Category Archives: Politics

Thoughts on April 17

On Tuesday I witnessed civil actions and vignettes of disobedience that I have never seen before in Armenia. For part of the day I was watching many of these events unfold in different places simultaneously thanks to several online live video feeds broadcast by Azatutyun.am and A1plus.am. Hetq Online was reporting on the events throughout the day, and as usual posted stunning photos by Narek Alexanyan, some of which are reprinted here.

The peaceful actions of civil disobedience were unprecedented for Armenia. For example, students would suddenly decide to block the entire six-lane width of Abovyan Street at the Isahakyan intersection and sit on the ground in a tight row. Elderly pairs would be moving slowly but deliberately up Sayat-Nova streets to watch on, perhaps give a few words of wisdom and encouragement to student protestors. Thousands of people walked toward or right against the police barricade near the foot of Baghramyan Street, and linger there or move on to another impromptu site of protest, that would suddenly be abandoned for another intersection randomly blocked, impeding the flow of traffic once again. They were totally decentralized movements of disruption, always peaceful, and dignified (save for frustrated drivers who found themselves unexpectedly stranded, as I saw for instance on the corner of Sayat-Nova and Abovyan Streets around 3:30 pm, just moments after protestors blocked the intersection).  Then I began walking west to the Place de France, the square on Mashdots and Sayat-Nova, a stone’s throw from the Opera House. The area had been occupied at that point for at least 40 hours, if not more. Suddenly two young guys sharing a seat on a retro BMX-style dirt bike resembling the one my brother rode around when we were kids in Winchester rode into the intersection and announced that the people should mobilize and move directly to Republic Square.

Throughout the day the thousand-strong crowd led by Nigol Pashinyan moved to various locations, occupying the entrances of governmental agencies, like the Prosecutor General’s Office, then the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for several minutes at a time, before moving on again. When I first started observing what was happening, in all honestly it seemed pointless and absurd, and it stirred memories of movements from the past—from 2013 especially.  But it didn’t take long for me to understand that this effort was indeed an organized, nevertheless decentralized string of protests.

I walked south on Mashdots Street and saw that every intersection starting from Place de France all the way to the Khorenatsi intersection, near the “Pak Shuga,” was blockaded. Understand that this is the most travelled avenue in central Yerevan, one of the main city routes used by hundreds of minibuses, trolleys and, full-size buses every hour. So to see it come to a complete standstill, where only pedestrians traveled, was surreal.

Photo by Christian Garbis
Photo by Christian Garbis

I made a left on Amiryan and walked to the Square to see whether protesters were indeed assembling there. By the time I got there shortly before 4:00 pm the Square was occupied. All six roads that either enter or exit the square were closed, and people were just strolling about. Some, like me, were left standing on a corner, trying to comprehend how these students managed to bring traffic in one of the busiest, vibrant locations of the city to a standstill. At one point some protesters took a break to play impromptu volleyball directly in the middle of the square on the stone-tiled oval-shaped barrier. By 6:00 thousands of people were occupying the square, and more kept pouring in.

Photo by Christian Garbis

And then a couple of hours later they left. By 9:00 there were virtually no signs that anything had happened there. There were also no police, save for the row of young cadets guarding the entrance to the Government Building. It was peaceful, as it always is in the evening. People were strolling around the fountains, as they always do. Some vendors were selling those junky toys with multicolored strobe lights little kids love so much. It was business as usual, although traffic was still light. Republic Square was simply abandoned for another location, another site where traffic and normalcy would suddenly be disrupted, causing momentary chaos and stress for motorists.

As of Wednesday morning I am still trying to process the events. I have seen protests in Yerevan attended by huge crowds time and time again—2007, 2008, 2013, 2014, 2015. But this was different. Most of the organizers and participants were students—18-24 years old. Some even younger were directly involved.

Now I have never been a big fan of Nigol Pashinyan, who’s an MP representing the oppositional Yelk bloc, although I admire his strong will and straightforwardness. But he’s let down people before, quite a few times, actually, by trying to play ball with the authorities. Two years ago he was rebuked and sent home during the “Sasna Dzer” protests. I first encountered him in 2007, when he launched his anti-government “Impeachment” one-man show, followed by the broader “Aylentrank”  (Alternative) movement. Back then he was still the editor for Haykakan Zhamanak daily newspaper. He was on Freedom Square on the steps of the Opera House on a daily basis, screaming incoherently in a shrill voice into a bullhorn, with a few spectators standing around chomping on sunflower seeds, wondering what his beef was. He’s doing the same today, although his message is quite clear and articulate. And he has rallied thousands of protestors who are counting on him to persist.

