Armenia at 21: A different type of reflection

As thoughts on Armenia 21 years after independence pour in from all parts of the world, for me the anniversary triggered a different type of reflection: a look at my very own journey with this 21 year old country.

My very first memory of any physical existence of Armenia is from years ago. I couldn’t have been more than 6 or 7. I’m talking late 80’s. I vaguely remember a drive to donate clothes either for the survivors of the earthquake or for Artsakh Armenians. I’m not too sure. And I remember giving away generously.

My memory fails me on the details. But this donation campaign is engraved in my mind as the first time I engaged in a tangible way with an otherwise abstract presence. I have come a long way on my Armenian journey since those days. If there is one thing true for both the child and adult, however, it is the feeling that I have an obligation towards this country.

I grew up attending an Armenian school in Lebanon, spending my spare time as an active badani. I knew my fedayee history inside out. At one point, I even wanted to become a film director when I grew up so I could produce a Hollywood blockbuster of Malkhas’ Zartonk. It would be viewed by millions of people and tell the world of the heroic deeds of Armenians fighting against oppression at the turn of the century.

However, when I was asked to contribute to a badani publication about the second Independence of the Republic of Armenia (sometime when I was 12-13), I was completely lost for words because I really did not know much. In the pre-Google era this meant I had to look at the magazines and papers available at home to try and find out some information about the topic. And finally, in one editorial, I came across a line that said the second Republic was born following a referendum (hanrakeve) by Armenians in favour of independence. It didn’t matter that at the time I didn’t know what a referendum meant; I could build the rest of the article by stressing the importance of freedom and independence for the Armenian nation.

Later as editor of the Hay Tad page at Aztag Daily I gained a deeper understanding of the issues surrounding the Armenian Genocide, worldwide recognition efforts, Armenian-Turkish relations and Nagorno Karabakh. I regularly wrote news and articles about these issues. From how US presidential candidates spoke about the Armenian Genocide to the propaganda of the infamous (Azerbaijani) ‘Karabakh Liberation Organisation’; you name it, I wrote about it.

My first visit to Armenia was in 2001 as part of a pan-Armenian youth jamboree. It was all about quenching that thirst familiar to all of us. I embraced the physical existence but avoided – unconsciously – the harsh realities it came with.

When during a discussion session on Armenia-Diaspora relations, a participant from Armenia declared that Diaspora Armenians are not really Armenian unless they chose to move to Armenia and help the country, it was a confronting moment. I was upset and offended. What did she know about my circumstances and my feelings for this country!

On this trip, there was magic too. The disgustingly big fly that managed to make its way into the room of the hanragetsaran I was staying in on my first ever night in Armenia wasn’t a source of disturbance. It too was Armenian!

It was when I was studying at the University of Oxford and researching my thesis on Armenia’s democratisation as part of its European integration that I was confronted with Armenia’s realities head on. I had chosen a topic where I didn’t have much positive to say about Armenia and a lot of negative. The thesis I was going to write was going to end up on the shelves of one of the most ancient and admired libraries of the world to stay there forever. Was it ok to criticise Armenia in this way? I struggled.

In retrospect, I am grateful for that eye-opening experience. As I read and wrote pages and pages on human rights, fundamental freedoms, elections and democracy in Armenia, the regulatory reforms standing in sharp contrast to the stubbornly persisting unacceptable practices, I came to understand and embrace a new Armenia. And this new Armenia was no longer only about the Genocide or Karabakh. Nor was it only about the clash of opinions or poverty. And it wasn’t about the magic. It was very much about the harsh realities of today.

As we celebrate Armenia’s independence, I think it is important that we also evaluate our own journeys with Armenia both at a personal and collective level. After all, it is people who make changes and if we’re unwilling or unable to see the problems, we are incapable of changing them.

My Armenian journey has come a long way but I know it still has a much longer way to go. Armenia is many things for me today. Its problems distress me, anger me, sadden me, sometimes even disillusion me. I know there is too much to be done. And I understand I need to do my bit as well.

