Monday, January 31, 2005

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
31 January 2005

Deadly Car Crash Highlights Reckless Driving By Armenia’s Rich

By Ruzanna Khachatrian and Emil Danielyan

Two people were killed and at least six others injured in a car crash in Yerevan late on Sunday, the latest deadly consequence of reckless and unchecked driving by Armenia’s wealthiest citizens.

A spokesman for the Armenian police, Zarzand Gabrielian, confirmed on Monday reports that a luxury SUV car rammed three other vehicles on a busy street intersection near the city center. The incident occurred during a heavy snowfall that made traffic particularly dangerous.

The dead persons were the driver of a taxi and one of his passengers, a 30-year-old woman identified as Nata Ayunts. She was in the car with her husband and infant child. They both were hospitalized with serious injuries along with four other victims.

Gabrielian said the driver of the Hummer jeep, a certain Armen Tovmasian, fled the scene and sought medical aid at a hospital five hours later. “An investigation is underway,” he told RFE/RL without elaborating.

It was not clear if the man was questioned by the police or underwent alcohol tests the next morning. Gabrielian said only that Tovmasian is not the formal owner of the car, the hugely expensive civilian version of the Humvee personnel carriers widely used by the U.S. army. He also identified the car’s license plates as 77 SS 776.

Many wealthy and government-connected Armenians consider it highly prestigious to have as many repeated numbers on their cars’ license plats as possible. The most powerful of them usually ride in motorcades made up of several SUVs with virtually identical numbers.

The presence of several 8 digits, for example, indicates their ownership by millionaire businessman Gagik Tsarukian, while 6s are seen as the exclusive domain of another “oligarch,” Samvel Aleksanian. Individuals close to a brother of Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian and a top army general, Seyran Saroyan, are thought to have three or more 7s on their plates.

The police spokesman claimed that it is still not known who is the officially registered owner of the Hummer in question. Another, more senior, police source said that there are only 11 Hummers in the impoverished country.

Luxury cars, especially those with “fancy” numbers, routinely ignore traffic lights and breach speed limits in Yerevan. Armenia’s notoriously corrupt traffic police rarely stop or fine them.

The virtual impunity enjoyed by them prompted a high-profile inquiry from President Robert Kocharian’s Oversight Service last autumn. Officials from the service had state television broadcast images of delinquent cars breaking traffic rules as part of the declared crackdown. Some of those cars were later impounded by the police. Their unpublicized owners were reportedly forced to donate 250,000 drams ($500) each to a government-linked private charity to get their property back.

Critics say the presidential agency has no legal authority to fine anybody and should have instead made sure that the police enforce the rules fairly and equally.

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