But this movement is not about him. It’s about Armenia’s youth and their pursuit of justice, and their struggle to live in a free, democratic state, not one governed by an increasingly authoritarian regime. The protestors have vowed to retake Place de France today and Republic Square by day’s end. And, judging from what I personally saw on Tuesday, they will get the job done, irrespective of whether he’s actually present.

All photos by Narek Alexanyan (unless otherwise noted), copyright Hetq Online 2018

Official Statement by Armenian Defense Ministry, April 4

The following is a translation of an official statement made by the Armenian Ministry of Defense on April 4. The translation was done by journalist Maria Titizian. 

The Defense Ministry (MOD) of the Republic of Armenia attaches great importance to the reaction of the international community and their calls to the sides of the conflict. The MOD of Armenia stresses that the Republic of Armenia is the guarantor of the security of the people of NKR. At the same time, as a side that is not involved in the military operations, the MOD of Armenia appreciates that the calls to end the hostilities have been directed to Azerbaijan and Nagorno Karabakh – the two sides involved in the conflict.

Being in agreement with the calls to the sides to end the hostilities, the MOD of Armenia wants to call the attention to the international community of the fact that aside from political statements to restore the ceasefire regime, it is necessary to bring to an agreement and realize concrete means; develop the technical conditions of a ceasefire, implement the removal/separation of the forces and restore the mechanisms for the ceasefire regime.

At the same time, the RA MOD wishes to bring to the attention of the international community that the military operations unleashed by the Azerbaijan side is in violation of the 1970 Declaration on Principles of International Law concerning Friendly Relations and Co-operation among States in accordance with the charter of the United Nations, the 1976 OSCE Helsinki Final Act and a number of other international legal documents.

During the military operations realized by the Azerbaijani side against the defense forces of Nagorno Karabakh and civilians, there have been numerous acts similar to the tactics used by international terrorist organizations, which according to international humanitarian law, are considered to be military crimes. Those include torture of non-combatants and prisoners of war, including even beheadings, mutilation of corpses, etc. Those acts have been photographed and displayed with the objective of terrorizing people.

The RA MOD announces that the Azerbaijani authorities and all those responsible for the violations of international law and war crimes will be brought to justice, including by the international community.

Is Nagorno-Karabakh Caught in a New War?

Eric Grigorian photo for Hetq Online
Eric Grigorian photo for Hetq Online

A new armed struggle to maintain the integrity of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic began in the early hours of April 2. Azerbaijan has admitted that it launched an all out attack long the line of contact with Nagorno-Karabakh, although Baku has subsequently denied that.

Many of us following the events during the last few days have been frustrated by the lack of information from the front lines. Often the same news was reported for eight hours or more on Facebook and Twitter feeds by users based in the region, most notably the supposed ceasefire initiated by Azerbaijan that proved to be disinformation. Official statements from the Nagorno-Karabakh government reveal the number of soldiers dead as well as the amount of destroyed military equipment. Until late April 3 few professional photographs taken along the line of contact were circulating in the press. Amateur as well as some professional video footage taken from a distance was also posted on various news sites.

As of this writing on April 4, this is what we know:

  • Contrary to earlier reports Azerbaijan has demonstrated that it has no intentions to initiate a ceasefire. The Nagorno-Karabakh defense ministry reported that massive shelling along the line of contact is continuing. In northern Karabakh Azeri forces are reportedly retreating and vital strategic positions have been recaptured by the Nagorno-Karabakh military.
  • Azerbaijan is continuing its offensive with “mortar and grenade attacks” all along the frontlines with the southeastern and northeastern points taking the brunt of the assault. Other equipment used in the assault include 152 mm cannons, Grad missiles and tanks.
  • The town of Martakert in the northern part of Nagorno-Karabakh, which resides virtually on the line of contact with Azerbaijan, was severely shelled throughout the day on April 2.
  • Nagorno-Karabakh forces have reportedly destroyed a total of 4 drones, two helicopters, 21 tanks (estimated) and multiple armed vehicles. Nagorno-Karabakh has reportedly lost one tank and three military trucks.
  • On April 3 Karabagh officially claimed six wounded, including two children, and four dead civilians, including one child. Hetq Online reported that in Martakert Azeri soldiers killed an elderly couple in their own home and cut off their ears. It is not clear whether that couple was factored in the official number of deaths. Official numbers on April 2 were 18 soldiers killed and 35 wounded, according to Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan. As of this writing there are no new reports of casualties.
  • Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan has promised Turkey’s full support of Azerbaijan in the conflict “to the end.”
  • US Congressman Adam Schiff (D-CA), Brad Sherman (D-CA), Robert Dold (R-IL) and Frank Pallone (D-NJ) have condemned Azerbaijan’s aggression in official statements. The Organization of American States (OAS) has also condemned Azerbaijan.
  • Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is purportedly working on a new plan to cease the hostilities. The Co-chairs of OSCE Minsk Group is due to meet today—we can expect a statement from them by the evening or on Tuesday.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of updates.

