Minister of Culture Lilit Makunts (photo: Aram Arkun)

Activist Academic Makunts Rethinks Armenian Ministry of Culture

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WASHINGTON — Lilit Makunts was appointed as Armenia’s minister of culture on May 12. During a visit to the United States at the end of June she spoke about her background, the direction in which she wishes to steer her ministry, and her goals there, which in turn shed light upon the workings of the new Armenian government. The interview was conducted in English, which Makunts speaks fluently.

The 34-year-old minister previously was an associate professor at the Russian-Armenian University in Yerevan. She began teaching there in 2005 and in February 2018 became the head of the Department of International Cooperation at this university. Makunts received a master’s degree from the Faculty of Romance and Germanic Philology of Yerevan State University (YSU) in 2005 and the degree of candidate in Philological Sciences in 2014.

From her days as a student of linguistics and discourse at YSU (1999-2003) she was active in Armenian politics and worked for democratic change. She dramatically declared, in a recent interview (https://www.evnreport.com/raw-unfiltered/lilit-makunts-from-civic-to-political-to-cultural-engagement) conducted by Maria Titizian for EVN Report, “I was in my third year of university when I realized that I have the soul of a soldier of justice who wants to fight for things people will benefit from.” After graduation, she became professionally engaged in politics. She became a board member of the Liberal Party of Armenia (Hayastani Liberal Kusaktsutyun, not to be confused with the Armenian Democratic Liberal Party), and remained the head of its youth organization until 2012. In the following years she decided to take a different approach and pulled out of the direct political arena in order to teach youth in civil society how to work for social change. She declared to the Mirror, “I was taking part in the elections, and I was at the polling stations, and I would witness that unless we change ourselves, unless we change as citizens, we are not going to witness any change in the political arena.”

Makunts was able to do her political activity while teaching at the Russian-Armenian University. She said, “I was there because it was one of those universities where professors, teachers and students had the most freedom.” For example, during the 2008 presidential elections, YSU expelled a number of professors and students for their political activities, unlike her university. She also held more than one job, so did not worry as much about the effects of her actions. She said, “I was never limited with my opportunities. I knew that if I lost this job I could get another one. Probably this was the reason that I felt free. … Fortunately, I had the luxury and I had the opportunity of not being confined to one job.”

She studied at the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC) Summer Institute (also known as the Fletcher Summer Institute for the Advanced Study of Nonviolent Conflict, at Tufts University, https://www.nonviolent-conflict.org/fletcher-summer-institute-2015/) in the summer of 2015 and was an ICNC Curriculum Fellow from 2016 to 2017, meaning according to the ICNC website, she received support for “teaching, course development and implementation of new curricular on civil resistance in universities and high schools around the world.”

Since 2016, she has been a contract specialist for the American Peace Corps. She also worked with the German nonprofit Friedrich Ebert Foundation, which has an office in Yerevan. For example, in October 2017, at the Fourth Eastern European Academy for Social Democracy, sponsored by this foundation in Georgia, she led a session on media training, teaching about media propaganda and manipulation.

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While she has known and worked with Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan for many years, she said she did not join his Civil Contract political party. She explained, “I did not become a part of that political party because of personal reasons, and you can call it psychological reasons. I was a member of a different political party and it was hard for me to switch. It was just a personal principle and that’s it. I was not on the frontline but I was always … supporting my friends who were struggling for civil justice, just not in the frontline.”

The position of minister of culture, Makunts said, is a political one. When people have asked her how she will be able to deal with varied fields of culture, when her background is a different one, she said, “This is my personal opinion: whoever is in charge of this particular position, say a painter or a person in a specific field of art, this does not mean that this person must master all other fields professionally and profoundly. Basically, this position is about proper management and listening to the people working in the field and implementing the bottom-up approach. This is the approach of the whole government currently including mine as a minister of culture.”

Makunts said that she has begun a review of the strategy of the Ministry of Culture, both in terms of policymaking and administration. She said that she envisages the creation of an advisory body for the ministry which would make decisions on the level of cultural content. The members, she said, “are definitely going to represent different fields of art and culture and they are going to be…specialized in those fields.” These people would give recommendations and also have a critical approach toward policymaking. At this stage, she said, the talks she is holding with interest groups and people representing various fields will lead to nominations of such advisors. Advisory positions will have a rotation scheme.

In addition, for the short term, the ministry will undertake structural change internally, and work to further cooperation of the private and public sectors on cultural affairs. An initial example of the latter is the signing of a memorandum for cooperation with Creative Armenia, a foundation established in Los Angeles and Yerevan in 2017. Makunts said, “With this cooperation, I hope that we are going to open the closed circle and have wider opportunities for the people working in the field.” One of the first joint efforts will attempt to assist artists with funding, strategy and mentorship.

