Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

"Russian Lesson" Provokes Fury in Armenia

Outspoken Moscow media official suggests Armenia should adopt Russian as an official language.

Opposition politicians in Armenia have attacked the government for hosting a top media figure from Moscow who made insensitive remarks about the poor knowledge of Russian in the country.

Comments by Dmitry Kiselyov, head of the Russia Today news agency and deputy head of the Russian state broadcaster have reinforced fears that Armenia is well on its way to being swallowed up by its longstanding ally.

On a visit to Yerevan, Kiselyov told a meeting of the Russian-Armenian Parliamentary Club on June 11 that he was shocked at how poorly local taxi drivers spoke Russian.

Highlighting Moscow’s role as Armenia’s key strategic ally, Kiselyov went on to complain that “there are almost no Russian [language medium] schools in Yerevan, and Russian is dying out in Armenia. It follows that Russian culture is also dying, and the link with Russia will gradually weaken. This is a very dangerous trend.”

He suggested that the best way to preserve Russian would be to formalise it as a second state language on a par with Armenian.

Kiselyov’s comments provoked outrage from the opposition. Nikol Pashinyan of the Armenian National Congress demanded an official rebuff.

“Such disrespectful comments from foreigners must meet with the strongest condemnation from state and society,” Pashinyan told parliament. “I think the foreign minister should consider declaring Dmitry Kiselyov persona non grata in Armenia.”

The inter-parliamentary meeting was attended by deputy speaker Hermine Naghdalyan and three politicians from the ruling Republican Party.

Opponents of the government said it had set itself up for humiliation by giving such a high-level welcome to a man who has become notorious for his abrasive on-screen style.

“If you give a platform to some lying analyst, then you end up with an ill-educated lout who decides to try to teach us a lesson,” said Naira Zohrabyan of the opposition party Prosperous Armenia.

There was further anger that the meeting was conducted exclusively in Russian, despite a legal requirement for all official proceedings to be translated into Armenian. The speaker of parliament, Galust Sahakyan, promised to provide simultaneous translation during forthcoming events.

Deputy speaker Naghdalyan said she understood why people were angry, but denied the government had been humiliated.

“The Armenian-Russian friendship club will function in Russia as well, and Armenian parliamentarians will be able to express their opinions there,” she said.

Another deputy speaker, Eduard Sharmazanov, who is a leading figure in the Republican Party, attempted to play down the furore, saying, “Kiselyov isn’t such a significant individual that we should be talking about him for days on end.”

Education minister Armen Ashotyan released a statement insisting that “the Russian language has no constitutional status in Armenia, and we see no need for this since Armenia is a monoethnic country”.

The controversy reflects broader unease at Armenia’s increasingly close ties with Russia at a time when the latter is increasingly asserting its might, for example in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

With unfriendly neighbours – Turkey and Azerbaijan – on either flank, Armenia has retained close security links with Russia since the break-up of the Soviet Union. Moscow has a military airfield in Yerevan and an army base in Gyumri, and the two countries agreed in 2010 to extend the Russian presence until 2044.

Since last September, Armenia has been on a course to join the Russia-Belarus-Kazakstan Customs Union, a move some see as an erosion of national sovereignty. (See Armenia Faces Delay to Joining Moscow-Led Union on recent developments in the process.)

In recent months, Yerevan has handed Russia’s Gazprom control of its domestic gas pipeline network and a monopoly on purchases and sales, and it is considering selling a major chemical plant to another firm, Rosneft. 

Finally, Moscow is now offering fast-track citizenship to Armenians and other post-Soviet nationals if they are fluent in Russian and are prepared to renounce their own countries’ passports. (See Armenians Enticed by Russian Passport Offer on the implications.) 

With all these moves in train, Kiselyov’s abrasive style caused further alarm.

“Is Armenia a Russian province or is it a sovereign state, for the status of Russian to be enhanced?” prominent theatre producer Levon Mutafyan asked. “Everything starts from the policy of our government which accepts its status as a Russian vassal.” 

Arpi Harutyunyan is a reporter for Armnews television in Armenia.

More IWPR's Global Voices

Football Returns to Rebel-Held Syrian Province
Game faces universal problems like sponsorship, crowd behaviour and referee fairness – plus danger of aerial bombing.
Syria: My Son, My Protector
In Syria, a Mother's Sorrow and Pain