Viktor Yengibaryan (photo credit Aram Arkun)

Boston Renaissance Panel Discusses Events in Armenia

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BELMONT, Mass. – The Armenian Renaissance movement Boston chapter organized a discussion on the dramatic developments in Armenia on April 30, a day prior to a first attempt at parliamentary elections of a new prime minister. Five speakers, four living in the Boston area and one from Armenia via Skype, provided their insights into the situation.

Martin Haroutunian, the representative of the Boston chapter of the Renaissance movement, which was formed about two years ago, welcomed the audience. Haroutunian explained that Armenian Renaissance is a diasporan grassroots movement supporting the Founding Parliament in Armenia and the current movements in Armenia such as My Step and the Revolution of Love and Solidarity, and advocating the release of all political prisoners in Armenia. The Boston chapter is part of a network of chapters all around the globe.

Martin Haroutunian (photo credit: Aram Arkun)

He introduced the moderator, Berge Ayvazian, cochair of the Board of Trustees of the First Armenian Church. Ayvazian said that the evening’s event was designed to disseminate information so people become aware of what is going on right now in Armenia and promote dialogue. The talks were primarily in English, but the discussion also at times took place in English.

Berge Ayvazian (photo credit: Aram Arkun)

Writer and photojournalist Roubina Margossian, the first speaker, joined the audience via Skype from Yerevan and described the present situation in Armenia. Margossian, born and raised in Lebanon, was a correspondent for Kuwait TV from Lebanon and in Armenia previously served as the English-language editor at CivilNet. At present, she is the Managing Editor at EVN Report.

Roubina Margossian projected on the big screen via Skype (photo credit: Aram Arkun)

As someone who has attended nearly all the rallies and has been out on the street every day, Margossian said that the atmosphere was almost “post-apocalyptic,” when in the early days of the protests people slept in the streets, with heaters. The situation began changing so quickly, she said, that news agencies were not able to keep up and provide analyses. Attitudes in the general population have changed, especially toward girls and women, she continued. All the past opposition movements in Armenia have left their traces on this one.

Detentions stopped after a while and the last week has been relatively calm, with few detentions. Ayvazian and Haroutunian asked Margossian a number of questions. She said that the maximum capacity of the public square 150,000 people, but since the movement is a network movement, there are similar demonstrations in other cities of Yerevan so there is no accurate total figure for the demonstrators. According to the leaders of the movement, this is not a “color revolution,” but is “color-blind,” she said.

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Opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan has turned practically into a figure of a savior, Margossian declared. One of the specific characters of this movement is that the leaders are in touch through social media like Facebook directly with the people showing up at the protests. This counters various rumors and deliberate “fake news” disseminated by opponents of the movement.

Margossian reported that roughly an hour prior to this Boston area event, Pashinyan announced that he had heard that the Republican Party might try to make the election of May 1, the day after this event, fail by either boycotting or not voting for Pashinyan, so that the opposition must mobilize its forces once again in public.

The second speaker was scholar and writer Dr. Jirair Libaridian, who was advisor and then senior advisor to the president of the Republic of Armenia from 1991 to 1997 and First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1993 to 1994. Before his thoughts on the current developments, he interjected that though the public square’s capacity might be 150,000 people, this was at any one given time, but people were constantly streaming in and out, meaning that the total must be much higher there.

Jirair Libaridian (photo credit: Aram Arkun)

Libaridian was impressed by the decentralized nature of the movement, where streets were being blocked in various parts of the street by small numbers of people. The demonstrators were able to peacefully and calmly act, and argue with logic with the police.

Libaridian made four primary points. First, although the movement is political, the struggle is not just between political forces. Libaridian said that the core issue is that oligarchs have found it cheaper to become a politician themselves instead of buying off politicians. The consequences for oligarchs to give up their power are graver than that of ordinary politicians, if the people attempt to pursue justice against them.

His second point was that the Republican Party is behaving almost the same way as the Communist Party of Armenia in 1988. Popular pressure forced the Communist parliament to elect Levon Ter-Petrosyan as president of the presidium. The Republican Party made the same mistake as the Communists 30 years later by underestimating a popular movement as just another opposition movement.

