From left, Ara Hakobyan, Levon Chukaklyan, Yuri Avagyan, Alla Yeremyan Garik Miskaryan, and Astghik Isakhanyan (photo: David Medzorian)

CYSCA Panelists from Armenia Discuss Activism and Revolution

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WATERTOWN — The Cambridge-Yerevan Sister City Association (CYSCA) presented “Activism and Transition to Leadership in Armenia,” a lively panel discussion of the events of the Velvet Revolution in Armenia earlier in 2018, at the Armenian General Benevolent Union New England center in Watertown on the evening of December 6. The five speakers visiting from different parts of Armenia were all young activists in their early 20s. The event was cosponsored by the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) / Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation Lecture Series on Contemporary Armenian Issues.

Levon Chukaklyan, left, and Yuri Avagyan (photo: Aram Arkun)

The audience was first welcomed by Marc Mamigonian on behalf of NAASR and CYSCA Open World Program Director Alisa Stepanian on behalf of CYSCA. Dr. Anna Ohanyan, Richard B. Finnegan Distinguished Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Stonehill College, served as moderator. Interpreter Ara Hakobyan facilitated communications for the panelists, with the exception of Astghik Isakhanyan, who spoke in English.

Ohanyan began by asking the panelists where they were during the 10 days the movement was building and how it felt to be a part of that movement.

Isakhanyan is from Goris, in the southern Armenian province of Syunik, and worked as project coordinator for the Rights Information Center, a nongovernmental organization (NGO), which works to help people know and protect their rights. In October 2016, the despotic governor of Syunik was dismissed, she said, so the atmosphere was somewhat freer than before. Isakhanyan said, “In the first days, in my region, and in the southern parts of Armenia, people didn’t believe that it would succeed, especially older people.” However, some young people went to Yerevan to join the movement when Nikol Pashinyan returned there on his march.

Isakhanyan said these young people were considered very courageous because in Goris, many people work for the government, at that time controlled by the Republican Party, and the latter spread the word that those who joined the movement, or their parents and family, would lose their jobs. Only when it became obvious that the movement would succeed if everybody joined in did around 80 people go out in public. Even writing on social media in favor of the movement could be dangerous. Isakhanyan’s NGO was one of the first to spread the news on its webpages and social media. They declared that they would not work for one week but instead organize a rally to demand the Republicans and Serzh Sargsyan to resign.

Amazingly, it was school children aged 7 who started the first rally. Isakhanyan said, “They ran out of the school and we saw that the police came with them and they were walking… They really were 7 years old… I was in my office and I heard some noises. We looked out and saw that children with their bags, really small ones, are running and screaming ‘Merzhir Serzhin’ (Reject Serzh) and some announcements like this. Then people were encouraged. It was a really, really very emotional moment, because all the older ones were really afraid but they were really for that. The children did not understand the fear, what is fear, or what to fear. They saw on the internet that in other cities that people went out, so they also went out.”

From left, Alla Yeremyan, Levon Chukaklyan, Yuri Avagyan, Ara Hakobyan, Garik Miskaryan, Astghik Isakhanyan and Anna Ohanyan (photo: David Medzorian)

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This established a culture of rallying, so that when a principal was nominated for a school whom the people did not like, the people held a rally and said they do not like the decision that was made. This was real change, Isakhanyan said, for her region.

Garik Miskaryan, foreign affairs manager for the Restart Student Initiative, declared that by October 2017, university students were already fighting for changes on issues important to their lives, such as postponing obligatory military service for some exceptional students. The main people in this movement established the Restart Initiative on February 5, 2018. Their activity, focused on Yerevan State University (YSU), touched everything from issues like toilet paper to higher level budget questions.

Prior to the April events of the Velvet Revolution, Miskaryan said that there were two groups struggling for this revolution: Nikol Pashinyan’s political faction and the Reject Serzh civil initiative, which turned into the main force moving the revolution forward. Miskaryan and Davit Petrosyan from the Restart Initiative participated in those meetings and were the first to greet Pashinyan on his return from Gyumri to Yerevan (on April 13). Before arriving in Freedom Square, Pashinyan and the whole group went to YSU, where, Miskaryan said, it became clear that the students were the main driving force of the revolution.

