Tag Archives: armenian activism

In 2012, Armenia Must Innovate, Not Devastate

A dense forest in upper Lori (Photo Christian Garbis)
A dense forest in upper Lori (Photo Christian Garbis)

Last night while out for a stroll with my dog I met my friend Haik who lives next door. We were talking about the advantage of having a garage to keep a car away from gasoline thieves. who love to ravage my Niva’s fuel supply.

While we chatted the upstairs neighbor, who along with his wife and kids has snubbed me for the last five years despite the number of times I’ve said hello, stopped to great Haik and exchange New Years greetings. As they were parting I overheard him telling Haik that he had taken his family to Moscow for the holidays, since staying in Armenia was “meaningless.”

The neighbor, purportedly a banker by profession, is one of these nouveau riche Yerevanites who suddenly found himself with a lap full of cash overnight. Within the span of only a couple of months I recall he purchased two brand new Hyundais and remodeled his home. And now that he has the money to burn, it’s “meaningless” for him and his family to celebrate the holiday season in their own country.  Like it’s all some big joke.

Vacationing outside Armenia for New Years and Christmas is a trendy thing to do nowadays. But this sentiment of meaninglessness is permanent, particularly amongst the wealthy. A glance of the daily headlines will make this obvious — government officials trying to push through deals to excavate hundreds of hectares of land for mining projects, or displacing hundreds of homes for urban development projects, cutting forests to sell the wood, and so on and so forth. For these people, it appears it is “meaningless” to take pride in your country, since as the old ludicrous saying goes, “the country is not a country” to begin with. And since the world is going to end this year as many the naive believe, it’s better to take advantage while you still can. Yet the nouveau riche appears to have been living by this mindset on a daily basis, and I am convinced they have no love for country, only what they can reap from it for fattening their purses. An imprudent generalization, I admit, but there it is.

I can’t say what this New Year will bring for Armenia. But there’s one thing I always hope for — when people with the means to benefit their nation will come to their senses, reset their jaded attitudes and begin to innovate rather than devastate.

Armenian Activism at its finest

This video depicts a confrontation between environmental activists and Syunik governor Surik Khachatryan in Kajaran (the video is in Armenian).

Basically they are saying what I wrote in my previous post, emphasizing that the extracted copper and the profits associated with its sale on the market will go to Germany, where the parent mining company is based, and that the Armenia economy as well as the countless village inhabitants that will be displaced, won’t reap any benefit from the mining.

The woman wearing the hat is the maverick Mariam Sukhudyan, but unfortunately I cannot identify the man in the camouflage jacket. Mariam is certainly an inspirational woman and she is the single most effective spokesman for badly needed change in this country — change in the mindset and the corrupted values fostered by so many politicians here.

Towards the end of the video he called her a dragonfly and purportedly said that something “bad” would happen to her if she continued her protest (it was not audible but appeared in print).

Her continued efforts (as well as those of her teammates) will undoubtedly spark a fire in the hearts of many Armenians to stand up for themselves. It’s just a question of when.

One thing is certain for many people not just in Syunik but in the minds of many here in Yerevan — this guy has to go and this project must be stopped. He can barely defend himself and can’t even speak proper Armenian. Being born in the States I was not educated in Armenia and mostly self-taught in the language, yet it seems I can speak better Armenian than he can. The video is testament to how utterly uneducated Khachatryan and undoubedly many other people in government are.

Kudos to these brave activists. May their crucial work continue unabated.

Nareg Free Thanks to Support

I just wanted to make yet another point that when a collective group of individuals campaigning for the same cause protest hard enough, their demands will eventually be met, sooner or later. In Nareg Hartounian’s case it only took a few days.

At last count 1,251 people signed the online petition demanding his release from jail, and the “Free Nareg” Facebook page received 1,624 “likes,” with 2,041 users discussing the issue. Although the Ministry of Diaspora declined to comment on Nareg’s arrest, Minster Hranoush Hakobyan undoubtedly received myriad complaints. We know that he and his associates were released per the order of an official in the Prosecutor General’s office, but it’s still unclear what additional pressure was placed on the authorities to free Nareg from jail, not that it matters much at this point.

Kudos to the activists tirelessly pushing for Nareg’s freedom from incarceration. Now we can only hope that the the controversial, on the surface incredulous, tax evasion case he is embroiled in will be resolved without additional drama.

Is Armenia Really Not a Country?

in gyumri

Last night a friend came over and gave me some disturbing information. He had been talking to someone earlier in the day who said that there are only 1.5 million people left in the Republic of Armenia.

Moreover, people are leaving en masse. He said that there was at least one instance of an entire village moving to live somewhere in Russia. Everyone in the village closed their homes and relocated to an area where they were provided with new houses and land to cultivate. But he could not remember the name of the village and couldn’t identify its location, and he didn’t know exactly where in Russia everyone had gone.

You hear the same story about Gyumri. People are being approached to give up everything they have and move to somewhere in Russia, where they will be provided housing and work, fulfilled by signing some sort of contract. Who was sponsoring this initiative–Russian private interests, Armenian or from elsewhere–wasn’t clear at all.

Naturally I cannot attest to the reliability of this source but will say that I think the new population figure is a bit of a stretch. It was only five or six years ago when I started hearing unofficial statistics that the actual number of people living on Armenian soil was 2.5 million. It seems this number, although unofficial, has become an accepted reality, as I’m hearing not only Armenian citizens telling me this, but even people living in the diaspora who are close to me acknowledging the same. The regional populations are indeed thinning, but to say that 1 million people have managed to clear out in five years’ time without the government realizing what was happening or even giving a damn that it was is not logical. My friend’s argument is that people are forced to leave because there is by and large no economic development in rural areas, and there are no jobs to be had, both of which are certainly true. He pins sole blame of everyone’s economic distress on the government and scorns it for not addressing the problem of mass exodus as officials are too focused on lining their own pockets than to be concerned about how the other half lives.