The third point was that as has happened in Armenian history before, the sides in a domestic conflict appeal to foreign patrons or powers. The Republicans tried to get the Russian government to save them by making them think that Russian influence was being threatened. Also, the government begins to start talking about Turkish and Azerbaijani threats, so that the non-resolution of the Karabakh conflict is used as a scare tactic to quiet the populace.

Libaridian stated that this has happened before. He then made the controversial claim that two years ago in April 2016, it was the Armenian government which “started action on the border and then said that the Azerbaijanis are attacking.” The situation today, he said, was similar, when the government starts talking about Azerbaijan and Turkey. Armenian Defense Minister Vigen Sargsyan has been talking about the threat to Armenia recently, though nothing unusual has been happening on the border. The Azerbaijanis, he said, are afraid the Armenian government may use incidents in order to scare and blame the demonstrators.

Libaridian’s final point was that there is no guarantee as to what will happen next. On the one hand, he said, there will be huge popular pressure on the parliament until Pashinyan is elected prime minister. If he is not elected, major concerns about the legitimacy of the government will be raised.

However, even if he is elected, he still has to present a cabinet and programs to be approved by the same parliament, and eventually he will need to change the electoral code to ensure free parliamentary elections. Libaridian cautioned that revolutions are not simple processes. It is not clear as to what happens to the people who run them. They may end up radicalized or even authoritarian, sometimes to ensure the success of the movement. Despite his words of caution, he concluded that Pashinyan “is the candidate of the people and we will support him.”

The next speaker, Dr. Asbed Kotchikian, Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Bentley University and Academic Coordinator for the Armenian Higher Education Initiative, said he has spent much time in Armenia over the last ten years. Kotchikian spoke about the process that led to the current situation, citing the work of the American academic Gene Sharp, author of From Dictatorship to Democracy (1994), a work translated into over thirty languages. Kotchikian saw similarities in the present situation in Armenia with various movements described by Sharp, and described the situation as “a textbook democratic revolutionary movement.” He found that what was happening there was the culmination of an organic process which matured over years.

Asbed Kotchikian (photo credit: Aram Arkun)

Kotchikian said that the sense of activism in Armenia started back in 2007, often concerning environmental issues, like the Save Teghut initiative, as in the Soviet period. He rattled off the names of a set of movements which followed: the Mashtots Park movement in 2012, the protests against the mashrutka or bus price hikes in 2013, Electric Yerevan protests in 2015 against electricity price hikes, and the Sasna Tsrer hostage crisis of 2016. Kotchikian observed that Pashinyan did not have a plan in Electric Yerevan or Sasna Tsrer. The demonstrators at the time feared that he would hijack these demonstrations for his own political goals and denied him access. However, Pashinyan learned from these actions to not be centralized and stay in one place. Pashinyan also learned from Raffi Hovannisian’s errors in the 2013 presidential campaign, where, Kotchikian said, he suddenly “just disappeared,” sorely disappointing people who were following him.

Kotchikian thinks that Pashinyan’s actions over the past few weeks were planned. He started walking and others joined him in increasing numbers, due to growing discontent and political frustration.

An important point to understand, he pointed out, was that this movement is governed by youth. Real change in any country comes from within, and it is due to this new generation in Armenia. Kotchikian said that the best in people came out, with protectiveness and even love for one another. For example, ad hoc committees distributed food and blankets to the participants.

The fear of a foreign hand in this movement, mentioned by Libaridian, is a common element appearing in many revolutions, but Kotchikian felt “that is an insult” to the people involved. The participants have specifically declared, he said, that this is an internal, domestic movement, and Pashinyan gave speeches attempting to clarify that this is not a “color revolution.”

Viktor Yengibaryan, a representative of the Yelk Alliance, was the next speaker. One of fifteen fellows this semester at the Tavitian Scholars Program of the Fletcher School at Tufts University, he currently works as an advisor to a member of parliament of Armenia and is the chairman of the Yerevan council of the Bright Armenia Party, one of the three political parties composing the Yelk Alliance.

