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Depoliticising protests in Armenia

Years of social and environmental protests in Armenia have proven one thing — our demands must be political in nature.
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Several days ago, the Armenian Compulsory Enforcement Service banged on my door. They stated I had several administrative fines outstanding — fines stemming from my participation in protests and civil actions.

The court ordered that I must pay 53,000 dram (roughly 100 euros — a little less than half of my monthly salary) for each instance. Around 500 people were detained and arrested in those protests. And over 200 were, like me, subject to political repressions and administrative fines for daring to be active in our country’s civic life. The number of political prisoners in Armenia is also growing.

In Armenia, the very notion of civic mindedness presupposes loyalty, respect for state institutions and for the law.

I often came home from the Electric Yerevan protests covered in bruises, soaked from the water cannon — but my situation is not unique. This is how the Armenian government pressures and punishes those of us who want to change the country for the better. Like many of my comrades, I’ve participated in many protests that we perceived to be strictly “social” in nature. But if the problems we were trying to solve were strictly “social” or “economic”, I don’t think the government would have persecuted us nearly as much.

The conflict between “social” and “political” protest is artificial, created by pro-government powers, and until we destroy this false dichotomy of a “political/apolitical” protest, we won’t see systemic change.

“Don’t politicise the parliament!”

This phrase belongs to Galust Sahakyan, the speaker of Armenia’s parliament, and it perfectly captures the situation in Armenia.

The binary discourse of whether a civil action is “politicised/not politicised” is caused by two factors. First of all, people in Armenia believe that a “politicised protest” is any civil action targeted toward regime change and revolution. This has to do with the bitter legacy of March 1, 2008, when the blood of protesters covered Yerevan’s central streets — for 10 days, these people had peacefully protested against voter fraud in the presidential elections.

A dummy that represented an oligarch — as well as old thinking, based on patriarchal principles — was demonstrably laid to rest.

The second factor has to do with what it means to “be politically active” and who has the right to participate. In Armenia, the very notion of civic mindedness presupposes loyalty, respect for state institutions and for the law. Besides that, there is a widespread stereotype that only a privileged elite and political parties can be involved in politics professionally. In recent years, the people who challenged these stereotypes were dismissed as “marginals”.

From 2008 to 2016, various civic initiatives in Armenia tried to raise awareness of local problems and solve some of them, but there were no mass protests that could challenge the government and spark major changes in society. Most of the problems discussed were social and environmental issues — the fight to preserve Trchkan waterfall, the fight to preserve the Moskva summer cinema hall, the Save Teghut initiative, which aims to challenge the damage wrought by copper mining in northern Armenia.

The solutions to these problems should have been political, but in most cases these issues were perceived as problems for “volunteers”.

The fight for Mashtots Park

“Social” and “environmental” protests were perceived as having nothing to do with the fight for regime change, but as a means of solving private problems. This perception was changed by the months-long fight for Yerevan’s Mashtots Park.

In December 2011, Yerevan city hall moved dismantled shopping pavilions onto the territory of Mashots Park in the city centre, inciting a wave of anger from the public. The first protests in support of preserving the park came at the end of January 2012 under the banner of an initiative called “We are in charge of our country”. These protests grew in size, and the protesters occupied the construction site. In February, a sit-in commenced, and it lasted for three months.

As Vagram Sogomonyan, a prominent participant of the Mashots Park movement, said: “The fight for nature, for trees and flowers grew into a rethinking of public spaces over the course of three months.” This was a fight for public ownership, and it was no accident that one of the slogans of this protest, which later grew into a slogan for greater civil action, was “Give what’s public to the public”.

January 2012: people gather to protest illegal constructions at Mashtots Park, Yerevan. CC Wikipedia.

According to Sogomonyan, Mashots Park turned into a “horizontal, decentralised platform for self-organisation, which united very different people”. And it was in Mashots Park that protesters began to doubt the myth of an “apolitical” fight to solve individual issues.

Two month later, in April 2012, participants of the Mashots Park sit-in and others staged a public action called “A self-determined citizen buries an oligarch”, where a dummy that represented an oligarch — as well as old thinking, based on patriarchal principles — was demonstrably laid to rest.

But this campaign ran up against a familiar problem: the park issues were solved based on the principle of “ethics”, there was no legal decision made. At the start of May, the Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan visited the park with Yerevan mayor Taron Margaryan. “Taron, you did everything right, Yerevan city hall works effectively, but take a look – this is ugly,” the president said, and the unwanted pavilions were put away. This tendency of solving problems via the principle of “Look, Taron, this is ugly”, rather than through the courts, remains strong to this day.

“The king is dead – long live the citizen!”

After Armenia’s presidential election of 2013 were falsified, mass student strikes commenced. The platform Azatagrum (literally: Liberation) was created, and began daily discussions on the problem of rule of law, the need to self-organise and the importance of nonviolent struggle.

We began to find slogans put up all over Yerevan: “The king is dead. Long live the citizen!”, “Being conscious of your rights is power!”, “Resist when they pressure you and use force against you!”, “We are in charge of our country!” Azatagrum would go on to play a major theoretical and practical role in the 2013 protests against rising transport tariffs in Yerevan.

One way or another, we must breach the wall of the “apolitical” to gain leverage against the government

Meanwhile, the most powerful civil initiatives focused on social issues were “We pay 100 dram”, “I’m against!”, “No to robbery!” and later “Electric Yerevan”, of course. “We pay 100 dram” (which opposed the public transport fee rise to 150 dram) was special because it brought democratic principles and horizontal decision-making to Armenia’s activist scene. Here, tolerance and cooperation brought together people from different social backgrounds, they looked upon this initiative as “social” and financial, involving everyone, due to the fact that raised transport tariffs affected the whole of society.