Miskaryan declared, “The revolution took place, in my opinion, on that day when the students, around 5,000 in number the first time, closed the intersection of Koryun and Aboyvan Streets and kept it closed for an entire day. There were clashes there. On Baghramyan Street in the evening, they shot on the students and three of our members got injured. The next day when I saw those injured comrades back on the streets, the next morning, I realized that something is possible and that changes are taking place. During those ten days we were basically on the streets.”

Yuri Avagyan, communications manager for the Restart Initiative and a third-year sociology graduate student, declared that the most impressive day for the students was that of the closing down of the Koryun/Abovyan intersection. The students joined the main mass of protestors, but, he said, were greater in number than those before them.

Avagyan explained that planning was very important for the movement’s success. There were various initiatives taking place, including that of Nikol Pashinyan, and some individuals participated in all of them. Meetings took place at the Ketiknots’ Café near the Opera and the intersection of Prospect and Baghramyan Avenue. Around 30 people were actively talking, including representatives of Reject Serzh, Nikol Pashinyan and members of his team, and the Restart Initiative group. Suren Sahakyan, who only later formed his own political party, proposed an obligatory strike. The protestors would block the streets in a decentralized manner.

Alisa Stepanian (photo: Aram Arkun)

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On the night of April 15, Avagyan said, after Pashinyan’s speech, they decided to allocate duties. Whoever had a car would block one of the various main city streets, especially the bridges. The student faction undertook the heaviest responsibilities. They had to close down the streets in the morning, and the bold ones among them lay down to block the entrances of the subway cars. Avagyan said, “I never imagined the situation would lead to Serzh Sargsyan’s resignation because there were truly very few of us showing up there and everybody was deriding us greatly. In a word, in the morning the following picture materialized: we with the students collected at the SAS supermarket and, in turn, using dumpsters and benches closed the street and went on. We were 10-15 people in all. Cars couldn’t travel there. It is true that we made the city very dirty but in the end something happened. As many as expected of the students came out while the picture of the city was that Yerevan was completely paralyzed.”

They repeated the same actions again and again. The next day, April 17, they came to the same place, at the supermarket, and the police were waiting for them. Probably, Avagyan guessed, there was a secret police agent in their ranks who had revealed their plans. Arrests began. Avagyan showed a brief video clip showing the students resisting arrest. Avagyan and the others were kept at the Masis police precinct for nine hours.

Miskaryan interjected that Avagyan neglected to mention that the day prior to being arrested, Avagyan was shot upon three times, and once he was hit in “a very inappropriate spot.”

Levon Chukaklyan, cofounder of the Restart Student Initiative and third year political science post-graduate at YSU, spoke about his personal story since the other panelists had given information about the revolution. He said that in October 2017, when the students were working to postpone the drafting into the army of exceptional students, they did a hunger strike for the first time. His family was threatened and punished as a result. His brother was fired from his job and the secret police telephoned to threaten his mother. All his family and friends asked him to stop his protest activities and when Pashinyan began his march from Gyumri to Yerevan, his mother and others begged him not to join. He said, “However, as always I did just the opposite again.” He and his friends joined Pashinyan’s group. When his mother, worried, called after hearing of the shootings on April 16, Chukaklyan said, she only told him to be careful. He understood that by this point she and his family and friends were convinced there was no point to try to hold him back. Perhaps more significantly, he stressed, “I understood that among them too the belief arose that already was with me — that slowly we were able to spread in our surroundings that perhaps this time things would change.”

He related that during the revolution, one of the main principles was to maintain civil disobedience without violence, which hopefully would lead the police to understand that the protestors were not enemies but friends. When one of his hotheaded friends, named Mihran, was struck by the police with a club, Chukaklyan noticed to his surprise that even he merely raised his hands, understanding that it was necessary to attempt to keep the peace.

