communities take from $4,000 to $25,000 for the allocation of lands. They also get bribes for issuing licenses and other documents.
Clanship is expressed in varying measure throughout the capital. By large degree, no unified government system works in the city, as the leadership of each community is accountable to a clan of the power system. To be elected a prefect, a senior community member or a deputy, one needs to have “prakhod” (in Russian slang, “pass”) that is, permission from some clan or official, to be elected. And, for business, you need “dabro” (confirmation).
The main figures who grant “prakhod” and “dabro” are the President, Prosecutor, Minister of Defense. In the second echelon are the Prime Minister, Speaker of Parliament and Local Government Minister. The prefects in their turn grant “prakhod” or “dabro” to businesses and territories.
Clans are based on certain ideology. The roots of akhperutyuns are elements of criminal law and the tradition of Armenian family life (ojakh). Still during the Soviet years there were criminal authorities in Yerevan’s districts including criminals and kharoshis (in Russian slang, “good guys”). They are guided by the underworld laws brought from Russian prisons.
Ethno-sociologist Svetlana Lurie writes about the 1960-70s: “Those returning from prisons brought with them not only the jargon of gangsters and the style of establishing mutual relations, but also the notions of thief ‘interest’, ‘work’… thief clashes were the bloodiest. A yard came out against another yard, a neighborhood against neighborhood, even town against town.”
Then Lurie writes (in “Yerevan, the Mythology of a Modern City”) that, nevertheless, Yerevan became one of the most peaceful cities where crime against an individual all but disappeared. In Soviet times gangsters were limited to their subculture, under constant persecution from authorities. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, when competition for sources of income became ungovernable, gangsters quickly began to penetrate the government system.
The subculture spread to broader domains – the army, education, government structures.
“People’s groups must be managed. If they are not managed, informal ways of management are created,” says Head of the Sociology Chair at the Yerevan State University Lyudmila Harutyunyan, explaining the emergence of “akhperutyuns”. “Thus, the laws of closed structures (prisons) are transferred to open structures (districts, schools).”
The clan from Aparan
The clan of Aparanyans (officially the “Nig-Aparan” compatriotic union, which is headed by Aghvan Hovsepyan, the republic’s Prosecutor General, one of the closest associates of President Robert Kocharyan) seized power in Yerevan’s Ajapnyak community after a long battle. (In the 1950s several villages were relocated here from the town of Aparan.)
Hovsepyan was first appointed Prosecutor in 1998. After the October 27, 1999 Parliament assassinations, Kocharyan (under pressure, some say, from influential opposition members) dismissed Hovsepyan.
In 2004, when the political opposition was attempting a revolution, the President reinstated Hovsepyan as Prosecutor General. Hovsepyan immediately instituted criminal proceedings against the opposition and arrested dozens of citizens in an act that drew widespread international criticism.
Hovsepyan is one of the owners of the “Shant” factory operating in Ajapnyak and of a restaurant complex bearing the same name, which is one of the biggest complexes in the republic.
The struggle for domination in Ajapnyak increased in 1999 when the Republican Party and the Aparanyan clan clashed. The candidates for the community’s prefect were Republican Party member Ashot Aghababyan (nicknamed “Burnash”) who is the director of Hrazdan Stadium and the owner of the adjacent fair, and Artsrun Khachatryan (known as “Tsivo”).
On July 11 that year, the day of community elections, Aghababyan’s people assaulted polling stations, beat proxies of the opponent, firing automatic weapons. Artsrun Khachatryan’s brother was wounded in the melee.
Aghababyan was not tried, but members of his groups stood trial instead of him. The election was declared invalid. Some time later, Prime Minister Vazgen Sargsyan made his man, Rafik Mkrtchyan, prefect of the community. After October 27, when the Prime Minister was murdered, the Aparanyan clan forced Mkrtchyan to resign. In one interview he said: “One of the parties taking part in the well-known events, about a month after October 27 already began to drop hints that the people who brought me to power do not exist anymore.”
In 2000, Khachatryan became the head of the community. In 2003, Khachatryan and Arman Sahakyan, from the Republican Party, were nominated as candidates for the prefect of Ajapnyak. (Sahakyan is the son of Galust Sahakyan, the leader of the Republicans’ parliamentary faction, and the relative of Ashot Aghababyan, already a deputy of the National Assembly). Khachatryan won the election. This struggle was widely viewed as being between the Prime Minister and the Prosecutor General in which the Prosecutor won and proved that he was more powerful than the Prime Minister. However, the Prime Minister appointed Arman Sahakyan deputy mayor, to show that his position is strong.
Analysts say that the cause of the loss of the Republicans is that they were not able to take care of the Mafioso of the area and to protect them from arrests. As a result, the criminals sided with the Aparanyan clan and helped secure Khachatryan’s victory. Ashot Aghababyan didn’t stand for National Assembly election from Ajapnyak in 2003, but was elected to represent a remote region.
