by Tatiana der Avedissian
2018 will go down in Armenian history as the year the young fought and took back control of their country. A small grassroots movement from the opposition turned into one of the largest protests witnessed in Armenia, and for once political support was pouring in from the diaspora, mainly the younger generation, the expats and the disenfranchised encouraged by what they saw on the news and on their screens. Many would argue the writing was on the wall, but no one believed we would reach this monumental milestone so quickly and with such little struggle. Seven months later Armenia has transitioned into a new government with a mandate to reform and revitalise its economy.
In 2017 I visited Armenia for the first time and fell instantly in love with my ‘motherland’ so I went back two months later to attend the diaspora conference organised and hosted by the Armenian government. It was a fantastic gathering of Armenians, however the conference itself lacked any clear vision on how to secure the future of Armenia and its people. Many of us were invited to participate in ‘meaningful discussions’ and ‘listen to the experts’ talk about the future prosperity of this beautiful country and yet, there didn’t seem to be a real drive to create impactful change. It was all fluff, a word which has almost become part of my daily vocabulary of late; we are surrounded by it, meaningful/meaningless calls for action with no clear strategy. One of the main topics of discussion that week was how to stop the outflow of Armenians, but no one was willing to address the big elephants in the room when discussing this critical topic; corruption, nepotism and lack of economic opportunity. The apparent solution to this and many other challenges seemed to be placed on the shoulders of the diaspora; we should invest in Armenia in order for it to prosper and not expect anything in return. While I may love my culture and its people, that is pure folly and not how the real world works. I have heard of many burnt fingers in the last 20 years spurred from such noble acts. I left Armenia that September with a realisation that things would never get better and no amount of money would affect change without radical reform.
I have spoken to many young Armenians over the last few years who felt the same way as me so, when I started doing some research for this article I decided the best people to ask how they felt about the revolution were the very people who drove it through their enthusiasm and unrelenting resolve to change the direction their country was heading towards and take back control of their future.
One young Armenian living in London who participated in the demonstration here and watched the action from afar comments “I was so very proud of the unity our people showcased, and the clever - genuinely clever and quirky - ways people began protesting. It sort of ‘proved our Armenian-ness’ and character as a people if that even makes any sense. Kids blocking zebra crossings with their toy trucks, babies with ‘milk-eating strike’ written on their backs (կաթադուլ), regular workers like barbers, business owners, salespeople providing their services out on the street, people dancing, singing, playing drums. Ah, it was beautiful to watch.”
As if singing from the same hymn sheet they have all used the same words to describe how they felt about the revolution and its impact; hopefulness, empowerment, positivity and interestingly weariness.
The protests may have started from the opposition, but the real heroes are the youth of Armenia who were driven by an innate desire for change. They now talk about returning, investing, working in Armenia; a notion not often heard when speaking to them before. Meanwhile the diaspora, young and old stood behind the protestors, those with no stakes in the current government at least, because they too understood the urgent need for reform. Gone are the days when we would be compelled to give money to our ‘motherland’ to secure its future because it became abundantly clear that money was not the issue. Like any problem, throwing money at it doesn’t solve the core issues of cyclic poverty, hunger and desperation. Nevertheless, the high of the revolution is wearing off and people are settling back into reality, realising that one resignation and a new government alone will not change the fate of this land and its people. Yes, many feel corruption is on its way out, but is it really? Some are already feeling the change in their day to day lives. Valentina Hovhannisyan says her “family massively feels the change,” she goes on to say, “It's a hard process that has already begun and I think will continue. I think even people who used to take bribes have changed.” Others however feel we have not gone far enough. Do we have the right talent leading our country? Some are concerned by the amount of young people taking up posts with little experience on how to run government. Are the elders so inherently corrupt that we cannot rely on them?
The real test will be the economy, but reimagining institutions and changing norms takes time. One big event can change the course of history but more, a lot more, needs to be done, if we want to secure Armenia’s future. Hayk Bagradjans feels, “The revolution is not over yet—the hardest part has just started; thoroughly reforming institutions and changing people’s mentalities is needed.” He thinks, “Complacency is probably the greatest risk to the revolution, hence, we need to keep fighting for the aims of the revolution and not forget about the historical watershed moment we have been offered by history.”
Our biggest challenges can not only be found internally but externally too, with the influence of foreign powers, border security and regional instability. Lilit Gevorgyan, a senior economist at IHS Markit still has concerns. She thinks the old guard have retreated but have not been defeated, “As predicted right after the revolution, new parties have emerged that are covertly linked to the old regime, and the Russian capital. Their message is one of aggressive conservatism and pseudo-patriotism; their ultimate objective is to hijack constructive criticism with mud-slinging and continuous negative PR campaigns to discredit the revolution and bring the old guard back.” So like Hayk, for Lilit this is just the beginning.
As one young student further noted, “There’s a belief that locking up a few oligarchs or going after two-three key figures for PR and populism is the solution instead of working to solve the real issues...The view from many of those around me seems to be that Pashinyan et al are just playing politics now. The system needs to be overhauled from the roots, which I hope will come to fruition this year.” What does ‘New Armenia’ mean to these young professionals and students? For Andre Simonian, an Armenian rock musician, it means, “Hope, and hope was in a deep coma in Armenia for the past 20 years.” When the demonstrations first erupted, I was very weary because I was worried about the instability it would cause for our borders. But as the movement grew, I reminded myself that we cannot keep the status quo for fear of a worse outcome; that’s how autocratic states are created, they rely on the fear factor, the unknown! More importantly the young were not interested in party politics they just wanted change from the dysfunctional system they had to work with. In Pashinyan they found a man brave enough to stand up to the previous government, so they stuck with him whether they liked his politics or not.
So what is the immediate impact of the revolution and what is its legacy? American-Armenian Ani Garibyan says, “That the people have power; that is its biggest legacy.”
After interviewing many of these young Armenians I realised that none of them are under any illusion, they know there is a long road ahead before we can feel and see the benefits of the revolution, but these small wins encourage them and me to keep the momentum going. I cannot wait to go back and visit this ‘New Armenia.’
This article was originally published in the 2019 issue of Bardez, the bulletin of the Armenian Institute.