Let’s be clear: this is a new conflict. This fighting is not a violation of the 1994 ceasefire brokered by Russia; it demands a new legally binding agreement to end the hostilities. And although there have been skirmishes along the line of contact over the last 20 years, with even micro-battles being waged on occasion, there has been relative peace between the Nagorno-Karakakh Republic and Azerbaijan. This is essentially a new war—if we can indeed call it that only three days in. The Azeri offensive should not be seen as a “frozen conflict” suddenly thawed overnight.

I have not seen an official declaration of war from either side. The Nagorno-Karabakh forces have been on the defense by holding the line and reclaiming posts that had been taken by the Azerbaijani army “blitzkrieg,” as it’s been described by the Armenian press, of April 2.

For two days I refrained from writing about these clashes. Although I don’t think I’m alone in having expected a new conflict to erupt, the sudden events of the weekend have certainly been surreal given the relatively peaceful situation of the last 20 years.

Notes on the Centennial

My grandmother Clara with her mother, Haigouhi
My grandmother Clara with her mother, Haigouhi

For several weeks now I’ve been trying to put into words what the centennial of the Armenian Genocide means to me personally, and how I am either directly or indirectly affected by that holocaust. Would I have existed had the Genocide not taken place? Is it possible that my grandparents would have met regardless and given birth to my own parents, who in turn would have met either in Western Armenia or in the United States?

Obviously, there is no way of predicting destiny and it arguably may be a foolish exercise to even ponder the probabilities of outcome. Perhaps I am being naïve in stating that yes, I do believe I would have been born into this world right around the same time 43 years ago. It is extremely likely that both my grandparents on my mother’s side for instance would have wound up in America. My great-grandmother’s sister, Teriz Echmelian, had already ventured to Providence, Rhode Island all by herself, a rebellious act in those days, and so had the uncle of my grandfather—his father’s brother—having settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts. My great-grandfather Nishan Guetchudian moved back to Yegheki in the Harput province leaving his home and occupation in Connecticut behind in order to marry my great-grandmother Haigouhi—his brother had sent him a photograph of an attractive, prospective spouse. Since he already had a taste of what life was like in America, he’d eventually heed his calling and move his family back with him. So it was inevitable that the two sisters and their families would have been reunited in the New World.

My grandfather Hagop Rousyan (actually spelled “Russian”) had already been orphaned before the Genocide and was living on the streets, surviving on a diet of grass and weeds and toiling in odd jobs. Nevertheless, he was certainly impacted directly by the after-effects of genocide since it was impossible for him to return to his village of Sousoury, which incidentally was situated next door to Yegheki. But since his uncle had already found his way to New England, I presume he most certainly would have followed.

My grandparents on my father’s side met in Aleppo, and there was about a 14-year age gap between them. Garabed Adanalian was born there, while my grandmother Luciné Mahakian and her entire family fled Urfa. Meanwhile, Aleppo was an ancient, attractive cosmopolitan city with opportunities abound, and there was certainly an Armenian community already flourishing there since the 11th century. In all likelihood, had there not been a genocide they probably would have wed since marriages were arranged in most instances.

My father expressed his conviction to me while growing up that the Middle East, meaning the chiefly Arab countries, were simply a depot for Armenians as they had no place living there long-term due to the cultural and religious imbalance. Thus, I am certain that, one way or another, he would have found his way to the Boston area since he had contacts already residing there and was on a quest for freedom from a world with which he could never identify.

Since I do believe that the concept of destiny is defensible, I am able to separate the events of 100 years ago from my identity as an Armenian and, more importantly, as human being. Having said that, my stance on destiny does not obstruct my obligation to contend with the past and somehow fathom the horrors my grandparents were made to endure. I’ve had to confront my people’s past for decades, at various times in intense scrutiny. Only recently have I begun to probe the details of the plight of my maternal grandmother, Clara Movsesian Russian, who turned 100 years old in October and still resides in her home of 70 years in Arlington, Massachusetts.

