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

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