Friday, August 24, 2018

The Two Sides of the Velvet Curtain

Students of modern European history will be familiar with the Dreyfus Affair (1894-1906). A French army captain, Alfred Dreyfus, was falsely accused of treason for passing military secrets to Germany. The case dragged on for 12 years, and divided French society into two: the “dreyfusards", who presented themselves as defenders of justice and the truth, and the “anti-dreyfusards”, who believed that the pursuit of truth and justice should be subordinated to the superior interests of the State, and who often wrapped their rhetoric in anti-Semitic (Dreyfus happened to be Jewish) and nationalistic language. What’s interesting is that these camps crossed traditional class and other divisions in society. In addition to creating serious rifts within the Army and other state institutions, the difference of opinions split apart friendships and families (the “affair” was not allowed to be brought up during family dinners to avoid fights). The affair finally ended in 1906 when the Court of Cassation overturned the guilty verdicts and re-instated Dreyfus to his position in the Army.

For the past few months, it seems as if the “pro-Nikol” and “anti-Nikol” camps in Armenia are similarly crossing traditional lines between the haves and have-nots, Republicans and previously opposition party members, pro-Russians and pro-West groups – it’s difficult to find traditional common ground between these divided groups. But common ground we need to find – the stakes are too high to either blindly follow, or incessantly criticize, Nikol Pashinyan and his young government. 

The “Nikolards”
Anyone who has ridden in a Yerevan taxi since May knows that the mood on the street has changed – taxi drivers, frontline broadcasters of the pessimistic, “Երկիրը երկիր չէ” (the country is not a country) mantra, are now happily extoling the New Armenia and the slow unraveling of 25 years of patrimonial, semi-feudal lording by the authoritarian governments and their oligarchic supporters. The young protesters, whose brave, resolute and peaceful take-over first of the streets, then Republic Square, and ultimately the government, are now reveling in the frequent Facebook live sessions by “their” Prime Minister, and applaud each new “finding” by the National Security Service (NSS) of corruption/avarice by the former feudal lords. They also love to repeat the average age of ministers in his government (it’s 41*). Diasporans, whether repatriated or visiting, are riding a wave of hope for the Armenia they had always dreamed to see. Դուխով is the new Երկիրը երկիր չէ.

The “anti-Nikolards”
On the other side are very unlikely allies – a widely-diverse group of former Republican Party apparatchiks, Russophiles (who believe that any antagonism toward Russia will result in an immediate shift of balance of power in the region (and especially in the Artsakh conflict), traditionalists (who believe that important Armenian national institutions such as the Church must be protected at all costs) and, most surprisingly, many highly-educated, patriotic, non-corrupt/non-oligarchic professionals from different fields. The latter segment focuses on three main points of criticism:

1)   This government is too young and inexperienced to adequately handle affairs of state, especially when it comes to security/defense, economic growth and diplomacy

2)   The zeal and intensity with which the government (and especially the NSS) is chasing former supporters/members of the previous regime is de-stabilizing the country, and turning their focus away from doing their real job, which is to prevent asymmetric actions by our enemies

3)   This government is penetrated (or secretly led) by Sorosites (Սորոսականներ)former employees of various organizations funded by George Soros and his Open Society Foundation, whose aim is to break down state and national institutions in favor of a cross-national idea of individualism. This group focuses on George Soros’s embracement of the ideas of Karl Popper, an Austrian philosopher who championed the notion of an Open Society, in which individual liberty, pluralism and free inquiry prevailed, and argues that Soros and OSI are directly targeting those institutions which preserve Armenian identity (church, language, army, state). I’ll leave it to each reader to draw their own conclusion about this hypothesis.

The latest group to join the “anti-Nikolards” are the staunch defenders of Robert Kocharyan, the second President of the modern Republic of Armenia. In the last few weeks, Mr. Kocharyan has been arrested, jailed and then released on bail on charges that in March 2008, during the last days of his tenure as President, he violated the constitutional order by directing authorities to fire on protesters, killing 8 civilians and two policemen. This group eschews the term “Sorosites” for the broader term “zombies”, supposedly people who blindly follow Nikol and create fake social media accounts to attack anyone who is critical of the new Prime Minister. Of course, they conveniently forget the reign of political violence and significant curtailing of opposition media during the Kocharyan years, not to mention the wide-scale corruption and concentration of wealth during the Sargsyan era.

The trap of expecting too much and doing too little
The two short paragraphs above cannot possibly describe the wide spectrum of people, groups and ideologies lining up on either side of the “Nikol Affair.” Many supporters are looking for wide-scale and immediate elimination of all inequities overnight – social (gender, LGBT), economic, environmental, religious and the like. On the other side, many detractors would like to replace one set of oligarchic and corrupt officials with their own (which would defeat the whole purpose of the Velvet Revolution). Expectations are high, and ability to please all sides understandably low.

