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 Years of cynicism and apathy have been replaced by war preparations, fear and now rage.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.

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