Anna Ohanyan (photo: Aram Arkun)

Chukaklyan is originally from Armavir, a town and region in the west of Armenia. He said that when we saw the Yerevan roads were closed down, he understood they had to do the same in his hometown, so, 13 young women and 4 young men ran around the streets of Armavir, with the police following them. At first the local residents said new Yerevan fashions were being introduced, but in a few days, even the older grandmothers and grandfathers came outside to sit on the streets in their chairs to block traffic, and the police could not do anything.

He concluded, “It is at that time that you become aware of how important each citizen’s responsibility is to do what is necessary for civil society, so that they can educate people to be able to do their civic obligations. The direction in which the country moves forward and toward what future depends on each step.” Change comes from each small step taken by individuals.

Alla Yeremyan is also from Syunik Province in southern Armenia, but from a different city called Sisian, where she is manager of the Basen Hotel and also teaches students with disabilities and doing leadership training for NGOs. She was in Sisian during the revolution, and said, “To tell the truth, in the beginning I had some fears about the success of the revolution.” She recalled the fate of the 2015 Electric Yerevan struggle, but as time went on became more optimistic. Mobilizing in Sisian was difficult, she said, for several reasons: first the majority of Sisian’s youth were already in Yerevan participating in the demonstrations there. In Sisian though there was no direct actions there was an atmosphere of fear, as they feared that they or their parents could lose their jobs in retaliation. Consequently, only five or six youths did not fear going out and demonstrating, but everybody followed the events on television and social media and slowly the spirit of the revolution reached Sisian too.

As in Goris, it seemed the children took the initiative. Yeremyan related: “One morning, we all went to work and an unusual thing happened. All the students from the fourth to the eleventh grades declared a strike. They made placards stating ‘Reject Serzh’ and ‘I am the owner of my country.’” Yeremyan worked at Vaghatin’s middle school, 11 kilometers from Sisian. The students walked with their banners to Sisian, and the teachers followed them, but in their cars.

When they arrived at Sisian they saw that everyone had gone on strike. Rumors about closing the Sisian medical center had inspired them even more to struggle, so everyone from the medical centers and schools had taken to the streets. They closed a bridge and some youth with their cares closed the main highway connecting Yerevan to Meghri. The following day, April 23, Serzh Sargsyan resigned as prime minister.

After this first round of answers, Ohanyan asked what the activists did in order to bring people out to join the demonstrations and address their fears. Secondly, what role does activism and civil society have in making this transition stick and making the changes permanent.

Avagyan replied that it was a little easier for Restart to encourage people because its members were already involved in different processes and Davit Petrosyan was very well known among the students. Thus, when they saw people who in the past worked for just goals, he said, “they felt they could trust these people.” He said that in Armenia, it is important as a leader to show that you do not fear and have strong will.

Last year, for example, when For the Sake of the Development of Knowledge Initiative, the predecessor group to the Restart Initiative, was invited by the then prime minister Karen Karapetyan to negotiate, the group forced Karapetyan to agree to have everything recorded without cuts so it could be shown on television. The students were so confident that they could interrupt the prime minister. Minister of Defense Vigen Sargsyan got upset and left. The group also published its telephone numbers to show its sincerity and independence to the public.

Miskaryan followed up by declaring that the decentralized nature of the movement was very important. The principle of closing down the streets was announced and beyond that, individuals took over, he said. The students who had an opportunity to be outside of Armenia and see other societies were more open in mentality and were the first to close the streets down.

Then, he said, “When 18-year-old girls take to the street, that doubled the number of people in the street. When at home they tell the girl once, twice, don’t go, but the girl still went to the street, the father and mother themselves were forced to go to the street.” When the young women then would lie down before buses, this got televised and many more people were inspired.

The arrests of the main leaders like Nikol Pashinyan, Ararat Mirzoyan and Sasun Mikayelyan on April 22 did not change anything. People still went out to close the streets, because civil society, explained Miskaryan, was now the driving force of this movement.

