Monthly Archives: February 2013

The BAREVolution Continues

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It appears that the opposition camp, at least part of it, is in this for the long haul. Raffi Hovannisian will keep holding rallies until he has enough public support to take the protests to another level. Thousands of people were present tonight. There must have been a dozen or so speakers before Raffi approached the microphone to remind people why they are there, and that their country belongs to them. There is still no concrete plan of action outlined, and that’s now obviously intentional.

Tomorrow at noon he will give a press conference in Liberty Square. Afterwards he and the crowd will march in a vigil to the site where the chaos unfolded on March 1, 2008, near the Myasnikian Statue, across from what is now known as Russian Square. Leven Ter-Petrosyan’s followers are also going to converge on that same spot, so it will be interesting to see if there is some kind of public interaction between Hovannisian and the Armenian National Congress camp. Then on Saturday, there will be another rally at 5 pm. Since it is a Saturday there potentially will be even more people in attendance.

Naturally, the more people that wake up and realize something serious is going on, the sooner the regime can change. Raffi has to keep the momentum going. And again, the people need to decide whether they want change to happen, or continue with the status quo. But from the looks of things, most people still need convincing that it can be done. If only they remember that in their collective strength they can retake control of their country and its future.

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Photos by Anush Khachatryan

Raffi’s ‘BAREVolution’

Raffi Hovannisian

On February 28 Raffi Hovannisian is expected to reveal his plan of action for his “fight for freedom” to his supporters in Yerevan’s Liberty Square. Opponents to the government, which comprise the vast majority of the Armenian population, are eager to learn just how he intends to topple the ruling regime lead by President Serge Sargsyan, who was reelected president on February 18 despite strong objections from the opposition. Sargsyan has received congratulatory messages from Russia, the European Union and the United States despite the contested vote.

Using actual polling results and reports of blatant fraud at numerous voting stations Hovannisian claimed himself to be the real winner, having won in Gyumri, Vanadzor, other major towns and parts of Yerevan. And he has vowed to achieve victory for the Armenian people by peacefully toppling the ruling regime in his so-called “BAREVolution,” which has spread throughout society as evident by the protests by students at Yerevan State University.

But kindness can only get you so far.  Sargsyan categorically rejected Hovannisian’s requests for new elections and snap parliamentary elections when they met on February 21. In the meantime, Hovannisian has been touring the country in hopes of garnering wide support for his movement to eventually dethrone the president. The problem is, the Republican party is not about to yield power because he is asking nicely. Despite the voiced assurance by Republican party leader Galust Sahakian on Tuesday that the authorities want to have a strong opposition and are unfazed by the protests, they ultimately won’t relieve themselves of the positions of power without putting up a fight, and that is exactly what will be needed for the opposition to take the reigns for leading the nation.

An inevitable clash will mean more persecutions, indiscriminate incarcerations and potential loss of life, perhaps more severe than what transpired in March of 2008. Hovannisian and those closest to him would be blamed for inciting turmoil and likely be imprisoned. So would some of his new allies, like the radical prominent member of the Armenian National Congress Nikol Pashinyan, who was released from prison in a general amnesty in 2011, and ARF-Dashnaktsutyun, whose leaders could wind up in the slammer and face new or existing charges–it’s important to remember that the defendants of the “Trial of 31” were simply released from custody and not acquitted.

Backing down now will undermine all of their reputations ever more so, and public apathy will only widen in scope.  In short, Hovannisian and this newly forming opposition bloc has no choice but to persevere or else be forever demonized. They cannot afford to lose the respect of the public that secretly or outspokenly demands change.

How far are they really willing to take this revolution? Are they all quite prepared to serve jail time in this fight for freedom? What would be the public’s reaction to a new crackdown on civil liberties? Clarifications will be made on Thursday afternoon for an eager crowd of supporters expecting perseverance and a committal to the promise of victory. Let’s hope they are not disappointed.

