Is a National Civil Society Possible in 2009?

This morning, in early December, a friend forwarded to me a YouTube clip of Robert Chilingiran’s latest music video “Polors Nuyn Hayn Enk.” Sitting in a hotel room in Central Asia, removed from all things familiar, I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or to cry after seeing this video. Even though Mr. Chilingirian’s attempt as an artist to raise an issue of concern to many in the Armenian world is commendable (because really, who am I to judge somebody else’s artistic expression), the clip did bring to mind or rather reconfirmed a distressing reality of being Armenian today.

Exactly a year ago, for this same publication’s same special issue, I wrote of the need for Armenia’s of different colors and stripes to reassess the realities of 2008, at a time of great political strife and national questioning–at a turning point of sort, if you will. Remember, it was on the eve of the presidential elections of February 2008, and the morning after the 2007 All-Armenia Telethon, and my basic point was that the days of the Diaspora giving a handout to Armenia are waning both in perception and in reality, and since reality is/was seemingly outrunning perception, then perhaps it was time for us to reformulate how Armenia and Diaspora were to (re)engage with one another for a more effective process in nation building.

Then, like a sack of bricks, election day February 19, and the 10-day aftermath crashed and crushed this big party called Armenian independence, even though the party wasn’t yet in full swing; and regardless of where one stood on the political spectrum, the reality of 10 Armenia’s (civilian and law enforcement) killed by other Armenia’s (civilian and law enforcement) brought home the reality of where we really are. And that was at a dead end of choices and options.

The weeks and months after the installation of a new presidential administration and a new cabinet have had their highs and lows, again depending on one’s %u218Weltanschauung’ but it is safe to say that one thing is clear: the state of Armenian public life in Armenia proper and the Diaspora is today perhaps more polarized than it ever has been, and regardless of the fact that many nations and communities have moved along the political spectrum and found the %u218third way’ or an alternative to their common disagreemen’s, Armenia’s have moved further into a black and white, binary public discourse, that leaves little to no room for a real conversation to take place among political factions and social groupings. In other words, the new Armenian order leaves little room for intellectual and reasonable discourse on issues of common concern.

Now, those in academia may want to cast a wide net of inquiry and analyze the reasons of the current state of affairs, and as important as that may be in offering this nation a blue print for the future, Armenia’s have a number of pressing issues that need to be addressed now, in order for there to be a country to worry about in the next few decades. Sound dire, from certain perspectives it’s the only tone that sounds off!

With this reality firmly gripping Armenia’s today, what is it that we hope for in the next two decades of independence?

When a parade of international observers, politicians, pseudo human rights organizations, and governmen’s came through Armenia in the aftermath of the presidential elections, there was one common theme that laced all their assessmen’s and declarations, however reasonable or politically skewed they may have been. As was expressed by the final report of the Council of Europe assessment team, Armenia’s political crisis, however tragic, should not have surprised anyone–at least anyone who has been watching the course of Armenian socio-political development, because in the preceding 17 years of independence, instead of strengthening those very institutions that Armenian hold in high regard–cultural, political, governance, and community institutions signifiers of an ancient and experienced people, Armenia’s (not just in Armenia) have busied themselves with what at this point can only be described as trivial preoccupations, some imposed externally, others internally chosen.

In August I visited Los Angeles and had the rare chance to see some of the discourse on Armenia politics that was taking place in this community–the microcosm of all that’s good and ugly about Armenia’s–and there was little surprise at how well the polarization with which we live in Armenia, was the precise modus operandi of most of the Diasporan media and public institutions. With one nuanced, albeit significant, difference: Those talking heads and pundits in this community talk and scream, full well realizing that at the end of that show or community meeting, they will go to their day jobs and night lives, without necessarily owning the consequences of their words, whereas in Armenia, those who talk, at the end of the day are subjects and objects of the consequences of their words–at least for the most part.

Now, there are those who say that whoever cares to raise their head and be counted in a public way is inherently vested in the welfare of Armenia. I tend to disagree. I don’t believe that being concerned with Armenia’s or their issues is always necessarily the same as being concerned with the future of Armenia. And here’s why.