Nevertheless, I have never found myself obsessed with genocide and the need for politicians and presidents to acknowledge the holocaust of the Armenians as genocide. But each year I anticipate that the US President will officially spurn the intimidation of the Turkish government and its billion-dollar industry of denial. Like thousands of other Armenian-Americans, I can’t wait for the annual written statement on the occasion of April 24th to be released by the Oval Office, only to be disappointed year after year. But I never lose hope that perhaps the following year the president will finally use the “G-word.”

But what would change if he did? When will the Turkish government succumb to its perceived legitimacy of denial and subsequently bring the Armenian Genocide to an end once and for all? Would reparations eventually follow? I’ve never been able to guess the outcome. Perhaps the Armenian Genocide will cease to matter to the world in 2016, and Armenian-Americans may begin to lose hope that their president will ever properly acknowledge it. I simply don’t know what to think.

Unmistakably, the visit of the Kardashians to Armenia in April followed by the Pope’s public acknowledgement of the Armenian Genocide generated a worldwide fervor. The topic of the Armenian Genocide is being used as a direct way to spur business for media outlets.  Everyone is talking about the Genocide, it has never received such attention on a mass scale since awareness was first spread about it 50 years ago. The magnitude of the worldwide attention, fueled  by the numerous reports appearing in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, the Independent, the Daily Times and myriad other widely read publications with millions of followers, not to mention the miraculous social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter, is unequivocal. The buzz that has been created is staggering, even overwhelming.

It’s important that we separate the glamour, the Botox, the protruding bosoms and behinds, the haughty Hollywood lifestyle from the humanity of the Kardashians. Their visit was met with cynical remarks in social media. Some of my friends have been critical, believing that their visit has only cheapened or undermined the Armenian cause with all the ruckus. I cannot disagree more. They are human beings. They are connecting with their roots. They didn’t have to travel to Armenia for the centennial; they could have stayed home. They certainly didn’t need the publicity. And the Armenians have not lost anything. They instead should be proud that awareness of the Genocide and the Armenian nation for that matter has been placed under the spotlight. Average Americans now know where Armenia is located on the map, and they are now aware of the inferno in which the first Christian nation was engulfed 100 years ago. That’s something to celebrate ardently.

Stop the Custom’s Agreement from being Signed with Moscow

Armenian citizens should not allow the customs agreement to be signed with Russia.

Joining a still-abstract Customs Union, with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan confirmed onboard, is a disaster in the making and would the worst thing the Armenian republic ever did in its 22 year history. It would be tantamount to entering a screeching time vortex and landing in the dark ages, complete with the classic communist slogans pasted across the city walls and statues being re-erected glorifying the days of the Soviet dream. Putin’s dream is to bring it all back, under a different guise, but all the same associated nonsense.

After 4 years of negotiations with the EU on signing the Association Agreement and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, which would have entered its final phase with a formal signing ceremony in November, one man’s abrupt decision should not lock Armenia’s fate and compromise its long-term sustainability and prospects for expanding growth. The Armenian people themselves must decide their own future, not someone who places his own personal interests over those of the people he is supposedly serving.

Any citizen who has had the privilege of studying or even visiting Europe, the US and other free democratic nations, and has a concept of what living in a democratic society means, and cares about the long-term viability of Armenia for his children and future generations, and wants to see expanding growth on all levels — economic, social, cultural, educational and so forth–must not permit the agreement for Armenia to join the Customs Union to be signed. It will neutralize the Association Agreement with the EU–this has been confirmed by EU officials.

According to RFE/RL’s report:

Elmar Brok, the German chairman of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, likewise said Armenia’s Association Agreement will not be signed any time soon. “I feel very sorry because it is legally — because of certain conditions — not possible to be a full member both of the Customs Union and have an association agreement and free trade area agreement with the European Union,” he told an RFE/RL correspondent in Brussels.

It’s not too late to stop this customs agreement with Russia from going through by any means. Fatalists in Armenian families, especially anyone over the age of 50, need to be locked up in the closet. It’s time to ensure that Armenia does not squander its opportunity for tighter integration with the west and opportunities abound for Armenia’s sustainable development. It’s time to demand that the Armenian government intervenes and forces the President to go back on his promises in Moscow. Armenians need to stand up.