But you know what? When, once in a while, I think of the view from the Cascade to which I was waking up every morning for two weeks earlier this summer; when I remember the vibrant buzz in the streets of Yerevan late every night; and when I think of Armenia’s golden apricots, I can still hear music. There is nothing wrong with magic once in a while.

Australia remains shamefully silent as Europe’s axe-murderer is deemed a hero

A security guard in an Afghan National Army uniform approached unsuspecting Australian soldiers as they relaxed at the end of another long day with the international security assistance mission in Oruzgan Province on August 30. He opened fire at close range, killing three Australian soldiers before fleeing. On the same day, two Australian privates died when their helicopter crashed while landing in a northern province of Afghanistan.

The death of five Australian soldiers in what became Australia’s worst combat losses in a single day since the Vietnam War shocked the nation.

As a manhunt started across Afghanistan for the rogue Afghan soldier responsible for the killings, the murderer of another nation’s soldier in a different part of the world was freed from prison and granted the status of national hero. Azeri soldier Ramil Safarov’s journey to ‘heroism’ started when one February night in 2004, he hacked to death Armenian soldier Gurgen Margarian while the latter was asleep. Both soldiers were participating in a NATO-sponsored English language course at a military academy in Budapest.

The back-drop to this murder was the Armenian-Azerbaijani war fought over the Armenian enclave of Nagorno Karabakh in the waning years of the Soviet Union. A cease fire in 1994 ended the war, with Armenia achieving control over the majority of Nagorno Karabakh. One of the bloodiest wars of recent times, it is estimated to have claimed the lives of some 20,000-30,000 people. Peace talks mediated by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Group have failed to establish a permanent solution to the conflict.

In April 2006, Safarov was sentenced to life imprisonment in Hungary after admitting to the murder of Margarian. Earlier this month, however, the Hungarian authorities extradited Safarov to Baku following assurances from the Azeri authorities that he would serve the rest of his sentence in Azerbaijan.

Not surprisingly, the axe murderer received a hero’s welcome upon his return to Azerbaijan. Within hours, he was pardoned by President Ilham Aliyev, promoted to the rank of Major, given an apartment and eight years’ worth of back salaries as compensation for the time he spent in jail.

The incident has shocked much of Europe. Armenia has officially severed ties with Hungary. Outraged crowds in both Armenia and Hungary have protested the actions of the Hungarian and Azeri governments. Similar protests have been carried out in front of Hungarian embassies in the United States, France, Belgium, Argentina, India and many other countries. In Australia, a protest was organised outside of the Hungarian embassy in Canberra on Friday, September 14.

In Hungary, Facebook groups condemning the government’s action and apologising to Armenia gained thousands of followers in just days. Local media speculated the deal was reached in return for an Azerbaijani promise to buy Hungarian state bonds – a claim both governments have denied.

The White House, the European Union, the Council of Europe, the OSCE, NATO and the foreign ministries of a number of countries including Russia and France have all condemned the axe-murderer’s elevation to the status of national hero. Australia remains silent on the issue.

The dangerous message the Azerbaijani government conveyed by its glorification of Safarov becomes even more pronounced when viewed in the context of Aliyev’s policies towards the conflict with Armenia.

In recent years senior Azerbaijani officials have maintained a dangerous war rhetoric regarding the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. In February, Aliyev described Armenians worldwide as Azerbaijan’s main enemies. Armenia cited this speech as it justified its decision to withdraw from the 2012 Eurovision song contest in Baku in May.

Boosted by its increasing oil revenues, Azerbaijan’s military spending has increased twenty-fold during Aliyev’s presidency, according to the International Crisis Group. Standing at $4.4billion in 2012, it exceeds the entire state budget of Armenia.

With a peaceful solution nowhere in sight, tensions in the region remain high. Skirmishes on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border since early 2011 have claimed 63 lives so far. The latest of these were in June 2012. The world can’t afford another war.

