Electric Yerevan (Seven Days That Shook Armenia)

Tonight, people are gathering once more on Baghramyan Avenue, a major street in downtown Yerevan, to continue a nonviolent demonstration against a proposed raise in electricity costs. The protest began on June 19th, but it is what has happened in the last seven days that has made this movement so significant for Armenians.

On the night of June 22-23, police attempted to disperse a crowd of several thousand people by force, using a water cannon on nonviolent protesters and making over 200 arrests. The following day, the numbers of people gathered in protest grew even stronger, as organisations such as Amnesty International, the OSCE and the Human Rights House Foundation condemned the police violence. This video from a local news source shows the first nine minutes of the police operation.

On June 27, Armenian president Serzh Sargysyan announced that there would be an audit into the (Russian-owned) energy company responsible for the price increase, and in the meantime the state would absorb the cost of the tariff hike. Protesters viewed this offer as a delaying tactic, refusing to clear the area under they received a guarantee that citizens would not pay for the mismanagement which drove the company towards bankruptcy.

Last night, police threatened to use force to “restore order” to the city if the protesters did not disperse by a certain time. However, the crowd remained in place, and the deadlines issued by the police passed without violence (see drone footage of the stand-off). The number of protesters dwindled, as some crossed the barricades and set up camp in an alternative location near Freedom Square. At daybreak, there were still several hundred people left on Baghramyan, many of them sleeping on the ground, and their numbers began to increase again towards evening.

It’s not exactly easy to decode everything that’s happening at a distance of 3000 miles, but tonight seems like a good time to set down a few observations about the nature of the protest up to now. The first two points reiterate some of the main arguments being made in the media, while the third and fourth are more related to my own research topics. I owe a huge debt to my friends on social media, and to the creators of the Electric Yerevan website, for sharing/collating so much of the information I’m relying on for this post.

  1. This is not about party politics

The protests taking place in Yerevan and other Armenian cities have not been coordinated by an opposition political party and are not aimed at achieving outright regime change. Until today, the main spokespeople for the protest were a group of young people in their 20s, calling themselves “No To Plunder,” who had previously organised protests against government plans to increase the cost of public transport. Last night, some of these young people were among those who moved to continue the protest on Freedom Square, while the majority of other protesters remained on Baghramyan. This makes clear that the “No To Plunder” activists have been catalysts for change, but not full leaders of the movement.

A number of opposition MPs have been seen at the protests, but they have appeared alongside actors and other celebrities, suggesting that they are using their public profile to try to defuse tensions between protesters and police, rather than attempting to exploit a political opportunity. Meanwhile, it appears that no major political figure has emerged to take on the role of mediator between the protesters and the government – unlike the protests in Kiev, when a number of political heavyweights, including former presidents, attempted to negotiate a way out of the impasse in 2014. This points to how deeply discredited both government and opposition are in the eyes of the public. However, it is less the absence of an effective opposition and more the memory of lethal violence after the 2008 elections that may shape the “apolitical” strategy of the protesters.

  1. This and Maidan are not the same

As the reference in the last paragraph shows, it’s very hard to analyse events in Yerevan without reference to the Ukrainian Maidan, which looms large in the collective consciousness across the former Soviet Union. However, we owe it to Armenia to accept the framing of the movement as being against corruption and mismanagement. Armenia’s decision to forego an EU association agreement and join instead with the Eurasian Customs Union is an established fact, which entered into force in January this year. Armenia’s potential Maidan moment came and went in 2013, and the general consensus in society – reluctant or otherwise – was that the country couldn’t afford to pay the price, economically or militarily, of turning away from Russia.

However…geopolitical overtones are written all over this, and it wasn’t long before the term “EnergoMaidan” was being spread through Russian and some western media. Protesters were quick to counter this with their own name for the movement, “Electric Yerevan”, and an image was widely circulated online of a light bulb containing a fist with an extended middle finger. Needless to say, there were no EU stars surrounding that image, and generally no pro-European symbolism that I’m aware of being displayed during the protest. A website was also set up to archive verified Armenian, Russian and English language accounts of the protests, and to help popularise the hashtag #ElectricYerevan. A large part of the media analysis seems to be about (correctly) dispelling the myth that this is an Armenian version of Maidan supported by western governments.

ElectricYerevan-logo

However…again…things are not always simple. The heavy-handed way police attempted to deal with the protesters on June 22-3 mobilised people in greater numbers and led to the stand-off that took place yesterday evening. The language of the protest now encompassed not only the electricity prices, but general corruption, brutality and injustice. Had the police once again resorted to force last night, the world might have woken up to a situation far more reminiscent of the Ukrainian scenario. Yet even in that case, it is unlikely that protesters would jump towards a radically anti-Russian position. (The fact that international headlines are currently dominated by the prospect of “Grexit” just serves to shore up the idea that the EU is unable to cope with problems within its borders, let alone support countries on the outside.)

  1. Armenian identity is central to the protests

The symbolism of the protests appears mostly national/patriotic. There are Armenian flags being waved, Armenian songs being sung and dances being danced, and chants of “Hayastan, Hayastan” (the Armenian name for the country). Last night, when the crowd was split between Baghramyan Avenue and Freedom Square, they chanted “Miatsum, Miatsum” – the word for Unification, which was a popular slogan during the mass demonstrations which preceded the fall of the Soviet Union and the outbreak of the war over Nagorno-Karabakh. The context for the chant was different, but it can’t help having reminded Russia that Armenia – despite historically viewing the former Empire as an ally – once helped to bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union. By the same token, it must have reminded Armenians of how they once stood up, as a nation, to Soviet domination.