Miskaryan concluded by noting that the Restart Initiative has not changed its approach or activities. Both before and after the revolution it remained active in the field of civil society, unlike many others.

Chuchaklyan gave another example of how they got people involved. He said, “if we had a lack of freedom inside the university, and that atmosphere dominated there, then we could right next to it establish a different atmosphere of freedom.” They held events at the park or garden next to the university. Students looked while passing and became interested in their demands. Similarly, during the revolution, people saw others waging struggles or activities on the street or through the internet, and this interested them.

He said that many people of the civil movements have now entered politics but the Restart Initiative works to integrate new students in order to replace them. He said, “We have kept our ideas and activities in spheres that have great need for solutions.” Meanwhile, as far as the revolution in general goes, he said that it must be institutionalized.

Ohanyan asked Yeremyan and Isakhanyan how challenges in the provinces are different from those in Yerevan. Yeremyan said that it is hard to mobilize people in far away regions. The NGO at which she volunteers tries to develop Sisian not only economically but through programs to involve the youth and women. They held leadership classes for the youth during the summer to explain what they can change in society to make it more suitable to their own needs. They also have various economic programs promoting craftwork and tourism. In November a tourism information center was opened in Sisian.

Isakhanyan said that she has been involved in civil society organizations for five years. A long process is necessary after the revolution. She said, “I will consider the revolution as implemented when the mindset of the people will be really changed.” When bribery no longer will be relied on, and elections will be transparent.

Ohanyan also asked about the role of the diaspora in supporting civil society initiatives. Isakhanyan said, “If you care, we really get encouraged that there are people outside of Armenian who consider Armenia their home and care what is happening there.” Collaboration with Armenian civil society organizations and visiting are important. She said, “We feel a lot of respect here [in Boston]. People recognize where Armenia is and it is thanks to you. You make us really proud that we are Armenian. Thank you.”

Avagyan said that there were many cases when diasporan contributions have not yielded the expected results. Aid, he said, should not be short term, and the question is proper policy or strategy, and how to implement the strategy. Restart attempts to work in this manner, he said. He gave one example.

In the past, student bodies were formed as appendages of the Republican Party and took students to Tsaghkatsor’s resort areas and spent 9 ½ million tram. Restart instead announced grants for 100,000 tram, and got three people doing research projects and mastering specific issues. These new members became so skillful that this was considered a great success. He stressed, “In our country, the only resources are human resources.”

Chukaklyan said that there is a widespread skepticism in Armenia concerning grants being given through various countries or foundations. He said, “I think the diaspora can take the place of these countries or international organizations, so that with our own [i.e. Armenian] means we can help the human level of quality and progress.”

During the question and answer session with the audience, when asked to elaborate on any changes that have taken place at the university level, Avagyan declared that this was “the most painful point…nothing changed in education. The leadership and management of universities remain the same corrupt people as before, from the rectors to the governing council.” He said that his group was awaiting the completion of the revolution and afterwards will begin presenting its harder requests. First will be the removal of the old corrupt leadership, and second will be the change of the professors. He explained that “with us, the university is a very conservative body, unlike in developed countries.”

As to whether their broader political demands will be fulfilled, Avagyan replied that it was always possible that if civil society could not be sustained, the Kocharyan system would come back to power. He said that it is still actively working in the field, and Kocharyan has numerous media resources, so activism must continue too.

Miskaryan exclaimed that the iron is hot, so it is time to mold it. This is an important period for building and creating. Success will depend on the efforts of everyone.

To an audience question of how to move conservative Armenian society toward freedom on issues like women’s rights, Isakhanyan responded that already changes have taken place since women stood outside next to their husbands, sons and friends in the revolution, and there are many women’s names now on the list of candidates for deputies in the parliamentary election. There is now a woman appointed as mayor of Echmiadzin city, which could not have been imagined ten years ago. A recent law requires that murder or family violence directed against women will be considered criminal cases.

Yeremyan said that we will reach the desired result only when women themselves are knowledgeable about their rights and demand them.

 

 

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