No country should be permitted to lord with impunity a convicted murderer who committed a hate crime based on ethnicity. Silence and failure to condemn are often perceived as a sign of encouragement by aggressors who may feel empowered to take things further.

“Think about other pathological, maniacal, murdering patriots who now think the door has been officially opened to kill other innocent people to become national heroes. With a new house and some money,” wrote Scary Azeri, a Qatar-based blogger, while urging her readers to think about the meaning of Safarov’s glorification for peace.

As a country mourning its own tragic loss, Australia is better positioned than any other power today to condemn Safarov’s release and glorification in the name of human rights and in the name of peace.

Nalbandian on a cruise in Sydney

I don’t like criticising. I really don’t. I much rather focus on the positive I see in people and situations – however little that positive may be – with the hope that it multiplies. Unfortunately, the visit to Sydney by the Foreign Affairs Minister of Armenia this Sunday, as I saw it, bore almost no positive elements to it.

Minister Edward Nalbandian’s first official visit to Australia was initiated by an invitation by his Australian counterpart, Bob Carr. The visit was part of a four-country tour that also included Indonesia, New Zealand and will take him to the Philippines next. The official agenda for the visit included a meeting with Minister Carr in Canberra today. The Minister also set aside some of his free time on Sunday to meet with the Armenian community in Sydney.

The first encounter with the community was during lunch on a Sydney boat cruise, to which state and federal parliamentarians and ministers – long-time friends of the Armenian community – were invited along with community representatives. The second was a meeting open to all members of the community. Both events were organised by an individual from the community, whom the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had found appropriate to approach for this purpose, bypassing all community structures, including and foremost Archbishop Aghan Baliosian, Primate of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of Australia and New Zealand. The visit very much had the hallmarks of a private function than a proper community visit and the Foreign Affairs Minister could not have been further removed from the realities of the community.

As the cruise made its way through the choppy waters of Sydney harbour on this windy day, the Australian officials delivered welcoming addresses in honour of Nalbandian. All three speeches by Minister Victor Dominello, MP John Alexander and MP Jonathan O’Dea acknowledged the efforts of the Armenian Australian community aimed towards the recognition of the Armenian Genocide. Dominello expressed his hope that these efforts will culminate in the recognition of the Armenian Genocide at the federal level, while O’Dea confirmed that a delegation of NSW parliamentarians is planning to visit Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh next year. This generated quite a bit of excitement during the otherwise uneventful reception.

When Nalbandian took his turn, he spoke of Armenia’s plans to expand its presence in the region and emphasised the country’s commitment to establishing peaceful relations with all countries of the world – including two of its neighbours with which bilateral relations remain tense, Turkey and Azerbaijan. It was all very noble and I’m not being sarcastic. From thereon, however, everything went downhill.

With respect to Nagorno Karabakh, Nalbandian maintained that Armenia was committed to a peaceful resolution of the conflict based on the principles offered by the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs and accepted by the international community, while failing to even mention the right to self-determination as the main principle to which Armenia adheres for a resolution of the conflict. Listening to Nalbandian’s speech was the first Australian parliamentarian to visit Nagorno Karabakh, Walt Secord, who also lent his support for the right of the people of Karabakh to self-determination while in Stepanakert late last year…

Remarkably, Nalbandian also managed to go through his whole speech without once uttering the words Armenian Genocide even as he spoke about the Armenia-Turkey protocols and Turkey’s failure to ratify them without preconditions.

Nalbandian did affirm both of the above-mentioned positions in his speech during the meeting with the broader community later that day. The moment, however, had passed and while it was lost on some, many of us understood that the Minister chose to pass on a perfectly good opportunity to reiterate these positions in front of Australian parliamentarians and ministers who themselves have stood up in parliament to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide and support the right of the people of Nagorno Karabakh to self-determination.

