YEREVAN—A public dance performance in central Yerevan ended in violence on Saturday as a mob chanting ultra-nationalist slogans attacked performers. According to organizers, the production entitled houZANK u ZANQ (“Excitement and Call”) examines the role of women in revolution reinterpreted as a contemporary homage to the futurist poetry tradition of early 20th-century Armenia. The women-led living exhibit consisted of a poetry reading by Lilith Petrosyan spoken over an interpretive dance routine choreographed by Hasmik Tangyan.
The show’s organizers, CoChoLab, had applied for and received the appropriate permits from both the Yerevan Municipality and the Metro to hold their event near the entrance of the Republic Square metro station. However, these legal endorsements did little to discourage a dozen protesters from harassing the group, shouting “shame” and accusing the dancers of introducing satanism into Armenian society. Some of the protesters reportedly burned incense while chanting prayers. In a particularly tense confrontation, a shirtless protester who identified himself as Narek Sargsyan was apprehended by police after he sprayed performers with a green-colored topical antiseptic known by its Russian name “zelyonka.”
Zelyonka, a staple in Soviet hospitals for treating minor cuts and scrapes, is known for leaving a bright green stain on a patient’s skin. The diluted triarylmethane dye has recently gained notoriety in Ukraine and Russia as a non-lethal weapon used to shame prominent anti-government critics and their supporters. Notable targets of zelyonka attacks include prominent Russian oppositionist Alexei Navalny, blogger Ilya Varlamov and Ukrainian-Armenian politician Arsen Avakov. Saturday’s attack may be the first such instance of zelyonka use in Armenia.
In a bizarre twist to the story, a video was posted to Facebook over the weekend superimposing footage of Sargsyan’s arrest with a recording from a phone conversation where he admits to frequenting “gay parties.” The video was shared almost 500 times on the platform. The implication that the zelyonka attacker might himself be a closeted homosexual received a somber response from Armenia’s LGBT community. “No surprises here on who the most vocal homophobes really are,” tweeted Mika, who authors the Unzipped: Gay Armenia blog. Sargsyan has since admitted to attending these parties “for research purposes”.
Organizers had apparently been anticipating some sort of provocation. The dance group had been approached by two men during a rehearsal the previous evening demanding their immediate departure from the premise. These self-appointed art critics argued that their “feminist satanism” had “nothing to do with art.” One of the men’s insistence that a woman’s only role is to marry and raise children was met with audible laughter and ridicule from the crowd.
Following the dispute, a post on CoChoLab’s Facebook page announced that the next day’s performance would go on as planned, inviting Yerevan’s creative community to attend in solidarity. “The fact that any woman who dances in public is considered a stripper or any woman who sings Hip-Hop is deemed hysterical is precisely why tomorrow’s show must go on at any cost,” read the post.
Protesters also singled out Education and Culture Minister Arayik Harutyunyan for his alleged support of ‘satanic behavior’ in Armenia following his ministry’s approval of a 2.7 million AMD ($5,700) grant towards CoChoLab’s artistic performance. The presence of Hasmik Khachunts, a city councilwoman from the governing My Step Alliance, at the event was also interpreted by ultraconservative elements as an official endorsement.
Groups with close ties to the former regime have attempted to capitalize on the new administration’s alleged lack of commitment to “traditional Armenian values” to stoke public opinion. They have been involved in increasingly public confrontations with the government, such as last week’s demonstration in front of the National Assembly over the Istanbul Convention.
The government’s taste for modern art was not shared by all parties at the National Assembly, however. Opposition leader Naira Zohrabyan, who incidentally chairs the Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights and Public Affairs, condemned the performance. In a Facebook post, she derided the performers’ intellectual elitism, insisting that no artist “would ever qualify yesterday’s events in front of the metro as ‘art.’” Appealing to the silent majority, she warned that contemporary art leads down a slippery slope at the bottom of which “free-thinking artists” would “perform the Kama Sutra at elementary schools.”
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan addressed the issue head-on during a Facebook Live broadcast on Monday evening, warning that a dogmatic interpretation of Armenian culture would lead to an “inquisition” against any alternative form of artistic expression. Alluding to a comment made by one of the performers, Pashinyan noted that aside from his magnum opus “Yes Im Anoush Hayastani,” much of the work of famed poet Yeghishe Charents had been banned by Soviet censors as immoral. The Prime Minister reminded viewers that homogeneity of thought is antithetical to Armenia’s cultural and economic development.
During the broadcast, Pashinyan also touched upon another controversy surrounding Minister Harutyunyan. The Prime Minister defended the Education Ministry’s decision to merge religious studies into Armenian history as part of the official curriculum, arguing that “The history of the Armenian Apostolic Church is an integral part of Armenian history and should be taught as such.” The Education Ministry, which has seen a substantial boost to its operational budget for 2020, is also considering turning Armenian language, history and literature into elective subjects at the university level.
The Armenian Constitution specifically establishes a judicial separation between Church and State but recognizes the unique role of the Apostolic Church in shaping Armenian identity. While the introduction of religious studies into the curriculum is only a recent development, the Ministry’s decision to scrap the course provoked the ire of social conservatives and church leaders. Some students also opposed the move, calling for walkouts.
On Monday, the youth wing of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) in Armenia called for Harutyunyan’s immediate resignation. The communique specifically cited his Ministry’s funding for houZANK u ZANQ, as well as financial support for a film documenting the life of transgender athlete Mel Daluzyan as evidence of the Minister’s complicity in eroding Armenian values.
Harutyunyan hit back at his accusers. “Let’s be clear, so long as I am Culture Minister, there will be no censorship,” he announced at a press conference. “One of a sovereign State’s most important commitments is to artistic freedom.”
Raffi ElliottColumnist & Armenia Correspondent