BY PATRICK AZADIAN
Years ago, a relative of my maternal grandmother paid us a visit in the United States from Soviet Armenia. Like a smug Diasporan, I planted an Armenian tri-color on top of our late seventies Zenith television monitor and set the stage to ask my burning question.
“When will Karabakh be re-united with Armenia?” I finally asked.
In retrospect, the question must have come across as a demand to my relative, a demand from a self-righteous young man who was oblivious to the realities of Armenia and Karabakh. After a brief pause of silence, my relative calmly pointed to a big, commercial truck parked across the street and responded: “If I asked you to go lift that truck across the street, could you do it?”
“Of course not.” I replied. But I was already disarmed and meekly awaited his follow up comment.
“Well,” he continued, “right now, we are not in a position to lift ‘our truck.’ But when the time comes, when the opportunity is right, we will try.” My relative had gently put me in my place. The opportunity finally arrived and true to his word, the people of Armenia and Karabakh not only tried but also proved that they could dictate change and address past injustices. The Karabakh movement was supported by many layers of the Armenian society and reached it climax of sacrifice during the war of self-determination. Against the odds, this grassroots movement was able to achieve what seemed improbable not only to many Armenians but also the international community.
In the Diaspora, a different kind of a movement took shape in the sixties. The movement for the recognition of Armenian Genocide challenged the Turkish state’s systematic attempts to re-write history. Many activists joined forces and dedicated themselves to push back revisionist policies and registered successes against an adversary that not only enjoyed significant resources but was also supported by powerful allies. While some may question the level of success achieved by this movement, it cannot be denied that communities were mobilized, some young men and women dedicated and sacrificed their lives for a cause, and in the process, the historical significance of the Armenian Genocide remained relevant decades after the attempted annihilation of the Armenian people.
With the exception of the Karabakh and the Genocide recognition movements, however, recent Armenian history is void of successful models for change. It’s not a secret that Armenian society suffers from a slew of socio-economic injustices and political dysfunctions; inequality and poverty are certainly rife in Armenia. Why then, has a nation that has displayed such resilience and has produced many humble activists and soldiers, within Armenia and without, is not able to mobilize and rid itself of internal oppression, old dependencies, poverty and injustice? Is the depopulation of today’s Armenian villages less painful than the ones our grandparents left behind? Are poverty and mass migration lesser evils than forced deportations? Or, is it that injustices delivered by our own kind are more tolerable than those committed by foreign legions?
A lot has been written and debated about the necessity of change in Armenia. Private conversations, social media exchanges, as well as dialogue in the media about change often focus on a process either through the elections or a forced relinquishment of power by the current leadership. Parallel to this desire for change from the top, many also hold the belief that the nation needs a dynamic, resolute, strong, charismatic and patriotic leader to chaperon them to a bright future. While the change in leadership can certainly be a critical step toward progress and an important piece of the puzzle, the lack of substantive conversations and strategy surrounding creating societal structures and supporting the fledging movements that champion change is not only curious but also alarming. In Armenia and the Diaspora, not much significance and organized effort is placed on nurturing civil society movements, building a culture of democracy, organizing grassroots initiatives, supporting human rights organizations, creating an aggressive labor movement, employing defiant and persistent civil disobedience action and exploring creative avenues for economic. Moreover, while there is a consensus on the need for a genuine strategic partnership with the Russia to safeguard of Armenia’s borders, there is a lack of serious inventiveness to balance this strategic alliance with diversified economic initiatives as well as political engagement on the global stage. In the absence of a robust grassroots movement that includes the Diaspora, symbolic statements and an exclusively top down approach to change may only usher cosmetic improvements and leave the Armenian society suffering from the same inequalities that it faces today.
Perhaps the root of this double-edged cult of personality, and this wish for the arrival of a messiah(s) is a vestige of the Soviet authoritarian culture, our ‘Middle Eastern experience’ or in part, it’s a natural manifestation of the lack of successful models for change in our modern history. It can also simply be a product of the existing despair among large segments of the population or the absence of a sizeable and enlightened middle class that can afford the time and energy to organize and drive reform. The toothlessness of political parties that can serve as agents for change and challenge the ruling pseudo-elite may also be a contributing factor to the void of momentum for change. In Armenia, political parties have been established in order to usher change from above; thus far, they have been unable or unwilling to engage in grassroots organization of the populace and have failed to create a viable progressive movement. They lack the muscle or the pedigree to successfully challenge the ruling class. In the Diaspora, the terms such as ‘corruption’ and ‘oligarchy’ are favorite buzzwords for casual conversations without much energy invested in how movements and structures that exist and champion change, many of which are in their infancy, can be nurtured and supported. In the Diaspora, we are, more or less, still busy with activities that date back to pre-independence and post-Genocide. Perhaps, there is a consensus on the desire to reach the land of milk and honey, we intuitively or theoretically understand the importance of Armenia’s survival as a vibrant state, but our path of realizing national aspirations is clouded in doubt, misinformation and a disjoined effort.
