Notes From Another Place: The Year Civil Society Found its Name(s)

BY ALEX SARDAR

One of the bittersweet undertakings of each year for me is reading through the last edition of news magazines and carefully studying the obituary section at the end, where the year’s most notable deaths are listed with blurbs about the subjects.

The magazines don’t call them obituaries—I suppose partly because they don’t necessarily announce deaths, but offer one last opportunity for the world to reflect on the loss, on its loss, and to understand that which is lost, and to perhaps resolve to learn and to regenerate.

They’re important. The blurbs and the people featured in them.

I tend to read through them because they offer me a chance to relive important moments of my own life. I usually have removed connections with one or another person—an actor whose film encouraged me to live truthfully, a singer whose songs play like a soundtrack to my teens, or a politician who made me want to get in or to shun politics. This year, JD Salinger’s obituary reminded me the first and many other times over the last twenty years when I’ve read Catcher in the Rye and how each time it allowed me to voice my own discontent with those closest to me, or how Gary Coleman tutored me in English on Diffr’nt Strokes, and I was reminded of the head scratching confusion I experienced when Ambassador Holbrooke almost single-handedly prevented a genocide from occurring in the Balkans, but when prompted to speak truth to power on another genocide, evaded the question and had reason to cast a shadow of ambivalence.

So, it is just as bittersweet when I find myself writing this column at the close of 2010—a year of infinite and chaotic movement, and breathtaking stillness and loss. This was certainly true when in Armenia those who are active in the country’s fledgling but quietly victorious civil society lost two of their own. To the community of activists and leaders who worked with Amalia Kostanyan and Abgar Yeghoyan, the two were friends, colleagues, and mates in a cause of principled patriotism and in the every day struggles of the common person in Armenia. I’m convinced that years from now we will look back and appreciate, even if we don’t do it today, Amalia and Abgar to be the pioneering torch-bearers of a democracy that could.

Much has been written about the lives of Amalia and Abgar. Both of them passed—untimely and unnecessarily—as a consequence of medical trauma, and both died the way they lived—dignified.

Amalia’s dignity came in her steadfast belief that, whichever side of the political or geographic divide (in the case of the Armenian nation) one may be, corruption is the most unpatriotic if not treasonous trait of a citizen and worse still, of a constitutional officer. She lived by this mantra, she worked by this mantra, and she taught this mantra. She was vociferous which invited criticism in a society where women are to be coquettish. She was a warrior woman leading an army of disaffected people, and along the way she voiced taboos that no other would dare name. With her distinct and take-no-prisoners style of public speaking, she minced no words, and told anyone who would listen that it took two to tango when it came to the seductive dance of corruption. She would tell empty rooms full of TV cameras, and capacity rooms with no cameras that on the way to the event she and her taxi driver had been invited to a spin around the ballroom of depravity by a law enforcement officer. As the leader of Armenia’s national affiliate of Transparency International, many mistook her courage as a byproduct of her institutional link, but those who really knew Amalia, recognized that the platform offered by TI to Amalia was simply an important tool in the arsenal that is required for civil society activism, but that her bravery was all hers—only hers, and no one ever gave or took it away.

Abgar’s optimism in the face of mammoth mole hills like the Armenian state bureaucracy was contagious and inspiring. That was his brand of dignity. His fight was for the Armenian family—he fought for years to make sure that food sold to mothers feeding their children was not hazardous to the health of the consumers who spent their hard-earned dram on a limited amount of nutrition they could afford. Abgar and the organization he led until his death on December 24—Protection of Consumer Rights NGO—accomplished much—nutrition labels and expiration dating of products sold in stores, class action against telecommunications and public utility companies attempting to make a fast dram on the backs of unsuspecting consumers, holding store owners, importers, and government officials to account on guaranteeing integrity in business and in public policy. He knew how to talk to government officials, to foreign ambassadors, and to Armenian farmers, and he knew whose ear he needed to have most, and who was desperate to have his ear.

About two weeks before his passing, Abgar and I sat down to talk about a work-related issue, and he told me about his plans in 2011. He had just been elected the National Coordinator for a European initiative on civil society reforms, and he was one of the key leaders of a group preparing to launch a major campaign on reforming Armenia’s non-profit sector legislative framework. We shook hands to meet again in early 2011 to continue our common work.

My last sighting of Amalia was late in the summer of 2010, and we were both at a large reception, and we exchanged glances with a couple of eye rolls to communicate the boredom we were experiencing, and in passing we told each other to call. But I also remember one year earlier when I had observed elections on behalf of TI in Armenia—and after a day of frustration and physical altercation I had come back to the TI office to turn in my report, and Amalia and I shared a rare moment of despair at the state of things, at which point Amalia while cleaning up the kitchen in her office—as if to signal to me how to weed out the bad seeds of society—told me to gather myself and get up and go out and check on the other observers. There was no time to sit back.

The likes of Amalia Kostanyan and Abgar Yeghoyan and their cohorts in Armenia’s civil society movement are today’s fighters for a brand of freedom that is to be won in the battlefield of words, ideals, and civility. They’re no more or less important than those fighting for other kinds of freedom.

Their work continues. And in the absence of a museum or a history lesson where others can learn about their work, the only other option is for those surviving to continue their legacy and their work. The museum of civil society activists is to be the very living laws, practices, and freedoms that many commonly assume will be fought for by someone else.

I will miss my colleagues Amalia and Abgar—that’s for certain. And in moments of despair I will remember Amalia’s stern call to action and Abgar’s gentle nudge to stare fear in the face.

I know many more will find solace in their legacy, but more importantly be jolted to action.

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2 Comments

  1. Armen said:

    to equate civic activity to freedom fighting is not appropriate, but i will agree that for civic activists these were important leaders. RIP.

  2. Arsen said:

    Amalia and Abgar were true harbinger for change, who stood for our political and economic freedoms. for me there are at least two important lessons learnet from the last year: first and foremost, our primary priority shall be investment in human capital and building leadership capacity in Armenia. Secondly, inversing in institution building is a top priority – to make sure there is a constant flow of new leaders and ideas into the nation building process. for now i dont see any of the above items on the priority list of governmnet agenices, civil society or the private sector.

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