Today, Minister Nalbandian was due to meet with Carr in Canberra. It was during Carr’s tenure as premier of NSW that the state parliament passed a motion recognising the Armenian Genocide. Whether Nalbandian used the occasion to press him on this issue today is not known (not yet at least) but perhaps what he chose to say and not say yesterday was an omen for what was to come.

There had been much speculation in the lead-up to the visit about the possible establishment of an Armenian Embassy in Australia. The Minister put our minds ‘at ease’ on this one too, announcing that the Republic of Armenia would be opening two embassies next year – one in Jakarta, one in Vietnam but not one in Canberra. Meanwhile, the 50,000 or so Armenians living in Australia – where in the absence of frequent and tangible links with Armenia, staying Armenian is a day-to-day struggle – were told to not feel neglected but also to not expect an embassy in 2013 or 2014 for that matter. The best the Minister could deliver was a pledge for an embassy at some point in the future, possibly 2015, and maybe an Honorary Consul at a sooner but yet unspecified date.

Having seen Nalbandian on TV, I had an impression of him as someone who was brought in to do the job few other people would do. In real life, my encounter with the man who signed the most important documents of the Republic of Armenia in its 20 years of independence, painted the picture of someone unable to persuade, impress or inspire. It saddens me to be so painfully honest about the person who occupies the position of Foreign Affairs Minister of our independent Republic, when I have enormous respect for the position itself and all that it represents.

No matter, the harsh reality remains that when all was said and done, Nalbandian’s visit delivered too little too late for this community.

A taxi ride in Yerevan and the journey it took me on

As a tourist in Yerevan, one of the most interesting ways to get a feel for the country is to chat with taxi drivers. You will quickly discover that many are former professionals, often holders of tertiary education, men who have out survived communism, lived through unspeakable poverty, witnessed war and earthquake and are now grappling with the ‘’new’’ order in their country.

“I love Armenia, of course I do. Our land, our water, it’s ours. However, there are no jobs. We can’t provide for our families,” tells me this taxi driver while driving me from Tigran Medz to Northern Avenue just last month.

“Did you vote in the recent elections?” I ask.

“I did. I did not want to ‘sell’ my vote,” he replies with a sense of dignity underlying the frustration in his voice – the dignity of a man who has lost but is proud for having done the right thing.

“Surely, the people have a role to play in changing the current state of affairs,” I say.

“The problem, kuro jan, is that the entire country is left in the hands of a few. The people’s main struggle is to survive, make some money, find a job and often they are left with no choice but to leave.”

After this bitter sweet encounter with this stranger and his all too familiar story, I am content with the feelings he harbours for our country; but the haste with which he dismissed the notion that citizens like himself are capable of changing things for the better remains ingrained in my mind.

And then it all comes screaming back to me. Previous trips, other strangers, similar conversations. The former airport personnel now taxi driver who had so little belief in brighter prospects for himself that he was full of rage– not just for being Armenian but, it seemed at the time, for being in general. That was one scary taxi ride in 2009.

Then, the once Karabakh freedom fighter (as he claimed) turned taxi driver, whose disillusionment with everything he had once put his life on the line for was so draining I was counting the seconds to jump out of the car. Back in 2007, I didn’t know whether I should think of this man as a hero or just another unhappy person in Yerevan. I still don’t.

And the words – “this is how it is; this is how it will always be. It won’t change” – which I have heard numerous times from relatives and other acquaintances in Armenia, they come screaming back too. And it strikes me.

The majority of Armenians living in Armenia today seem to suffer from an inherent lack of faith in their own power, their own ability to make things better for themselves in their own country. Perhaps I am stating the obvious. But then again, the obvious sometimes needs to be stated.

In my last blog, I wrote that change has started in Armenia and that change is impossible to stop. It generated more interest than I expected. When one friend shared it on her Facebook, one of her friends commented: “Are we talking about an Armenian Spring?”