In a manner with no apparent development plan, Khachatryan’s new term saw private allocation of property with no attention to location or community necessity. On Leningradyan and Shinararneri streets, for example, property was privatized that had for years been public green space.
Once full of green, Shinararneri Street became one of the ugliest streets where sidewalks on both sides had been turned into corridors between shops. Even the Presidential Surveillance Service paid attention to the situation in Shinararneri Street, but, as is widely believed, any department in Armenia is powerless against the Aparanyan clan.
“Shinararneri Street is an outrage,” says Armen Lalayants, deputy to the city’s chief architect. “Neither construction nor environmental norms are observed. It is a bright example of how one should not build.”
Takeover in Davidashen
The Aparanyans also established their control over the district of Davidashen, which is adjacent to Ajapnyak. In the past Davidashen was a village of Aparanyans next to the city outskirts. In the 1980s, a large district of high-rise buildings was built there. The village and the buildings together became a separate community.
Until 2002-2003 the community belonged to Ruben Gevorgyan (also known as “Tsaghik [Flower] Rubo”). Convicted of murder during Soviet times, Gevorgyan was commander of the “Sasna Tsrer” detachment during the Karabakh War. He was Davidashen’s prefect until 1999 when he was elected to the National Assembly (despite the fact that in 1995 he was not allowed to run for office because of his criminal past).
After becoming a Member of Parliament he made one of his associates, Surik Ghukasyan, his replacement as prefect. But still, the king of Davidashen was Ruben “Tsaghik Rubo” Gevorgyan. His star began to fade when the ruling Republican Party was split. One part led by Prime Minister Andranik Margaryan remained in power, and the other became opposition.
Gevorgyan joined the opposition wing of the split party. On July 13, 2000, his nephew Artyom Gevorgyan and an associate made an armed assault on a carpet shop on Komitas Avenue to rob it. The nephew was arrested. To secure his nephew’s release, Ruben Gevorgyan agreed to step down from the opposition hierarchy. During the latest parliamentary elections he was defeated, however he continued to wield power in Davidashen.
One of the richest businessmen in Armenia, Samvel “Lfik Samo” Alexanyan began to intrude into Davidashen. Alexanyan is the main importer of sugar, grain, pharmaceuticals, and owns several production plants. In 2003, he was elected to the National Assembly.
Blood for turf
In 2002, Alexanyan wanted new territory in Davidashen, but his application was turned down, supposedly because of an order given to Prefect Ghukasyan by Ruben Gevorgyan. A clan clash ensued, during which five people were killed.
The bloodiest clan war happened on June 25, 2003, near a city dump in the district of Nubarashen. Ruben Gevorgyan’s nephew Arkady Gevorgyan, his friend – deputy head of the healthcare department of the Ministry of Defense Garik Harutyunyan, and the driver of the car in which they were riding were killed by men firing Kalashnikovs. Another nephew received serious wounds.
Ruben Gevorgyan was arrested five months later on suspicion of masterminding an attempt on Samvel Alexanyan’s life. Later Alexanyan and Gevorgyan signed a peace deal and Gevorgyan was released from custody.
uben Gevorgyan’s authority declined and the community slipped out of his control. The incumbent prefect became independent and does not submit to his former boss. To restore his authority Gevorgyan again tried to become prefect. However, in the last election he lost to Surik Ghukasyan, who is backed by the republic’s Prosecutor through the Nig-Aparan compatriotic union. Thus, the second community passed under the (perceived) influence of the Prosecutor.
Although his main business interests are in Sebastia-Malatia district, “Lifik Samo” Alexanyan has recently expanded his territory into Davidashen, where he owns a supermarket, and is now constructing a multi-storied building.
Observers of clan rule speculate that Alexanyan’s expansion into Davidashen is evidence of the fact that – though Alexanyan is a sure heavyweight – the real boss of Sebastia-Malatia is Hakob “Lady Hakob” Hakobyan, owner of the agricultural produce marketplace and one of the largest fairs in the republic. Hakobyan has been a member of the National Assembly since 1999. He is a Karabakh war veteran. He gained his authority through bravery and being a close associate of the late Prime Minister. Now he is in good rapport with Defense Minister Serge Sargsyan (who generally has influence on many other communities).
There are arguably few authorities in the republic who can solve issues with Hakobyan on equal footing. He has no intention of becoming a prefect, since the incumbent prefect Aghvan Grigoryan (who was reelected for a second term in the last election, June 5) is under his influence and he can decide who will become the prefect in the community.
Samvel Alexanyan had run out of territory to claim under Hakobyan’s hold in Malatia-Sebastia, so he is now expanding to Davidashen, where clan power has seemed to be weakened.
Until May, Davidashen was under the influence of Avan authority Ruben “German Rubo” Hayrapetyan. Like Ruben Gevorgyan, Hayrapetyan was also prefect. He was elected to the National Assembly in 1999 and made his appointee the prefect. He was one of the shareholders of the “Armtabak” companies until he sold his stake last year. Hayrapetyan is also president of the Football Federation of Armenia.