Photos by Anush Khachatryan

Power to the People

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Raffi Hovannisian held another rally today at 3 pm in Liberty Square before a crowd of several thousand people. Lots of youth in attendance, which was great to see. Since it was not sanctioned he only spoke for a little more than a half-hour and also announced his schedule for the next few days. The square was mostly full and there was a steady stream of people entering, although I expected to see a much larger crowd on a Sunday afternoon.

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His tour of communities throughout the south will commence tomorrow, due to visit Armavir, Ejmiadzin, Masis, Ardashat, Ararat, Areni and Yegheknadzor on Monday. Tuesday morning he’ll be in Agarak, which is on the Iranian border, then he’ll go on to Meghri, Kapan, Goris and Sisian. This is the only effective way to get his motivational message across to citizens nationwide. In order for this populist momentum to continue he has to convince as many citizens as he can that change is indeed possible.

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In order for Raffi to succeed the people have to buy that simple premise. And the language Raffi’s using, urging citizens to be proactive and excited about the potential change, seems to be working. The main challenge now is to sustain the momentum. And needless to say, he has a tremendous amount of work yet to do to get everyone on board. But all the reports coming out about specific cases of election fraud will only help him, while the authorities still don’t seem to give a damn. This struggle is likely to continue for days and weeks to come, although again, it’s up to the people to decide. But with many oppositional parties and individuals behind him now, he’s certainly their man.

We’ll see what happens.

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Photos by Anush Khachatryan

Elections Over. Now What?

Karen Minasian, photo
Karen Minasian photo

As the press and politicians predicted, Serzh Sargsyan won the 2013 Armenian presidential elections in a landslide victory with 58.6 percent of the vote. His main challenger, Raffi Hovannisian, came in second with a rather impressive 36.7 percent, much higher than Levon Ter-Petrossian’s “official” count back in 2008.

Naturally we don’t know how realistic these numbers actually are since there was widespread vote buying, ballot stuffing and arranged voter turnout with some people purportedly being bused into Yerevan from Gyumri according to one account. RFE/RL reported other specific cases of voting irregularities.

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Nelli Shishmanyan photo

There is already discussion of revolution in the air–Hovannisian’s press secretary Hovsep Khourshoudyan said today that “Even Serzh Sargsyan wants a constitutional revolution. A revolution is in the making.” And on Feb. 15 Aghvan Vartanian of ARF-Dashnaktsutyun told reporters that the party foresees a post-election “radical transformation” in Armenian politics. Naturally, such comments don’t seem serious when you have voters purportedly drawing caricatures on their ballots–one person actually ate his ballot at the polling station. This shows blatant cynicism in society, not a call for transformation.

As Armenians will likely tolerate another five-year term of Serzh Sargsyan, here’s a list of equally important issues and concerns that he should examine immediately in order to win over the confidence of the apathetic, hopelessly fatalistic public:

– Double the minimum wage to  increase the standards of living for 99% of the population, most of which is struggling, to further stimulate the economy with consumer spending.

– Dissolve the monopolies shared by several oligarchic clans to invite competition in the marketplace.

– Attract foreign investment by continuing to offer tax breaks to would-be investors. Waiving customs fees, a good chunk of which ends up in the pockets of officials anyway, would also be a nice incentive.

– Persuade oligarchs to create jobs by actually investing in the manufacturing sector instead of relying on selling cheap Turkish and Chinese imports at exorbitant prices to earn profits.

– Boost foreign investment in the IT industry. The importance of this cannot be stressed enough. There is a plethora of talented young software engineers in need of jobs and career growth potential. They are leaving the country en masse–I personally know about eight people who have departed for the US, Canada and Russia and are extremely successful there. That talent has to stay put and help build the country.

– Overhaul the social welfare system to ensure that the plight of the very poor and homeless (yes, people without shelter roam Yerevan’s streets) is assuaged by providing free housing, health care and employment for those who need it urgently.