Many will disagree, but in all honesty I believe the world has seen enough “springs” and “colour revolutions” to understand that often they fail to bring long-term benefit to people. Some will maybe even falsely accuse me of trying to defend the status quo. They can’t be further from the truth.

I believe meaningful, long-term, sustainable change – change in the right direction, towards a democratic and just Armenia – can only be achieved through behavioural change both at the individual and national level. To achieve change in Armenia its citizens must learn to believe in their own ability to do so. To have faith in themselves, they must understand they have rights. And of course, they must be the change they want to see.

Armenian activists both in Armenia and the Diaspora have a unique opportunity and obligation today – to educate Armenia’s citizens about their rights, to set examples, to transform viewpoints, to set expectations – higher, better, more ambitious.

They say old habits die hard and it would be naïve to assume that the values many of us espouse as young Armenians – those of democracy, human rights and justice – are the values upheld by the majority of Armenian society today. To democratise Armenia as a country, we must first democratise Armenia as a society.

Change is inevitable. What is important, however, is to make sure we do it the right way, for the right results.

Observations from Armenia

Just recently I returned from a three week trip to Armenia. It was my sixth visit in 11 years – some for work purposes, some for pleasure – the most recent one falling in the latter category. Whatever the occasion, I have treated each and every one of those visits as an opportunity to observe life around me, how things work (and don’t), people, their attitudes, viewpoints and behaviour. This trip was no different.

I saw many things in Armenia this time around. Perhaps every time I visit, I am a little bit more mature. Or perhaps every time I visit, Armenia is a bit more mature. I think this time at least, it was both.

I must admit, a few things I would have preferred to not see. The beggars on the streets – almost entirely non-existent on my more recent trips – they’re back. Not in large numbers but I encountered a few. I helped some, more out of a desire to get rid of them and I avoided others. It was more unpleasant than painful seeing them. With every visit you become able to take the emotion out of certain things, I was reminded.

I saw materialism – not a new phenomenon but something I think I had refused to see before, or I should say, to consider as an almost defining characteristic of a considerable part of Armenians living in Yerevan today. A café around Opera House called ‘Café Rich’, a men’s apparel shop on Northern Avenue called ‘Billionaire’ not to mention all the luxury brands that have mushroomed all over Yerevan. It felt like some of these names expressed aspirations unattainable for most of Yerevan’s residents.

In other names I saw the urge to embrace the foreign, the not-Armenian. Whether it was Santa Fe café or the luxurious Moskvichka supermarket (which means a woman from Moscow, we discovered), I couldn’t help but think that on some level these as well represented aspirations – aspirations to leave and be in those ‘better-off’ places. Perhaps I am wrong. I certainly hope so. Perhaps they are simply signs that more than ever Yerevan is embracing the world around it after seven decades of living behind an Iron Curtain.

On the second day after our arrival, sipping coffee and catching up with a friend outside Marriott Hotel on Republic Square, I saw a group of about 20 young women marching with posters and chanting slogans against non-combat deaths in the Army. They were not too loud but their voices could be heard. They passed by quickly but it was impossible to not notice them. They were like a cool breeze on a very warm summer afternoon. Instant, unexpected and very refreshing.

I follow developments in Armenia closely and I have proudly followed the emergence of civic activism in Armenia in recent years. Encountering some of those activists was one of the best experiences I had on this trip.

Perhaps from that point onwards, it was impossible to not see the change happening in Armenia. But the change I saw this time was not simply in the sheer number of new cafés, restaurants, shops and buildings. I was grateful for seeing young activists at work, for seeing less ‘chi gareli’ (i.e. it’s not possible – a common response you could get in Armenia as a customer asking for something) and a more positive attitude to getting things done, as well as a new level of professionalism.

On the day we left Yerevan, a young Army doctor died after he was beaten severely by the bodyguards of an oligarch at the Harsanakar Restaurant Complex. The reaction to this incident – although not large in scale – was nevertheless impressive. Candle light vigils outside the restaurant, protests outside the oligarch’s resident. Yet again a handful of activists and yet again they were impossible to not notice even as I was following their acts all the way from Sydney.

