Armenian Face of Ukrainian Drama: Armenian killed in Donetsk region hailed as hero by pro-Russia protesters

The death of a young ethnic Armenian in Ukraine amid escalating tensions in the eastern regions of the country has raised more concerns in Yerevan about the fate of compatriots living in this former Soviet country engulfed in civil strife.

By a twist of fate, 29-year-old Ruben Avanesyan, who was killed during clashes in Slavyansk, Donetsk region, on April 13, became the first victim on the side of those opposed to the new government in Kyiv. In January, Serhiy Nihoyan, a 20-year-old ethnic Armenian from Ukraine’s Dnipropetrovsk region, was shot dead during a protest in the streets of Kyiv, becoming one of the first victims among Euromaidan supporters and, in fact, an icon in the struggle against the government of Viktor Yanukovych that led to a change of power in late February.

The situation in Ukraine more and more reminds of a civil war and many do not exclude that it will lead to the partition of the country. The Russian and Russian-speaking population of the country’s eastern and southern regions, not without the support of Moscow, are trying to achieve federalization of the country and get an opportunity to join Russia.

Armenians living in Ukraine are largely among the “Russian-speaking” citizens of the country. Their number, according to official data, reaches 100,000, however, according to unofficial estimates, there could be as many as 600,000 Armenians living in Ukraine today, among them both citizens and non-citizens.

Historically, Armenians aren’t strangers in Ukraine either as they used to live in this part of the world still before the emergence of Kievan Rus. Armenians have also lived for centuries in Crimea, the southernmost region of Ukraine that declared its secession and joining Russia last month.

Armenians living there along with the rest of the population also, in fact, voted in a referendum for acceding to Russia. The Armenian community of Crimea tried to remain neutral and not become the target of one side or another in the civil conflict in Ukraine.

But the latest developments prompt that it will become increasingly difficult for Armenians to remain neutral. Avanesyan, who was allegedly killed by ultranationalists as he delivered “humanitarian supplies” to rebels in Slavyansk, was proclaimed a hero by supporters of Ukraine’s federalization. Nihoyan, who had lost his life for Ukraine’s European orientation, was also included in the so-called Heaven’s Hundred, a list of killed Euromaidan supporters revered as heroes in western and central Ukraine today.

The Armenian community in Ukraine is apparently going through hard times. Armenians tend not to talk to reporters, but in private conversations to the question of whether they would like to live as part of Ukraine or Russia, many in eastern regions of the country acknowledge that the living standards in Russia are higher today. This is perhaps the main motivation of Armenians who are involved in the unrest in eastern Ukraine on the side of those advocating federalization.

But there is another factor – the position of Armenia. Yerevan is considered to be the most loyal ally of Russia and its “extra vote” at international instances. Armenia was among a dozen countries that voted against the UN General Assembly resolution that reaffirmed Ukraine’s territorial integrity and condemned the annexation of Crimea by Russia. This stance at the UN as well as earlier remarks by Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan regarding the “right of self-determination” of Crimea caused a diplomatic protest from Kyiv that recalled its ambassador from Yerevan. But in Ukraine itself there seems to be no backlash yet against the local Armenian community.