– Either stop or retract the complex web of governmental corruption. President Sargsyan best knows what needs to be done so there’s no need to elaborate here.

The Armenian diaspora can do the following:

– In memory of the victims of the Armenian Genocide, actively become involved in curbing emigration and cease justifying the inevitability of it. As I have written on this blog the continued exodus has become an issue of national security for Armenia and it urgently has to reverse, people need to return to their homeland. Armenia needs to be populated, it’s that simple. Armenia is fast becoming a serfdom, and the middle class will likely shrink with continued cynicism and the infectious desire to be “anywhere but here.”

– Stimulate  civil society in Armenia through trainings and by promoting initiatives.

– Become proactive in democracy building efforts. The mentality that “you can’t do it” fostered by Armenians from Armenia living abroad needs to change.

Good luck, everyone.

My take on the 2013 Presidential Elections

Armenian presidential campaign postersWith the 2013 Armenian presidential elections only days away I want to reprint an article that appeared in the Armenian Weekly fifteen days ago, basically my take on the elections and what should be expected from the point of view of an “outsider.” I am cautiously optimistic that the real candidate of the people’s choice (nearly everyone I know is voting for Raffi Hovannisian) will be residing in the presidential palace this spring, although, naturally, there is no telling. Everyone including the media in the west is predicting President Sargsyan’s victory. He’s promising the fairest elections ever in the Republic of Armenia’s brief history, nevertheless his Republican party has a notoriously bad reputation of falsifying the vote with intimidation, carousel voting and ballot stuffing. Even if the vote is “completely” free and fair, he may still be reelected, but with all the complaining I’ve heard in the last five years, citizens who are dissatisfied with the regime (the majority), that should be unlikely if we follow that train of logic. Unfortunately, the Armenian system of logic is unique and does not conform to general norms of rational thinking.

Anyway, here it is.

Armenians Show Indifference to 2013 Presidential Elections
By Christian Garbis

The insouciant vibe in Armenia just a week after the official start of the presidential campaign is a stark contrast to the energy surrounding the 2008 election. The excitement displayed then by frequent rallies and gatherings of the Armenian National Congress pushed other parties, both pro-government and oppositional, to compete for the lion’s share of public attention.

None of that exists today. With Levon Ter-Petrossian’s retreat to his den, the Congress is on the verge of disintegrating and the president’s own rallies are staged. Two major parties in opposition have refused to field candidates. The hype isn’t there.

Several reasons for this exist. Firstly, Armenians do not believe they live in a democracy. They acknowledge the totalitarian tendencies of the ruling regime but do nothing to bring about reform. They accept the new requirement of receiving ID cards from the police department so they can receive salaries. They withstand having their children escorted by their teachers to the president’s campaign events while holding Republican Party flags in the middle of the school day. They comply when their department heads at state agencies demand they submit a list of 50-100 names of people who pledge they will vote for the president, or else be fired. They don’t dare to complain about absurdly low wages for fear of losing their jobs, and the opposition parties have no leverage to have the standards of living increased for most citizens. The ruling regime feels no pressure from within the country and externally, namely from the Armenian Diaspora, to revise its domestic policies. There is no system of checks and balances, nor is there a perceived need for them since it’s not discussed publically. Armenians lament the absence of justice, but they put forth no concrete demands for their government to reform the judicial system and make it resilient to external influence. The president promises the fairest election ever, but no one believes him. Some even think that the outcome has been prearranged in an agreement between Washington and Moscow.

Many citizens, especially those living in rural areas, look forward to election day as a way to make a quick $10 or $20 by selling their vote. They don’t care how the election turns out because they see the repressive system perpetuating. They feel no sense of empowerment, they don’t believe in the strength of their voice. The commonly spoken line keeps repeating: “What can you do? There it is.”