This movement held daily public debates where everyone could raise their hand, make suggestions or criticisms with regard to ongoing civil actions in Mashots Park, which had become a symbol of freedom of speech. Even Valery Osipyan, the vice head of Yerevan police, had to get in line in order to have his voice heard.

Within days, every bus station and public transport vehicle had become a tiny hotbed of civil disobedience. Every citizen that paid 100 dram, rather than 150, for a ticket became part of the movement, whether they wanted to or not, and thus became political.

But the government feared that this movement could become a multi-pronged fight against officials. In July 2013, the decision to raise tariffs was cancelled. This was yet another extra-legal step in the vein of “Look, Taron – this is ugly”.

This time, several members of the “We pay 100 dram” initiative decided to take things further and announced a sit-in in front of city hall demanding that certain corrupt officials, including Genrikh Navardasyan, the head of the city transportation department, be sacked. Unfortunately, despite an exhausting sit-in that lasted three months, there was no positive outcome.

I’m Against!, ElectricYerevan and police brutality

“I’m Against!”, another popular civil initiative, chose a different tactic and mobilised parties and various politicians (a tactic which other initiatives rejected outright).

Srbui Pogosyan, an active member of the coordination group behind “I’m Against!”, remembers: “Members of the initiative held a series of meetings with four groupings in the Armenian National Assembly, with a goal, among others, of filing a lawsuit in the Constitutional Court that would challenge several statues in the law on the cumulative pensions system, since these statues directly contradicted the Constitution on the issue of protecting private property and the issue of discrimination based on age. After these statues were declared unconstitutional, we wanted to change existing law, allowing citizens to join this system voluntarily.

“Four parliamentarian fractions addressed the Constitutional Court, which began debating [the issue], and on April 2, 2014, the court made a decision that declared such statues unconstitutional and called upon the Government and the National Assembly to make necessary changes within a six-month period.”

In this manner, “I’m Against!” was able to find a compromise-based solution, using political parties as a lever, even though this also had the effect of legitimising a kind of pseudo-opposition.

In June 2014, when the government announced a 10% hike on electricity tariffs, the initiative “No To Robbery!” was formed — during a subsequent protest, the police used rough force, some people were hurt, 20 were detained. The initiative, in this instance, was unable to reach its stated goals.

Civil initiatives ran up against a familiar dilemma: yes, the problem was of a “social nature”, but without politicising the problem, we were getting nowhere

In April 2015, rumours of new electricity tariff hikes began. This was followed by a sit-in at Freedom Square in Yerevan, then the protesters blockaded Bagramyan prospect, which is home to government and foreign diplomatic buildings, overnight. Around five a.m. that day, the police used a water cannon against the peaceful protesters (I was one of them – many of us were also beaten, many were hurt), around 250 people were detained, 247 journalists had their equipment damaged. I remember the moment that the water cannon struck — plainclothes police officers simultaneously attacked us from behind, beating us.

At the police station, many of the people detained were not given first aid, until I was able to secretly contact a journalist friend and get the word out about what was happening. I was let go after 16 hours of waiting, though my identity was not confirmed and no administrative paperwork was signed. While we waited, we weren’t allowed any food. Practically speaking, this was a kidnapping.

In the evening, after those detained were let go, Bagramyan Prospect was again blockaded — this time for a long time. The protesters constructed a barricade out of trash containers.

A debate emerged again — should the protest be politicised? Should we demand regime change? Should we draw parallels between us and Ukraine’s Euromaidan protest? This is how the slogan “This is not Maidan! This is Bagramyan!” was born.

A two-week long sit-in and a blockaded Bagramyan Prospect did not, however, bring results. On 6 July, the police forcibly removed the remaining protesters, and the fight went out of the protest.

Civil initiatives ran up against a familiar dilemma: yes, the problem was of a “social nature”, but without politicising the problem, we were getting nowhere, since all decisions made by politicians are not based on rule of law, but on the old principle of “Look, Taron – this is ugly.”

If I could generalise my experience of civil disobedience, I could say that in these last few years, we’ve received a schooling in politics — we’ve gradually understood that we matter as far as socio-political life of our country is concerned. We are growing into responsible citizens of our state.

Today, in the difficult, almost war-like environment that Armenia lives in, we are more aware of the importance of our actions, the importance of the establishment of rule by the Armenian Constitution and public oversight, the importance of seeing the link between corruption and the safety of our very lives.

All of this makes it obvious that there are no exclusively “social” issues in Armenia — there are social and economic problems, but every protest, in its nature, is political.

Those who have been “authorised” to engage in political activity have, in effect, failed at their task. We see failures in foreign policy — if diplomats were doing their jobs, Armenia wouldn’t be taking up arms to defend itself. We see failures in economic policy — due to Serzh Sargsyan’s catastrophic “property instead of debt” scheme, which sees Armenian enterprises sold to Russia in lieu of state debt repayments, Armenia is now wholly economically dependent upon Russia and a minimum 30% of Armenians living in poverty.

Corruption in Armenia is flourishing, there is a crackdown on civil rights, and jails are filling up with new political prisoners. All of this makes it obvious that there are no exclusively “social” issues in Armenia — there are social and economic problems, but every protest, in its nature, is political.

One way or another, we must breach the wall of the “apolitical” to gain leverage against the government. After the four-day war with Azerbaijan this past April, we all began to understand that in our country, it is the citizens, and not politicians, who will be forced to solve our problems from now on.

***

This article originally appeared on Open Democracy.

Gohar Saroyan

Gohar Saroyan is a linguist, translator and freelance journalist based in Yerevan.

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Gohar Saroyan is a linguist, translator and freelance journalist based in Yerevan.

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