Change has started in Armenia and change is impossible to stop or reverse. We can influence the speed with which change is achieved and shape its course but we can’t stand in its way. It is up to all of us, in whichever part of the world we live in, to decide what role we would like to play in the wave of change our homeland is experiencing. More on this later …

Human Trafficking in Armenia: Can the Diaspora help?

As activists for women’s rights in Armenia observe their “16 Days of Activism to Stop Violence against Women” campaign (November 25-December 10), it seemed timely and appropriate to start this new blog with a topic that has been of interest to me for quite a while now but regarding which I’ve felt helpless and limited in my ability to act. While the campaign generally refers to domestic violence against women in Armenia, taken in a broader sense, violence against women can also refer to another dangerous phenomenon – the trafficking of women for sexual exploitation purposes.

In international reports, including US State Department reports, on this type of organized crime, Armenia has continuously been identified as a source of trafficking of women to Turkey and the United Arab Emirates for forced labor but mostly for sexual exploitation purposes. Having spent two years of my life in the UAE, I developed great interest in this issue. However, in a country like the UAE with virtually no channels for public involvement in such taboo issues, there was not much I could do but read about the problem.

According to the US State Department reports (http://www.state.gov/g/tip/rls/tiprpt/), the number of victims identified by the Armenian government stood at 60 in 2009 and 34 in 2008. However, in the absence of concrete figures for previous years, it is difficult to interpret these numbers. Do they mean trafficking activity increased during the one year period. Or are they indicators that the Armenian government was more persistent in its efforts to address the issue and assist victims. Or maybe both? What about claims that some government officials are themselves involved in the business of selling Armenian women?

Today, as I read about the campaign organized by a coalition of seven Armenian NGOs and the sad story of 20 year old Zaruhi Petrosyan recently beaten to death by her husband and mother-in-law, I can’t help but feel equally helpless in the first instance. However, even as a Diaspora Armenian who does not have the luxury of helping to make a change directly on the ground, there must be something we can and should do regarding this and other societal problems in Armenia. Our obligations towards Armenia go beyond donations that would help rebuild vital infrastructure. In order for these rebuilding efforts to have meaning, we need to help address the country’s societal problems as well as a basic step to introduce positive change towards an empowered society in the future.

The root causes for trafficking could be many. Topping the list is economic deprivation. Whatever the cause, however, what distinguishes trafficking from voluntarily engaging in prostitution is the fact that its victims are kidnapped against their will, often with promises of respectable jobs as nannies, in cafes or shops in the destination countries. Reality of course turns out to be different. They are stolen of their identification papers, beaten and forced into sexual slavery in the host country. Therefore, preventing the problem of trafficking can start with simple steps that help raise awareness on this phenomenon across the country.

Notwithstanding the efforts of the Armenian government in recent years to amend legislation, raise awareness and help victims, more is needed. And we don’t need to be living in Armenia to do it. Awareness raising about this problem in the Diaspora is as important as it is in Armenia. Armenian organizations and Armenian media in the Diaspora should play a vital role here. We need to stop looking at these problems as taboo issues and change our ostrich policies. Public discussion in the Diaspora on these issues can serve as a pressure mechanism on the Armenian government to enhance its efforts to tackle the problem; it can empower local media, organizations and individuals to speak louder and demand more.

A final thought. Some international organizations that seek a change in attitude towards human rights issues in member countries revert to conditionality: the concept of making financial aid dependent on government efforts to improve the human rights situation in the country. It may sound difficult or idealistic but is it impossible to imagine making at least a small portion of the humanitarian assistance channeled by Diaspora organizations to Armenia conditional on improvements in human rights issues?

The call for Diaspora’s assistance is coming from Armenia already. For more, please read: “In the name of Zaruhi: A call to action in Armenia and Diaspora”