Thoughts on the eve of parliamentary elections in Armenia
Published: Wednesday May 09, 2012
London - In the late 1980's as people across the Soviet Union applied Glasnost in ways the regime had certainly predicted but dreaded nonetheless, thousands of people in Armenia took to the streets of Yerevan and made revolutionary demands from Moscow.
Rights were demanded that ran against everything the Soviet regime had tried to enforce, from freedom of expression to national-self determination. Photographs of the crowds in the main square (then presided by a grandiose statue of Lenin which now lies headless in the courtyard of the National Gallery) show row upon row of discontented people in large fur-trimmed coats, holding banners, standing up to authoritarianism in the bitter Caucasian winter - none of the electricity has been lost over time.
From the Diasporan perspective the 1980's held the promise of independence denied for centuries by numerous empires, from the Persians and Ottomans to the Soviets. The photographs of parallel protests across the Diaspora have a similar energy; the concept of an independent Armenia is still surreal to many of those who took part more than 20 years on. We are part of a generation that has only ever experienced Armenia as an independent state and that is a privilege in itself.
Much has changed since then but Armenia still has a long way to go to become the country promised by the protests. People in Armenia stood up to the Soviets and yet unquestioningly obey the establishment even if they don't agree with their principles or practices. Potholes are as much a feature of the Armenian landscape as the dejected expressions of passers-by, economic emigration is still rife, forests are being razed for the profit of the few at the expense of the many and poverty rates keep rising despite the government's best efforts to stick their heads in the sand and stifle debate in a manner known in Armenia as "ostrich-politics".
Even though progress in Armenia does feel like a "one step forward, two steps back" process at times, progress does happen. People in Yerevan and in the provinces are waking up to the fact that they have a say in how things are run, from their rural municipality to the higher echelons of power. People are slowly getting tired of an oligarchy that exists at their expense and protest placards are making ever more regular appearances on the streets and in the media; people are making demands and forcing the government to make the choice between responding and losing the few ounces of credibility and support they have left. One of my favourite slogans which crops up often is “???? ??? ??? ????? ??????”; we are the owners of this country.
Whilst poverty and insecurity in Armenia has created a culture of apathy towards and distrust of the government that is only starting to be challenged, most of the Diaspora's attitude is patronising at best and insultingly indifferent at worst. Armenia today may not be the biblical land of milk and honey promised by our displaced forefathers and its independence may be an accident of history, but it exists, it is ours and if we keep treating it like a pitiable charity case or a cheap holiday destination we will never have a role to play in its future. Armenia is developing and thriving and if we don't seize this opportunity to observe, learn, scrutinise and participate, Armenia will develop without us.
Many of the challenges of the 1980's are a world away from what Armenia faces today, and yet the revolutionary regime change that was expected still hasn't come about. Though we would like to see sustainable development, social security, environmental protection and more, we do not question the structures which support inequality, corruption, insecurity and environmental degradation. We do not challenge the system and as such the system is left to perpetuate itself; the longer it is left to do so the harder it will be to change it and the attitudes supporting it.
The parliamentary elections this year are the most significant challenge the establishment has faced since its rise to power and are taking place in the shadow of the economic crisis, the violent protests seen during the presidential elections in 2008, and various protests that have taken place recently such as those concerning the protection of the park on Mashtots Avenue. The people of Armenia are claiming their rights and it is becoming harder and harder for the government to undermine them, to stuff the ballot boxes or bribe people for their votes. Progress is slow, but things are looking up.
In the Diaspora and in the Republic we must challenge the status quo if we want to see the euphoric promises of independence translated into reality. This is not something that will be done for us by Moscow, USAID or the international observers bussed into the country during the elections - this is our responsibility. The land of milk and honey won't be handed on a silver platter - if it ever is then there will certainly be unpalatable strings attached. If we want to see it within our lifetimes we are the ones who must sign the petitions, hold the placards, rattle the foundations of the dysfunctional establishment and lay those of the better future we owe ourselves, our children and our forefathers who could only dream of an independent Armenia.
To Armenians in the Republic and across the Diaspora: it's 2012.
Wake up and smell the coffee. We deserve better.