So what is the answer?

First, we need to agree that what Nikol and his followers achieved was nothing short of a modern miracle. Just as no one expected the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent dissolution of the Iron Curtain and the Soviet Union to happen so suddenly, no one expected a movement which started with 15 people hiking with backpacks, baseball caps and water bottles to end up legitimately taking over Baghramyan 26 (the seat of the leader of the country). In less than three weeks, a structure and form of governing born during 70 years of Soviet rule, which then mutated to adapt to a post-independence Armenia, was over-turned, without bloodshed. This was a historic Velvet Revolution, and put tiny Armenia on the map of progressive nations and societies.

Next, we all need to understand that failure to capitalize on this revolution is not an option – we cannot afford to go back to the autocratic-oligarchic structure; we cannot afford to lose the enthusiasm, energy and Դուխ of the tens of thousands whose peaceful and canny street protests led to the unraveling of the previous structure; and most importantly, we cannot lose the achievements gained over the past 25 years: winning the original Artsakh war, building the institutions of an independent republic, and re-creating the notion of a national homeland for all Armenians.

As a result, both the “Nikolards” and “anti-Nikolards” must understand that the conflict is not between them, or between Sorosites and Russophiles, or between young and old. It’s between Armenia and its enemies, between a modern and progressive forward-looking country and society, and a return to an outdated system whose capacity and sole focus of feeding itself would lead to the inevitable demise of the country. 

For the new Prime Minister and his government, the focus should be on driving, as fast as possible, toward truly free and fair elections. They should capitalize on the thousands of Armenians who want a better Armenia to staff election-day party proxy and election monitor positions. They should initiate a very broad and visible campaign on voter education, teaching ordinary citizens that their vote DOES matter, and that selling a vote is akin to selling their future. They should end the round of vendettas against former officials/oligarchs, not because these are not deserved, but because the time isn’t now – right now, there should be singular focus on elections and protecting the key pillars of the state (security/defense, active diplomacy, maintaining economic output and tax revenue). This also means that Nikolards should delay (but not drop) their demands for solving every problem on their ever-lengthening list – there will be plenty of time to attack these once there is a legitimate majority in parliament following the elections.

On the other side of the issue, the anti-Nikolards must understand that the gains of the Velvet Revolution simply cannot be lost because of short-sighted political gains or ill-informed ideological or cultural grand-standing. Can anyone imagine going back to the days of the Kocharyan government, when opposition politicians and journalists were routinely threatened, beaten-up or put in jail? When we so often speak of the Diaspora as a potentially game-changing source of talent, financing and networking resource for Armenia, do we really want to give them yet another reason to dismiss Armenia as a failed state? Finally, do you really want our beloved taxi drivers to go back to their gloomy, Երկիրը երկիր չէ sermons?

Let’s hope reason and a sense of nation will prevail over pure emotion and political machinations, and that the Velvet curtain currently dividing our society will be raised to reveal a united Armenia.

*Thanks to Sati Kassarjian for taking the time to do primary research on this :-)

Friday, November 11, 2016

It's the end of the world as we know it ... and I feel fine

Forty-eight hours have passed since we all learned the shocking outcome of the presidential race. How can those of us who voted for Hillary Clinton (or who were at least so against Donald Trump that they refused to vote) stomach the election of a racist, misogynist, spoiled Wall Street brat to the highest office? More importantly, how could half of the electorate consciously vote such a divisive figure into office? Has the world (well, at least half of the American voting public) gone mad? Perhaps even more surprising than the event itself was the phenomenal outpouring of grief, rage, sadness and despair on my FB timeline, comparable to what I would imagine the reaction would have been (had Facebook been around) in November 1963 or September 2001.

As the initial shock wore off, another reality appeared: the pure hatred and vitriol on my timeline, aimed at all of those “racist misogynist xenophobes” who voted for Trump. In fact, the general tone was even more divisive than many of the comments made by the Donald himself. Is this really true? Do we truly believe that there are 60,068,599 racist misogynists (as of this writing – source: living in our country? Or that 42% of women voted purely against their own self-interest? I refuse to believe so. Could it be true that many of these are common, decent people who simply voted for change, or voted for Trump only because they couldn’t/wouldn’t vote for Clinton? How many of you voted for Clinton because you couldn’t/wouldn’t vote for Trump? I know I did. The fact that the race was so close (in fact, again as of this writing, Clinton has 400,000 more votes than Trump, tighter than the 2000 election) means that we have a truly divided nation.