Let’s assume that state officials, from the president down, only care about exploiting their positions to make money. In order to have a country to rule over, you need citizenry to form an active society that must be governed. Even if government officials didn’t give a damn as my friend claims, it would not be in their interests to let another million people leave their homes. In order to have power you need to rule over a populace and assert that power and prove to neighboring countries that you do indeed have power to wield, that your country has significant importance in the region.

Regardless of how authentic that information he relayed to me is, the main problem is that this issue is being discussed in closed circles via rumor as fact. This is most troubling to me because now my friend believes there is nothing left to do but to leave the country as he sees no future here. And he is middle class—he is not necessarily hurting for work being a professional photographer sought after by foreign news agencies. He is giving up after prolonged exposure to self-defeating, bitter rhetoric that only fuels apathy, as are countless others, without doing anything to bring about good governance. The country is not a country.

I mentioned to him in our heated conversation that citizens need to start engaging their lawmakers, they need to meet with them as special interest lobbying groups or individually, to make them understand that elected parliamentarians are in office to serve the people. He shrugged off what I was telling him, claiming that a parliament member would only keep his door closed and refuse to talk with his constituents. Without even making an attempt to try, that it is even futile to do so, he has convinced himself that lawmakers don’t want to do their jobs. Moreover, he is convinced that nothing good can ever come from the current government, or apparently any government for that matter.

He is not alone, and that’s where the real problem lies.

Saving Cinema Moscow Amphitheater

Saving Cinema Moscow AmphitheaterThere has been a lot of controversy over the proposed building of a new church where the Cinema Moscow amphitheater is located on the corner of Abovyan and Tumanyan Streets. Here’s what we know.

In early March the Armenian government revealed plans to build a new church on the site where the massive St. Poghos-Petros once stood before it was destroyed in the 1930s to make way for a new movie house. Rather than tearing down Cinema Moscow, which would cause mass havoc, the amphitheater—built in the 1960s—will be removed instead. That way, everyone would be happy, or so someone behind this bad idea initially thought.

What’s the problem? The amphitheater is the only one of its kind in Yerevan, where spring and summer concerts are held, albeit infrequently. Last year, however, it was the venue of a classical music festival, and some jazz performances were held there as well. Rock fests have also taken place there in the past. So it clearly serves a beneficial purpose as an inviting open stage to promote the music and arts.

But there seems to be mainly negative connotations associated with this proposal. The restoration of the grounds where Katoghike Church stands on the corner of Abovyan and Sayat Nova Streets has yet to get under way. It’s been nearly two years since demolition of the Linguistics Institute first began. That building constructed by the Soviets was the site of a 17th century cathedral. Katoghike itself was essentially a church within a church dating from the 13th century—the cathedral had been built around it four centuries later. The Soviets apparently decided to preserve Katoghike and simply built the institute around it, which also served as a protective barrier. Now Katoghike stands alone and vulnerable on an empty lot with no signs of construction of a new church and a Yerevan residence for the Catholicos, as was originally intended. (The distance from the Holy See to Yerevan is at most 14 kilometers, by the way.) So given that this plan has still yet to be commenced—apparently when is anyone’s guess—and since it’s virtually one block north from Cinema Moscow, there doesn’t seem to be a need for another church, or rather the expectation of two new ones being built.

There is another fact to consider—there are simply not enough churchgoers to justify the construction of another church. Religious education in Armenia is poor. The first indicator of this is when you visit any church outside of the city—like Khor Virab, one of the most sacred sites in Armenia–on a Sunday afternoon and observe teenagers stomp across the grounds shouting after one another. Inside the church you hear people talking loudly and misbehaving, like they’re in their own living rooms. It makes no difference if the church is working or not, you encounter the same puzzling situation wherever you go. People, especially the younger generations, simply don’t know better because the education is not there.

And that responsibility falls directly on the shoulders of the Catholicos. Sending an SMS message reading “Christ is risen from the dead” on Easter is not enough to actively spread the word of Christ. You can’t build a church and simply expect people to attend and worship, especially on a site where many do not want one to be built at all. Ejmiadzin has been transmitting aggressive messages through a few priests on television who look and sound more like thugs than devout servants of God. The outcry against this project has been regularly publicized in press conferences, talk shows and newspaper articles. The Catholicos himself has remained silent on this issue.

Furthermore, Armenian citizens are generally unhappy with the Armenian Apostolic Church. When you hear people tell you, “We don’t have a Catholicos” or “This guy is a Mafioso,” about the head of the Armenian Church and “All Armenians,” there is something dreadfully wrong. I don’t know a single person who has anything positive to say about Catholicos Karekin II—he is believed by many to be a businessman first and foremost. The “Nor Zovk” chain of supermarkets in Yerevan purportedly belongs to him, as just one example of his enterprise. In reality, Vasken I is still revered and respected as The Catholicos, while his two successors have questionable reputations.

Most of the activism against this project has been initiated by a group called SAVE Cinema Moscow Open-Air Hall, which has as of today 5,862 Facebook members. According to a March 25 article published by EurasiaNet.org, the group collected over 18,000 signatures so far for its petition to stop the project. Last week, Hetq claimed that the number had reached 23,400.

If Karekin II has any intention of saving face, he would resign from this idea altogether. With each passing day he is becoming exceedingly unpopular. The destruction of the amphitheater will earn him a cult status in Armenia, and he will no longer be remotely taken seriously by anyone who comprehends the sublime divinity he is supposed to uphold but is perceived to misrepresent.