Makunts believes the government still has an important role to play in the arts and culture. She said, “We need to do our best to provide equal opportunities to people. We speak about monopolies in the economic field and business but there are monopolies in the field of culture too. It is one of our priorities to give opportunities to all of those people who want to have their position or want to act in the field. … We need to take all those measures, both legal and the ones that are connected only with political will.”

She finds that there is both stagnation and vitality in Armenian culture today “because we have so many bright cultural individuals and groups which produce masterpieces, really great pieces of art, but they are not visible in the arena.” She said that despite the artistic potential in Armenia, there are “great artists who unfortunately do not have the proper opportunities to produce their work.” She is not sure why, though it might have some connection with past public policy, and thus, she said, “I think it is both a problem of cultural management and a matter of attitude.”

She stressed that “if we want new elements in whatever we have in our heritage, we need to make an effort ourselves. It is not only because the government is going to give subsidies that culture is going to develop.” If, she said, the public and private sectors work in tandem this is going to foster competition, which in its turn is going to be reflected in the quality of whatever we see in the field of art.

At present, there are 70 state nonprofit cultural organizations, including 16 theaters under the patronage of the Ministry of Culture, and museums, galleries and other institutions receiving subsidies from the government. The government pays for the salaries of the employees of these institutions, the building management and utilities. Makunts said, “We do not have any intervention in content management. It is they [each institution’s leaders] who need to offer things or develop whatever they are doing.”

This leads to the interesting question of what happens when an institution is failing in its task. Makunts said, “We need to review this as well,” and gave the example of different types of theaters. Apparently, the Gyumri Ajemian Theater offers the most plays on a monthly basis of any theater in Armenia, and it gets the largest audiences. Makunts said, “The problem—the interesting thing—is that they get the same amount of subsidies as the other theaters which might offer, for example, only one play per month, instead of 20. This gives the feeling of unfairness which has to be addressed somehow.” She declared that “this approach might sound radical, and it would be painful for a lot of those organizations that are under the patronage of the ministry, but I think we should address this. She said a solution has not yet been developed, but it must be found so that incentives will be provided to cultural institutions which do more work.

Makunts encourages closer work with the Armenian diaspora, stating, “I consider the role of the diaspora very, very important, and not in the sense of financial input. We also need intellectual input here.” Cultural management skills are needed in Armenia. She said that cultural exchange programs are also very important. She declared, “We feel this hunger and thirst for bringing new things and incorporating them—not just sharing ideas but doing things.”

Makunts said that her ministry must work very closely with the ministries of education and diaspora. She said, “the gap that we have in the field of culture is also because the education programs are not linked to the cultural programs.” To remedy this, her ministry was discussing with the minister of education and deputy ministers a pilot program to connect students with cultural institutions, so that they go to museums, galleries and theaters and do projects there. Her ministry’s link with the Ministry of Diaspora, she said, “is just inevitable.”

When asked whether there was a greater role of women in government and her ministry in particular now, she replied that the governing body of her ministry consists of two men and two women, but overall there were more women than men in her ministry. In general, in government there are many more women, including more deputy ministers and women in city councils, though women are still a minority in the cabinet. The newly appointed mayor of Echmiadzin, for example, is a young woman, she pointed out. She said that more and more women would become involved in politics.

As far as the Western orientation or education of many in the new government, Makunts said, “I wouldn’t look for a conspiracy here.” She noted that statistically Armenian students today are getting advanced education more in Western countries, not just in the US but in Europe. This is due to a variety of reasons, and so is not a situation unique to the new government.

When asked about the difficulties in changing ubiquitous corruption in Armenia, and whether the Ministry of Culture was at all involved in this struggle, Makunts stated that the way the new government was combatting corruption was by changing the dominant mentality to include obedience to laws, starting at the top. She said, “When the governors of the state themselves, including the president, prime minister and other ministers, are the ones who do not break the laws, that is how the mentality changes.”

Makunts concluded that “this new government represents the concept that government or governors or ministers are not about posh lives, are not about top-down governance. This is about service, and we are here and we have this idea of service and serving the country and the people due to whom or because of whom we are now where we are. We hope that this is not going to be short term and this is going to be long term. Whoever later comes to power, whoever later takes office, this is going to be the number one priority for them, serving the people. …

The way we started this whole movement, the process, it needs to be continued with the same logic, in terms of solidarity, love and consistency.”

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