Many of us have a vision of what we want Armenia to become; there is a wish list. It’s a society where human rights are respected; the arts, culture, industry and the sciences are alive and evolving; there is equality of opportunity to achieve material wealth and prosperity; the educational system is robust; the citizen have access to a quality healthcare system; democratic institutions are grounded; borders are safe; and poverty and other societal ills have been addressed. This is a society where citizens have the opportunity to fulfill his/her potential and Armenia has found a dignified place in the family of nations. This is also an Armenia that recognizes the necessity of Russia as a strategic ally but has also sought and succeeded in diversifying the field of economic partnerships on the global stage. It’s an Armenia where the political culture is not a mimicked version of authoritarian models in the post-Soviet realm and democratic principles and processes are not just a mandate of cult personalities but are engrained in the psyche of the populace. This is an Armenia that has engaged the full potential of the Diaspora and has utilized this resultant inertia to enhance her independence in spite of her geopolitical realities. Given the size and the potential of Armenia’s population and the resources of the Diaspora, these aspirations are not utopic, or at least, getting on the right path to reach these objectives is not just a fantasy.
Neither the energy of the Kabarakh movement nor the activism achieved in the Diaspora for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide have been replicated in pursuit of social, political and economic justice for Armenian society. In some cases, we are even cynical and dismissive of the fledging civic, political, human rights and environmental movements in Armenia. Granted, the landscape of progress and change is not deserted, but there is a void of organized movements that have a clear vision of what they aim to achieve. There are individuals and organizations that are dedicated to the betterment of Armenian society but the size of the task is not matched with the overall effort. There are no pan-Armenian movements to defend the rights of workers or women, for example, and there is an absence of national initiatives to improve economic conditions and break the cycle of poverty.
The puzzle of this void is neither complicated nor sentimental; we just don’t know how to get to where we want to be. Perhaps we don’t have successful models for political and socio-economic progress. Maybe we are experts in building diaspora communities but nation-building is not our cup of tea; or at least, not yet. After all, without an independent state, we have not been fully in charge of our own destiny for centuries and perhaps, as a result, the dominant Armenian political minds are unable to explore possibilities beyond unrestricted dependency. Admitting that we don’t have all the solutions is not a crime. Laws are written and constitutions are drafted, yet without the vigilant participation of the public and the full engagement of the Diaspora, progress either cannot be achieved or it may come too late and too little.
One look at where America was a century ago and where is it today tells a good story of how change was achieved. Without the civil rights movement, America would not be the society that it is today. Without a labor movement to improve working conditions and bring about an eight-hour day, big businesses would not voluntarily relinquish their advantage. Anti-discrimination laws are also a product of struggle and sacrifice. Without a movement to defend the rights of children and women, domestic violence laws would not have come into affect. In many of the societies that certain standards are now taken for granted, change was not always sponsored or supported by the state. So, why then should we expect that all these achievements and reforms should magically appear in Armenian society? Just because we deserve them, or we are an ancient nation, or that’s how it is in Sweden or Denmark? Perhaps we know how to challenge a foreign adversary but we are not so adept at organizing and supporting movements that can bring progressive change to our impoverished homeland.
There are many models to achieve change and vibrancy, some more successful than others. Yet, it is not state-sponsored laws, perfectly worded constitutions or a group of well-spoken politicians that bring lasting change to a society. It is the process of change, the struggle for progress, not being afraid of making mistakes (not to be confused with adventurism), a militancy in character that bring about new laws, an ability to free the political mind from a culture of dependency (not to be confused with rejection of interdependency), that transform societies and make them more just and allow the citizens of a nation to express themselves freely and reach their potential. It is those grassroots movements, mini-revolutions, small but critical steps toward progress that change societies. In the process, societies become more adept to embracing new ideas, they gains confidence, become more enlightened and genuine leaders and movements that can impose change are born. As long as Armenia suffers from the burden of poverty and inequality, those who have the means will influence elections, shamelessly extract what they want from the system and will have the resources to gradually forfeit Armenia’s independence in exchange for staying in power. The time has arrived and independence (albeit relative and limited) is the opportunity many of us had been waiting for. It’s time to lift ‘our truck’ by engaging in change, supporting the fledging movements and organizations that exist in Armenia, building a pan-Armenian strategy for progress and challenge the state sponsored injustices. The alternative is our current reality.