In the meantime, those who can will continue to leave. Decent-paying work opportunities are hard to come by, and the government does little to create new jobs. As the Weekly previously reported, a 2008 study by the International Labor Organization showed that 70 percent of families with one or more members working abroad received remittances from them, which are then used to pay for food and utilities (both of which have substantially increased since the report was released). People are struggling more than ever to get by.

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Raffi Hovannisian, one of the most respected Armenian politicians, who ironically is among the least taken seriously, is the president’s main contender. Known for his brutal honesty and strong will, he is perceived by some as the beaming icon of what should personify the ideal president. He is universally viewed among Armenian citizenry as “a nice guy who means well.”

But Raffi is in it alone. None of the other parties have hinted at lending their support to his candidacy, which is unsurprising given his reputation for being unable to cooperate with virtually anyone. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how he would ever form a government. His Heritage Party’s embarrassing divorce from the Free Democrats after Hovannisian made public his desire for their leader, Khachatur Kokobelian, to yield his parliamentary seat to young blood resulted in the loss of a broader support base.

If by divine providence Hovannisian were to win, he would still have the omnipotent oligarchic system to contend with, and the “families” would likely be unwilling to serve him (unless he’s been secretly reaching out). He will have to campaign tremendously hard in the next few weeks to prove he is a serious alternative who can actually beat President Serge Sarkisian, something that will take a considerable amount of convincing. But his slogan, “It’s Possible,” is certainly optimistic.

Paruyr Hayrikian, the legendary dissident from the Soviet era, announced his candidacy on Jan. 7. He was quoted by RFE/RL as saying that there “will be no constitutional regime change in Armenia through these elections because unfortunately power…illegally and legally belongs to Serge Sarkisian and his associates subordinate to him.” [Note: Hayrikian was shot on Jan. 31 and is currently recovering]

In his Jan. 19 interview with RFE/RL, in response to whether he believed he had a rival, Sarkisian’s first words were, “I am inclined to believe that it is not the government’s problem to nurture a competitor.” No, only the incumbent’s.

Sarkisian doesn’t seem to understand how election campaigns really work. In the interview with RFE/RL, the president commented, “People become presidents with their teams, due to their track record, and not by criticizing the government.” This baffling statement implies he either simply doesn’t read international political news or he’s mocking anyone bothering to peruse his remarks. Then a recent video shows the president’s gruff indifference to the plight of struggling citizens at an Army Day commemorative event as a desperate woman approaches him in tears for an answer she can’t find.

The apathy surrounding these elections is shared by citizens and political forces alike. Neither the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (ARF-D), Prosperous Armenia Party, or Armenian National Congress agreed to field candidates of their own, nor did they consider rallying around a single challenger, as a demonstration of no confidence in the fairness of the elections. The consensus was nothing more than a noble act of defeatism, a blatant affront to the democratic process. Lyudmila Sargsian of the Congress on Jan. 9 said that “Serge Sarkisian’s reelection is already predetermined. I think that it would be unserious of the [Armenian National Congress] to enter the fray.” In turn, head of the ARF-D parliamentary group Armen Rustamyan’s said, “I will definitely not vote for anybody… In all likelihood, I will write ‘against all’ on the ballot.”

Eligible voters can be divided into three categories: those who will vote for the authorities to protect their jobs and way of life; those who succumb to vote buying or are intimidated to vote a certain way; and those who vote of their own free will, ignoring pressure to vote for a particular candidate. Yet, nearly everyone I have ever spoken to has told me that the status quo will remain because nothing can ever be done to change the system of governance (although some tend to be cautiously optimistic). People live in fear—fear of losing their jobs and capital, and being oppressed.

It is not the Sarkisian Administration, or any other for that matter, that has been manipulating mindsets. Indifference and fatalism control the populace, and thereby obscure their belief in democracy. And they’re apprehensive of change.

As a fruit vendor working out of a small trailer in a courtyard near Sakharov Square told me the other day, “They say we’re living well now, although I don’t think I totally agree… But it could be a lot worse.”