Before entering into the substance of his presentation, he expressed his strong disagreement with Libaridian’s analysis of the April War of 2016, finding it a “great offense to every Armenian” to state that Armenia and not Azerbaijan started the war.

Yengibaryan then made a series of observations. Like Kotchikian before him, he pointed out that the present movement was primarily led by the youth, people under thirty years old, who now are demanding their own rights. While the Yelk Alliance has nine members in parliament, but, Yengibaryan said, it did not have the staff or power to make any serious impact on decision making there until now. Secondly, oligarch Gagik Tsarukyan’s party, Prosperous Armenia, is only formally an opposition like Yelk, but actually is allied with the ruling Republican Party.

Yengibaryan declared that he might be in the opposition, but that he and his comrades would not do anything to harm Armenia. On the contrary, he said, he is proud to be a citizen of the Republic of Armenia, which he knows has a very bright future. He is even prouder now with the unified movement of all Armenians in favor of democracy, not just in Armenia but throughout the diaspora. As a Christian nation, he said, Armenians had to oppose dictatorship.

He said that it is necessary to be objective and recognize the achievements of Armenia, such as its diplomacy in joining both the Eurasian Economic Union and in a fashion the European Union. Yengibaryan concluded that it is very important not to confuse the government with the state, especially when one is outside of Armenia.

Yengibaryan praised Pashinyan as a great patriot and a great leader, who will strengthen Armenia’s relations throughout the world, without bribery or fraud and with a government chosen by free elections. He cited Pashinyan’s declaration on the occasion of April 24 that we are no longer a nation of victims, but a nation of victors, as an important step for Armenians.

Yengibaryan ended his talk optimistically by pointing to something great which the Armenian people already achieved. He said, “We defeated the greatest enemy of our nation, hopelessness…Whenever the fear is gone, whenever there is hope, everything will be good.”

Dr. Anna Ohanyan, the Richard B. Finnegan Distinguished Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Stonehill College, was the final speaker. She said that she prefers to call what took place a movement, not a revolution, because of two reasons. What took place was much bigger than a revolution, as it is civil disobedience, decentralized, on a mass scale, within an existing constitutional order. She said, “The beauty of the movement is that people really came out to defend the institution, no matter how flawed…there was a referendum, there was a constitution…It demonstrates the maturity of the people. As civil disobedience, it has been spectacular. It has been a textbook application of nonviolent civil disobedience.” She said that she was impressed that the people were so disciplined in keeping it nonviolent.

Anna Ohanyan (photo credit: Aram Arkun)

She also pointed out a technical advantage to not calling it a revolution, because using this word immediately leads Western and Russian media to try to give it a geopolitical coloring.

Ohanyan’s second important point was that this instance of transition provides the people with an opportunity regardless of what happens tomorrow. She said, “It already created a great political opening for Armenians to seize on this and start a process of democratic consolidation.” In the cases of successful transitions, other movements were incremental.

Therefore, Ohanyan suggested that even if Pashinyan did not win the election on May 1 as prime minister, and parliamentary snap elections later were held under the control of the Republican Party, people should still go out and cast their ballot, and the results could be quite favorable in maintaining the momentum.

Her last point concerned the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. The authoritarian President Aliyev certainly would not like to see a democratic society next door, so there may be an indirect coordination between the authoritarian powers of Armenia and its neighbors. As far as Russia is concerned, Ohanyan said that the government of Armenia, unable to control its oligarchs and its domestic politics, has become a liability for Russia.

A period of often impassioned questions and statements from the audience and responses from the panelists continued for one more hour after the speakers had completed their presentations. Among other things, Libaridian argued, contrary to Ohanyan, that the movement was actually revolutionary in some elements because even though it was nonviolent, it was challenging the system and its goal was to replace the parliament, which was not truly representative. Kotchikian remarked that the ruling party worked by the existing laws, while the movement had popular support outside of the existing institutions and is an agent of change.

In answer to a question, Yengibaryan declared there can be no planning during a revolution, but the Yelk Alliance’s parliamentary platform can give some idea of what Pashinyan and the movement will attempt to achieve.

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