Many (me included) had an additional reaction: let’s separate the “sane” coasts from the backward, reactionary “fly-over” states who overwhelmingly voted red on Tuesday. I even entertained the crazy notion of a large North American inverted “U”: west coast states + Canada + eastern seaboard (sorry Canadian friends to assume that any of you would even consider such an invasion from the south). So I took a brief look at the numbers. On Tuesday, 20 states + the District of Columbia voted for Clinton, and 30 voted for Trump (Michigan is still up for grabs, but I’m counting it as a “blue” win given’s Clinton lead by 12,000 votes as of this writing). The blue states represent 52% of GDP, and red states 48%. So, if we really divided the country into blue and red, our ability to project power around the world (or to advance democracy, liberal values and environmental protection/climate control) would be halved.

At the same time, red states represent 54% of the total population, and blue states 46% (all population (2015 estimate) and GDP figures (2015 actual) are from ,
Dividing these numbers, the average GDP per capita for red states is 23% lower than that of the blue states ($64,843 vs. $50,028). So clearly, we have an economic divide, and not just social. In addition, those of you glued to CNN like I was early Wednesday morning could see John King click on red county after red county in the suburban/rural parts of swing states, and blue counties around metropolitan centers such as Philadelphia, Pittsburg and Madison.

Looking further, I went back to my timeline, and tried to see how many alternative views I had (people who are happy about the outcome); I found fewer than five (out of several hundred friends). Here comes the other “external” factor in this election – the power of the Facebook selection algorithm. When the expression of common views was limited to/focused on radio talk shows or extremist (on either side of the spectrum) web sites, people on each side of this divide found comfort in strangers with common views. Facebook’s selection algorithm makes sure that each of us is seeing what FB thinks we want to see, further strengthened by the fact that what we are reading or watching was either created or shared by people we know (as opposed to radio talk-show callers or comments by strangers on websites). This reinforces our belief that anyone who matters thinks the way we do, as opposed to those crazies who think otherwise. Is this truly the behavior each of us wants to exhibit? We accuse Trump followers of demonizing “others” – aren’t we doing the same?

I watched neither Trump’s acceptance, nor Hillary’s concession speeches. I did, however, watch President Obama’s speech, and he once again displayed all of the character of the strength of his presidency, and of the resilience of our democracy. Because think what you will of the outcome of this election, it was pure democracy in action. In many, many other countries around the world, the combination of the administrative powers of the incumbent party and the outright support of mass media in favor of that party’s candidate, would have led to the election of Hillary Clinton. That it didn’t, without hanging chads or extremely controversial Supreme Court decisions, shows the power of the system. This election exposed not the failure of our form of government, but the failure of our ability to understand the divide between the two sides of the Sierra mountains and Appalachian hills, between metropolitan areas and the large suburban sprawls and rural areas, between haves and have-nots. While it’s true that Donald Trump exposed some of the worst in who we are and what we believe in, he also spoke for many others who feel lost in this world of increasing globalism and a national discourse defined and led by “cosmopolitan elites”. For an excellent treatise on this last point, I urge you to read George Packer’s article appearing in a pre-election edition of the New Yorker: . So, while I abhor much of what Donald Trump said, and cannot come to terms with the beliefs and value systems of the most controversial and extremist segments of his supporters, I will not fall into the trap of demonizing – or worse yet, of ignoring – the entire 19% of my fellow citizens who voted for him.

I’ll close with two thoughts: 1) while I believe that Donald Trump’s election is not as damaging to the domestic path of our nation, I am incredibly worried about the impact it will have on our foreign policy, which has far, much darker implications for the world we live in – and this will be the subject of my next post; 2) If nothing else, we saw the implosion of the Tea Party: who would you rather have appoint the next two Supreme Court justices – Donald Trump, Paul Ryan, Mark Rubio or Ted Cruz?

Title is from the R.E.M song of the same name (Album: Document, 1987)

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Menq or Meronq

In two months, Armenia is supposed to celebrate its 25th year of independence – yet the words free and independent somehow do not seem to fit in the same sentence as Armenia. Years of cynicism and apathy have been replaced by war preparations, fear and now rage. We are now in the fourth summer of discontent (150 drams (2013), Dem Em (2014), ElectricYerevan (2015) and now Sassna Tsrer. The leadership and opposition (with the notable exception of Nigol Pashinyan) have challenged each other to a game of hide and seek, with them hiding and everyone else seeking (Serzh Sargsyan’s statement (and not public speech) appeared only on the 6th day after the assault on the building. On Wednesday night, many people were injured not by police beatings, but by flash/bang and stun grenades thrown deep into the crowd gathered near the occupied building in Erebuni, and more force was used on Thursday night to clear the streets leading up to the scene. While our little country cannot compare in scale or importance to the unrest in Turkey, the devastation of Syria or even the series of terrorist attacks in Europe, Armenian society is in a state of deep crisis and as close to the “edge” as I’ve seen in the eight years since I’ve lived in Yerevan.

