by Vahan Ishkhanyan
Authority by connection is a peculiarity of life in the capital, as real as reckless traffic and ineffective water delivery. And, if "democratic" elections are still in infancy, clan-rule is a millenniums-old dogma of life in all the Caucasus (described by one regional human-rights service as "mountain democracy"). The matter of clan rule is accepted and respected in the 11 districts that make up Yerevan. In fact, the unofficial system of authority reaches all parts of Armenia.
Long before the outside world cared, or was allowed to dispatch polling-station monitors to fill government reports with criticism of power abuses inside Armenia, clan-rule was the rule of law.
Armenia is less impacted at the national level by the condition of clan authority than some of its regional neighbors such as Georgia. And it is surely less damaged by clan-bred manifestations such as in Chechnya. Nonetheless, Armenia has its version of "mountain democracy".
"The region has long suffered from rule by former Soviet leaders supported by clan-based networks of patronage and complicity," wrote Richard Giragosian, of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. ". . . although Armenia has not experienced the same one-man one-party rule, it too suffers from its own form of clan-based patronage politics."
Local newswpapers reported that in early October elections in the town of Nor Hajn, near Yerevan, a man in jail on murder charges was re-elected mayor. Just two weeks before the election, witnesses—including police—saw him shoot to death a rival with a pistol, which it was later learned, had been given him as a gift by a high government official. Still, he won the mayoral election, strongly supported by his "clan"—a term, here, more meaningful than "party", just as blood is thicker than water. By mid-October, the deputy mayor announced the resignation of the elected mayor. And in Echmiadzin, during the same election cycle, a former army general commonly understood as "owning" that city has been accused of having his men kidnap a dozen supporters of his mayoral protégé's opponent.
A Yerevan sociologist says the current condition of clan-rule can be blamed on the collapse of the Soviet Union, when criminal elements who operated less conspicuously during the days of communism, essentially used democracy as an open door through which to enter politics.
A history of the region, however, links Armenia to a time when empires fought for the Armenian Plateau. Reduced now in every way, its contemporary capital is a collection of tiny empires, in which the ancient need for control maintains a fertile field for fighting . . .
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 chose eleven prefects (whose jurisdiction and responsibilities may somewhat be compared to city councilmen). The mayor of Yerevan is appointed by the President (a form of governance that may have to change to meet Council of Europe membership requirements).
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, with sequentially-numbered license plates, a show of their buying power. Restaurants are cleared to seat them, while thick-necked bodyguards 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, a status that gives them immunity from prosecution.
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 property. 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") and "dabro" (in Russian slang—"go-ahead"), that is, permission from some clan or official, to be elected. (The main figures who grant "prakhod" and "dabro" go as high as the very top of government leadership. Ministers and Parliamentarians have second echelon status, and each prefect, in his turn, grants "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). During the Soviet years there were criminal authorities in Yerevan's districts including thieves and kharoshis (in Russian slang, "good guys"). They were guided by the underworld laws brought from Russian prisons.
Ethno-sociologist Svetlana Lurian 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 Lorian 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.
"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 Harutyunian, explaining the emergence of "akhperutyuns".
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 turned the country into feudalism. One of the expressions of this is that unofficial authorities are called kings in their territories. They are not elected, but have undisputed power and authority.
"An early capitalist-feudal system has emerged in Armenia," says sociologist Harutyunian. "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."
Veteran award-winning journalist Vahan Ishkhanyan is a student of the history of Yerevan, his home. This report is based on occasional articles from Armenian press, from common knowledge (that will never be "official") and on information the reporter has accumulated in nearly 20 years of reporting about the city.