Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Constantine Orbelian at the Yerevan Opera House, May 12, 2015

We, as a People, Are Better than That

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By Sona Hamalian

What is wrong with us?

We Armenians love to talk about how deep the roots of our nation go, yet we often display a glaring lack of farsightedness, as an inextricable attribute of the wisdom of an ancient people. We pride ourselves on what we consider the inherent nobility of our nation, as expressed through values such as hospitality, inclusiveness, and generosity of spirit, yet we often act in utter disregard of these values, driven by greed and the petty exigencies of the ego. And we love screaming at the top of our lungs that nothing can suppress our creative spirit, even in times of extreme collective hardship, yet far too often we ignore, ostracize, or downright destroy our most accomplished, most visionary artists.

Case in point: in the past few weeks, a nasty smear campaign was unleashed in Yerevan, accompanied by threats both obvious and implied, with the express purpose of ruining just such an artist.

The story might sound banal, even boring: a certain government official is seeking to have the director of a major cultural institution removed from his post, and has come up with a bunch of fabrications to get the ball rolling – with no due process whatsoever, and relying strictly on innuendo and threats.

This is the type of clique intrigue that can take place on any given day, anywhere in the world, whether in governance, public institutions, or commerce. In fact, it’s so prevalent that we might have become rather desensitized to it. What’s unique to the case I refer to is that the government official in question is Lilit Makunts, the Minister of Culture of the Republic of Armenia — yes, the same republic which pulled off a bloodless revolution only months ago, and whose new government has inspired not just our homeland, but the entire Armenian community of the world, with an exhilarating prospect for genuine pluralism, transparency, accountability, and, above all, fairness. What’s equally unique to this case is that the artist whom the Minister is targeting happens to be one of the most accomplished and dedicated Armenian artists alive, and one who almost single-handedly has brought about the rebirth of a cherished national treasure. That artist is Constantine Orbelian, the artistic and general director of the Yerevan Opera House.

Culture Minister Lilit Makunts

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Minister Makunts launched her smear campaign with a shocking post on the Ministry’s FaceBook site. She was accusing the executive personnel of the Yerevan Opera House of holding political-agitation meetings at the theater, and warned that talking about or discussing politics of any kind is strictly forbidden by law, that it’s a prosecutable offense. In the post she warns not only the Opera House staff, but, the staff of any theater or state organization. Is Makunts the Minister of Culture of Armenia or the Minister of Propaganda of a long lost Soviet Republic?

I find the minister’s unsubstantiated accusations and threats to be disturbing on many levels, and not just concerning Maestro Orbelian and his colleagues. Her overarching message couldn’t be clearer. In a flagrant nod to Stalinism, she was telling everyone to keep quiet, to refrain from voicing political opinions. She was, in effect, issuing a warning against democratic processes and thought. Such behavior, so profoundly unbecoming of a government official of our post-Velvet-Revolution space, should make any concerned Armenian wonder: is free speech already cancelled? Is free thought here under fire? How on Earth can a discussion about politics or politicians be deemed political “agitation?” And who in a democracy, after all, gets to decide what is allowed and what isn’t?

I don’t know what degree of small-mindedness and just plain ignorance it would take for someone — a Minister of Culture no less — to engage in the type of Byzantine machination that has shown its ugly face in Yerevan in the past few weeks. What I do know is that the Cultural community is deeply disappointed in her.

This would spell a dangerous setback for democracy in Armenia. It would mean we’re not exactly an open, fair, and pluralistic society. It would also mean we don’t really care that a globally-renowned artist such as Orbelian has helped the Yerevan Opera House burgeon like never before, by empowering it to stage extraordinary productions in Armenia and abroad; and that he has helped fund these efforts with his own personal resources, again and again, because nothing excites him more than having the Yerevan Opera House shine on the world stage, as a hub for artistic excellence. And it would mean, by extension, that we Armenians, you and I, don’t care much about the continued vibrancy of our cultural institutions, since, apparently, anyone in a position of power can, on a whim, have someone removed from a post, and do so with the tacit consent of her government, and by echoing a totalitarian past which our homeland fought so very hard to overcome.

What, then, is wrong with us? I hope nothing. It is my sincere wish, and no doubt the wish of hundreds of thousands of Armenians across the globe who revere Maestro Orbelian’s talent and work, that the campaign against him as well as our freedom of speech and thought, will duly be exposed for what it is, and that we, as a people, will have plenty of reason to say that we’re better than that.

 

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