When he was fighting for ownership of the tobacco plant in Yerevan, he survived an attempt on his life. Thereafter he prevailed over one of the most powerful people of Armenia from 1995-2000, Karabakh Defense Minister Samvel Babayan, and Hayrapetyan’s authority drastically increased. The press twice wrote about how Hayrapetyan, assisted by his bodyguards, publicly beat Members of Parliament, one of whom is today’s Minister of Nature Protection.
The gift of power
In the spring of last year, it was decided by the upper echelons of power to give the district of Avan to the clan of the Prime Minister. The residing prefect resigned, and, with the cards on the table as to the movement afoot, the Prime Minister’s son, 27-year-old Taron Margarian was elected on May 22. Other opponents dropped out of the election, leaving junior Margaryan as the only candidate.
(Some political observers believe the community was given to the Prime Minister’s clan, as patronage, in case he should be removed from office.)
The community of Erebuni is widely considered the most clan-dominated. Prefect Mher “Tokmakhi Mher” Sedrakyan has been in power there since Soviet times. Sedrakyan enjoys the sanction of the Minister of Defense. He also controls an enterprise that seems straight out of Hollywood, as he is the authority over Tokmakh Gyol, the city’s most prestigious cemetery, where to make a reservation six feet under costs $25,000.
In July 2003, a Mercedes in which Sedrakyan was sitting at a gas station he owns, exploded, apparently from a bomb. Sedrakyan was severely injured. It is believed the attempted murder was related to business rival Misha Kalantaryan, who, in the presence of several witnesses murdered businessman Hovhaness Manukyan. A court found him not guilty on the basis of “diminished responsibility”. The defendant didn’t even attend his own trial.
Last year Sedrakyan was re-elected Prefect of Erebuni. He ran unopposed.
An “independent” prefect like Sedrakyan, Gagik “Chorni” (Black) Beglaryan runs the Kentron district, in the center of Yerevan, and is known for his ties with Russian authorities and underworld.
During his time as prefect he has become owner of Armenia’s largest market, GUM. Beglaryan is not known to be subject to any clan authority, but is believed to be directly influenced by the country’s political elite. He has close relations with the Minister of Defense and Local Government Minister Hovik “Muk” Abrahamyan.
The most lucrative businesses are situated in the center (hotels, a winery, etc.) whose owners are among the country’s authorities. It is said that because of Beglaryan’s connections the properties are exempt from tax. Beglaryan is also said to exert power over the media that guarantees only positive publicity about his activities. He is said to have aspirations to become Mayor of Yerevan.
Rumble for a route
Family, friendship, brotherhood (akhperutyun) are sacred ideology. From school age, youth who accept the ideology mock education, believing that wealth and position in Yerevan are achieved not through intellectual abilities but with the aid of clan force and money. Those guided by criminal-clan ideology eventually enter akhperutyuns and obtain certain positions and sources of income.
One of the most powerful, most infamous and famous “akhperutyuns” of Yerevan is Gagik “Dodi Gago” Tsarukyan, who is a close associate of the President’s family, and a Member of Parliament since 2003.
Members of Dodi Gago’s akhperutyun clashed with another akhperutyun in the spring of last year at “Tetsi Krug” for control over a minibus route. A mob estimated at about 200 fought in a planned rumble that left one man dead and at least two injured.
Charges were filed, but not upheld against the main men of the “razborka” (rumble). The same “main men” Hrair “Artashatsi Hro” Harutyunyan and Ashot “Bangladeshtsi Hamo” Avetisyan led their “akhperutyun” in attacking photo journalists, and beating participants in a rally on April 5, 2004, during a demonstration organized by oppositional politician Artashes Geghamyan.
Gagik Tsarukyan’s power extends to Yerevan’s satellite town of Abovyan and the village of Arinj. He also has territories in Yerevan. Two years ago he became the President of the National Olympic Committee of Armenia. During the Soviet years he was convicted for rape. But three years ago Armenia’s court expunged his conviction.
Recently “Prosperous Armenia”, a political party founded by Tsarukyan has become more active and is predicted to claim several spots in the 2007 parliamentary elections.
The system of clans is so widely accepted in Yerevan that “Haykakan Zhamanak” newspaper even has a regular column entitled “Akhperutyun” reporting on “rumbles” and distribution of spheres of influence.
Social analysts often comment that the clan-brotherhood system has diverted the country into feudalism. One of the expressions of this is that unofficial authorities such as Tsarukyan are called kings in their territories. He is not elected, but is given power and his authority is not disputed.
“An early capitalist-feudal system has emerged in Armenia,” says sociologist Harutyunyan. “The country did not outlive other eras. A slave has become a slave owner. No other model works. The layers that remained in people’s sub-consciousness woke up and at once they restored the feudal order.”
Posted 03 March 2006 — 11:39 AM
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