Armenia, as a nation-state is in a conundrum, and not an easy one, at that. In a region, where the great powers are increasingly and more frequently playing a dangerous game of chicken, Armenia is the lone landlocked and isolated plot of land, with a large enough population not to be ignored, and a small enough population not to be missed, greatly. So, when a war breaks out around Armenia and it affects its trading routes–and we’re not talking the trade of silk and luxury goods, but the very daily staples that keep the country’s children fed, and the adults producing, then Armenia has little time to worry about the non-essentials that don’t very clearly impact the present day.

I know what you’re thinking, but hold on just a bit longer;

In the days of the Georgia-Russia conflict in the summer of 2008, Armenia’s fuel supply came dangerously close to depletion or at least below the acceptable norms for the country. It was right around this time that talks of border openings with Turkey, Genocide recognition, Iran, Russia and everything else started heating up in the country. Right around these days, in fact a few days before the football match between Armenia and Turkey, calls of Diasporan friends started pouring in to my email box and phone asking me what was going on, and why is it “that we over here are fighting for justice for the Genocide, and you guys over there are kicking around the soccer ball;” and there it was, my own bag of bricks swing back toward my head to hit me and let me know that no only are we not past this binary existence of an either or reality, but that the Armenian people are on the verge of having a repeat performance of the last 20 years of their history.

And here’s what we have: inside Armenia, there is the government and the opposition, and no middle ground; between Armenia and Diaspora, there is Genocide recognition vs. socio-economic development; in the Diaspora there is old vs. new Diaspora; in the politics of the greater region there is the east and the west–at least in the way that Armenia’s view it. In all of these important and essential debates, there is one commonly missing element, and that is the fact that none of the issues here and none of the perspectives are unimportant, less important, or irrelevant, but unfortunately, there is no space for that discussion, that middle way, that mutually reinforcing perspective to take shape, and this because instead of institution building from the ground up, and instead of reinforcing a great history steeped in fundamental human dignity through educations, religious, cultural and political institutions, a majority of the last 17 years has been spent on stop gap measures–some necessarily so, because no country can build institutions in the middle of natural disasters and war, but others by simple disregard for values that define the history of this nation.

In a few sentences, let me give a few examples: today, Armenia’s schools are marked by the patronage of a few–parents, benefactors, and staff–but why couldn’t Armenia’s education system, in tandem with what the Armenian Diaspora has been able to build against great odds, once again be the very institution that perpetuates the social worth of this nation’s children?

With a Diaspora of monumental human resources, significant financial prowess and political influence, why is today’s pervasive political argument that of “it’s either Genocide recognition or democracy building” and when one dares to speak of both as mutually not exclusive, then that perspective gets lost in the uproar of either of the perspective trying to silence the other, in the process leaving no chance for a middle ground.

As we move to close out 2008, undoubtedly a remarkable year of wanted and unwanted momen’s, it would be sheepishly wrong to expect that without every concerned party’s genuine participation we will see much change in the course of public life for the greater Armenian world. For starters, March 1, 2009, will mark the anniversary of one of the most complex and emotional hurdles that Armenian independence has not overcome. Soon thereafter, the first year of President Serzh Sargsyan’s administration and Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan’ government will have to account for their accomplishmen’s and the nation’s setbacks, and admittedly they will have to do so, after a year of difficult decisions, risky moves, and palpable domestic and international pressure–in other words, a year of anything but a honeymoon.

Armenian citizens, in whatever form they participate in public life–whether as individuals or as part of civic groups, business, and/or apathetic bystanders, will also have to account for what they have done in the preceding year, and instead of pointing the finger at this entity or that entity, every citizen of this Caucasus republic will not only need to hold to account elected officials and opposition politicians, but s/he will also need to answer some tough questions.

That leaves us with the Armenian Diaspora. The Diaspora will also need to ask some tough questions, and by any measure of the nation’s realities, will also need to be held accountable.

Ultimately, Armenia’s, inside and out, white or black, government or opposition, rich or poor will have to own that which is Armenia–in its broadest and most complex concept, and unless Armenia’s do this with valor and the intellectual prowess that is the marked distinction of this nation, and with tolerance and compromise that are at times the absent and silent qualities of this nation, then the answer to the title of this article must be a No.

Except, there may not be a chance for a follow up question.

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