On a summer evening in late June, three military doctors ventured into a lavish restaurant on the outskirts of Yerevan, Armenia's capital, to have dinner. With its marbled beige floors and crystal chandeliers, the restaurant, known as Harsnakar, is a favorite for weddings, anniversaries, and friendly get-togethers.
But things didn't go according to plan for 35-year-old Major Vahe Avetyan, one of the army doctors accompanying his colleagues on a night out. The man allegedly got into an argument over inappropriate dress code with security staff from the restaurant, which is owned by Ruben Hayrapetyan (pictured above), a business tycoon and then-member of parliament. Avetyan was brutally beaten and hospitalized with severe head injuries. Soon, grim photos of the doctor emerged on social networks. Bandaged and unconscious, he lay on a bed in the same hospital where he had worked, in critical condition. Twelve days later, he died.
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The public outrage was unprecedented. It isn't uncommon for the employees of business tycoons to engage in violence. But this was the first time that someone like Avetyan -- a married father of two whose job involved caring for Armenia's highly respected armed forces -- had inadvertently felt their wrath, and paid for it with his life.
The death of Avetyan at the hands of bodyguards employed by Hayrapetyan has become a catalyzing event. Shocked Armenians mobilized in large numbers throughout the summer. The frustrations with a culture of bodyguards whose brutish behavior had become notoriously violent over the years spilled onto the streets and social networks. Legislation to regulate the private use of bodyguards has been introduced in parliament: The draft law stipulates that private security personnel will be required to don uniforms, to apply for weapons permits, and to register their weapons with law enforcement.
The ongoing trial of those involved in Avetyan's murder has opened a window onto the excesses of a tiny ruling class that until now has felt largely untouched by the law. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Armenians -- like many other inhabitants of the old USSR -- have watched as the lion's share of the country's wealth has fallen under the control of a privileged elite. The leading Armenian oligarchs, a group numbering around 40, dominate industries ranging from banking to mining, and that economic edge has translated into privileged political status as well. Just as in Russia and Ukraine, tycoons here have parlayed their wealth into public office -- to an extent that it's often hard to tell where business ends and politics begins.