Two days ago I had the opportunity to interview a parliamentary candidate representing the Armenian National Congress, Levon Zourabyan. He was Levon Ter-Petrossian’s right-hand man during his presidency and evidently still is.
In this interview for Hetq, Zourabyan talks about the need to break up the Armenian monopolies, impeachment, the expected rise of the opposition in parliament and government, methods of electoral fraud, and the importance of fair elections.
In my interview with former Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, we spoke about his membership in the Prosperous Armenia Party and the party’s long-term program, the importance of free and fair National Assembly elections, planned measures to combat electoral fraud and voter apathy.
About three days ago while driving down Papazian Street in the Arabkir district I noticed a lot of commotion beside the kiosks that are situated along the sidewalk near the intersection with Komitas Street. There were several police officers while other citizens seemed to have been irate and agitated. Yesterday there were red beret policemen on the scene. The kiosks came down upon a verbal decree by the Yerevan Mayor, Karen Karapetian. He gave the business owners a three-day warning.
Karapetian, who was the the former head of ArmRosGazprom, has proven himself since his appointment late last year to be a ruthless, despised leader who doesn’t have the interests of Yerevan residents that are barely able to get by in mind. Just after the New Year he infamously declared that street trading — in other words grandmothers selling cilantro and lemons on the sidewalk — was to end, no ifs, ands or buts. Even fruit stands could not be allowed to display their produce right in front, despite ample space available for foot traffic. Now he wants to destroy the lives of small shop owners, most of whom are most certainly living day to day, an opinion based on conversations I’ve had with many of them during the last seven years of my stay. He claims that they are an eye sore and are in the way. Just over 900 have already been dismantled this year.
Papazian Street is far from the city center and is by no means a busy street frequented by tourists. The area is a center for trade of basic foodstuffs and services. One man repairs shoes while another works as a tailor out of these tiny, inconspicuous stores. Perhaps they are not as impressive as the posh boutiques on Abovyan Street, but they serve a purpose and have steady clients. Now their owners and employees are out of work. Some of them have taken out huge business loans.
But, thanks to the power of the people, the government supposedly is putting a stop to further demolition. Apparently the authorities have been dumped with letters of protest, not to mention having been embarrassingly forced to deal with sit-ins.
The only political party that was present to support the shopkeepers was Heritage, led by Raffi Hovannisian, which comes as no surprise given their track record of consistently fighting for people’s rights. The Armenian National Congress and ARF-Dashnaktsutiun seem to be dubiously silent on the issue.
Yesterday at a cabinet session Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian, another controversial figure who made a fool of himself last week when he stated that continued emigration was good for the country as it filtered out the bad citizens from the good, blasted Karapetian for his decisions. But this morning I saw that the dismantling of kiosks on Papazian Street continued unabated, and there were no police officers in sight.
About the future plight of these shopkeepers, Karapetian has this to say: “I don’t think that there are poor people among the owners of kiosks on central streets, and the Mayor’s Office has no obligations to them … We are not obliged to give them an alternative [source of income] or compensation.” This statement alone demonstrates how utterly clueless and out of touch he is. He probably never walks down any city sidewalk, carted around in an outlandishly expensive European sedan or SUV, just like all the other selfish, abhorrent big shots.
Yesterday once again I was left wondering where Armenian society is headed. Emigration continues. People are thrown out of work and no new jobs are created. Governmental officials aren’t very concerned about these issues, distracted by making millions for themselves. People are too scared or apathetic to protest. How long can this indifference continue? And how am I expected to raise my infant son in this environment? How long will any new parents be able to withstand these injustices? Why doesn’t the Armenian Diaspora care? What the hell is going on?
I’d like to have some indication of when these questions will be answered positively. But it appears as though I have a very long wait.
This morning I cut into a lump of braided string cheese, which I bought in a neighborhood store that mostly sells produce and foodstuffs made in villages of Armenia. Just after pulling apart a segment of the cheese I found a long strand of hair that was intertwined with one of the braids. There was also some kind of unidentifiable wheat colored dust in the cheese, which could have been breadcrumbs. That surprise did not actually await me for the first time, and I had stopped buying homemade string cheese years ago (from the Gomidas market) for that reason alone.
This blatant lack of quality control tells me a few things. One, the woman (I assume based on the hair’s length) who made and braided the cheese did not evidently bother to wear some kind of head dress — a scarf, hairnet, whatever — to prevent her hair from falling into the cheese. The mysterious specs of dust shows that the cheese was not made in a sterile (okay, let’s say somewhat sterile), sanitary environment. I can only imagine how unclean her hands were. Simply put, the woman doesn’t care about quality, and furthermore she is demonstrating disrespect towards her customers by not ensuring that her product is free of debris. Moreover, her carelessness shows a lack of self-respect by not giving a damn.
I often wonder when complaining, discontented Armenians are going to awake and start standing up for something, anything. I’ve told people time and time again, and have written in my blog entries, that change in society and governance must come from the bottom-up. It’s the people who have to demand that apathy not reign in their own society, and they can’t be afraid to push their government to meet their needs, whether economic or social. You hear complaints everywhere — in markets and taxis, in newspapers, on the Internet. But nothing changes — the same issues related to unemployment, social inequality, and economic instability not only continue but are worsening. But people don’t get it, and they continue to complain and moan. Ironically, the main opposition block, the very one that was supposed to represent the marginalized and unlucky, is “negotiating” with the government, the details of the talks still unclear.
But regardless of how hard life may seem to be, you have to foster dignity, you need to respect yourself before you can respect others. Armenians must understand that change comes from within, it comes from the soul. You have to embrace the hope and potential of change. You have to believe it.
The Armenian Weekly just published an opinion piece that I wrote in which I discuss whether “revolution” is bound to happen in Armenia, given the opposition’s alleged encouragement by the events unravelling now in Libya and Egypt not too long ago. Here’s some excerpts:
A convincing, compassionate leader is needed in the opposition camp, a person who would be able to negotiate with the oligarchs from the start of a “revolution” to ensure that a somewhat smooth transition can be effective without much obvious turbulence. The oligarchic structure in place is deep-rooted in the economy, with certain families enjoying monopolistic control of staple foodstuffs or basic consumer goods; any abrupt rupture could feasibly cause the entire Armenian economy to collapse within a day.
Nevertheless, for change in the form of “revolution” to happen, it will mean massive upheaval as an indignant public attempts to transform an institution known to be undemocratic, corrupt, and unjust into one that satisfies their interests of proper government. As we’re seeing in North Africa now, change will also bring about violence, death, and more importantly, wild uncertainty. And no one who is living a relatively decent life today, especially those comprising the nouveau riche of Armenian society, is willing to take such a gamble—to risk their own lives and those of their loved ones without promises of a better future.