The tension on the ground in Erebuni is amplified by the war of words online – the situation has created a deep divide among erstwhile friends and fueled further rage between long-time online enemies – a modern Armenian version of the Dreyfus Affair. Positions are hardening on either side (terrorists or national heroes), while a small group is trying to bridge the gap with calls for peace and calm. Most of online Yerevan is fixated on their Twitter feeds and Facebook timelines, and there is a near-certain feeling that “something is about to break.”

Where are we with this? Is this the latest (even last) stand of a corrupt, authoritarian regime? Is it an armed uprising/terrorist event/staged show? Or is it another 150 drams, Dem Em or ElectricYerevan moment, bound to flame out because there is no organized force or movement behind it? What will happen to the hostage-takers in the police building in Erebuni? At what point to we (once again) get close to cross the point of no return?

First, let’s agree that as corrupt, inefficient, and self-preserving as the ruling elite is, Armenia hardly qualifies as an authoritarian country. For real examples, please look east, south, west, or two borders north – we are nowhere near – yet –  the level of true government repression as those being witnessed, right now, in these neighboring states. Or, even closer to home, one must admit that the level of government repression cannot match what we saw in the previous two administrations. And I’m not just speaking about March 1 – how many of you remember what it was like to run an opposition media outlet before 2008 or, further back, the power wielded by interior ministers in the 1990s?

This is not to absolve the current government from blame – far from it. In fact, many rightfully argue that the blunter instruments of the past (“unsolved” murders of those opposing the ruling regime, physical attacks and crackdowns on independent media outlets, lawless streets) have been replaced by softer forms of repression, “a slow death” composed of economic strangulation via monopolies, using administrative means (court system) to favor supporters, forcing the nearly half-million employees on the government payroll (over 20% of the population) to support pro-authority initiatives and ballots and, most damagingly, tacit support of wide-scale emigration.

As harsh as this may sound, Sasna Tserer have fulfilled their part in this drama, and the rest depends on the other actors on stage. These men have chosen their fate, and understand the consequences of their actions.

The onus is now clearly on the government, and on the people. I don’t like the term “people” (ժողովուրդ, ժողովուրդը) as if this is a monolithic block moving in unison (the same can be applied to “The Diaspora”). By people, I see at least four distinct groups:
  1. The disenfranchised, including the flip-flop-wearing tough guys of Sari Tagh, villagers barely making ends meet, and honest teachers, doctors, civil servants who want something better out of life than be beholden to a patronage system masquerading as a government
  2. The parents, spouses and children of former and currently-serving soldiers – as well as the soldiers themselves), who sons/husbands/fathers/friends gave (and continue to risk) their lives on the front line, and who, especially since April, continue to demand to what end they are sacrificing their own
  3. The true middle class (and yes, such a group does exist in Armenia) – bank employees, thousands working in IT or other developing sectors, successful small-business owners
  4. Repats, visitors and other Armenians from around the world who have chosen, each in their own way, to “engage” with Armenia

Change will happen when these four distinct groups take to the streets in numbers (or at least to Freedom Square) and demand more/better from this government. Stalin once famously asked “how many [army] divisions does the Pope have?” We need to show our strength.

For this to happen, we need a sense of collective ownership for our country, and in order to do so, Armenians must redefine their understanding and use of the word Meronq (Մերոնք). Google Translate lists the English word for Մերոնք as “ours” – a more accurate translation is “our folk” or “our clan”.  Unfortunately, the scope of the word Մերոնք only expands to the national level when the Armenian national football team is playing, or when we’re at war with Azerbaijan. Otherwise, the circle stops at family, and in some cases at close friends – our clan. This focus on protecting Մերոնք essentially means that there is no collective responsibility for the fate of the nation, no collective We (Մենք). That is why I became enthralled with the slogan of a mini student uprising a few years ago: “Մենք ենք տերը մեր երկրի” “we are the lords [owners] of our country” – this was the first time I witnessed, probably since the days of the Karabagh movement, a deep sense of collective ownership of the direction of the country. More recently, the boys on the front line in Arstakh, in unison, decided that they were the ones to protect the country, and they did. In both cases, 18-20 year olds did what very few of the previous generation were willing to do – expand Մերոնք to become Մենք.