Notably, Russia has been acting in the past week to remedy perceived slights against Armenia. First of all, it was announced that the case against Valery Permyakov – a Russian soldier who was stationed at the Russian military base in Gyumri – would be handed over to Armenian investigators. On January 12 this year, Permyakov left his post and massacred a local family (six members died on the scene and the seventh, an infant, died in hospital). When it was first announced that he would face trial in Russia and not Armenia, there were demonstrations in Gyumri lasting days. This was followed by a rumour that Armenia and Russia were close to reaching a deal on the extradition of Hrachya Harutunyan, an Armenian citizen serving jail time in Russia after a truck he was driving hit a bus outside Moscow in 2013, killing 18 people (Harutunyan was brought to his court hearings in Russia wearing a flowery dressing gown, which caused outrage in Armenia). However, the Ministry of Justice of Armenia has denied that talks are moving closer to a resolution on extradition.

Although neither Permyakov nor Harutunyan featured in the demands of the Electric Yerevan protesters, the fact that their names are now being bandied about shows that the Armenia-Russia relationship is clearly under strain. Even if the movement is not about determining whether Armenia is at heart a “European” or a “Eurasian” nation (leaving aside the socially constructed nature of both those categories), it is on some level about negotiating Armenia’s national identity in relation to Russia’s geopolitical ambitions. It is about claiming freedom and independence for Armenia, establishing a zone – albeit within Russia’s sphere of influence – where corruption is not allowed to go unchecked and citizens are part of the decision-making process. Russia’s response to all this is still far from clear, but if the cynics are right, there would have been blood on the streets by now if Moscow wanted it. However, if the Armenian government cannot bring the situation under control, it remains to be seen how far Moscow’s patience will be tried.

  1. The protests demonstrate a shift in gender relations

From afar, I’ve noticed that there are plenty of women in the protests, as well there should be. Women played a big part in popular movements at the end of the Soviet period, and they’ve been playing a role in civil society ever since. Although the video footage of protesters squaring off with police seems to show a somewhat masculine face, there is also an obvious female presence on the frontlines. Women have been among those who chose to sleep on the street overnight, sometimes in all female groups, sometimes curled up next to boyfriends or husbands (there have been a few wedding couples photographed at the protest). This simple act of resistance should not be under-estimated – young women in Armenia often live with their parents and have an unofficial curfew of 10pm. The stigma attached to anything approaching promiscuous behaviour is very real for many women. Presumably the majority of those at the protest are well-accustomed to defying gender expectations by this stage, but that doesn’t mean the act of claiming public space is less significant.

Last night the police, operating under this more conservative gender code, called for women (and children) to leave the area before the supposed “deadline” passed. The idea that women should evacuate the protest site was met with ridicule by many commentators on social media. It will be interesting to see the gender breakdown in the new steering committee for the protests, which is being formed tonight – and more interesting to see what, if anything, that tells us about gender politics at the grassroots level. Presumably, it will do better than the Armenian parliament, where just 11% of MPs are women. However, I wonder whether this will be an unconscious reflection of the makeup of the protests, or an active decision to ensure that women have greater representation in decision-making. One thing I do know is that activists from a number of established women’s organisations in Armenia have been present at the protest throughout. While some are present as individuals, at least one NGO created a “mobile office”, moving its staff and some light equipment out onto the street to express their solidarity with the demonstration and create a visible feminist presence in the protest.

While all this points towards the acceptability of young women as active citizens (emphasis on the word “young” because marriage and motherhood are not viewed as necessary tokens of respectability), Electric Yerevan also reminds us that the idea of men as citizens who use nonviolent protest to resist the absolute rule of the state has retained its value. This is an important point to bear in mind about Armenian society, where young men usually undergo 24 months of military service and conscription is a major part of the formation of masculine identity. While it is unsurprising to see that the protest is rooted in strong expressions of patriotism, it does raise questions about how malleable national identity is with respect to gender, and what are the markers of significant changes in the gender code over time. Do protests merely reflect what we already know about a shift in gender relations, or do they accelerate the pace of change? Are social justice and gender equality co-constitutive, and how does this play out in the successes and failures of a movement like Electric Yerevan? These thoughts are fuelling the argument I’m working on at the moment around the relationship between women’s activism and social change.

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Journey to Tsitsernakaberd

Tsitsernakaberd. My tongue curls itself awkwardly around the letters. I’ve been away from Armenia for nine whole months – long enough that I can no longer sound out the original phonemes without difficulty: Ծ – ի – ծ – ե – ռ – ն – ա – կ – ա – բ – ե – ր – դ. This is the hill of the swallow’s fortress, and since mass demonstrations by Soviet Armenian citizens in 1965, the site of the Armenian Genocide Memorial. When I left Yerevan last summer, my only real regret was that for various reasons, both personal and practical, I had not made it to this site. I’d glimpsed it often from across the valley, and promised myself I would go there on my return. In Spring, this promise became as sharp as a knife, as I watched from afar the centenary commemorations of the unspeakable catastrophe that began in April 1915. I felt it in my guts: the need to stand face to face with history; the need to pay my respects to the many who had died, and the many who survive.

The route I took to Tsitsernakaberd was long and circuitous. Yerevan’s centre is a grid, the main arteries of which form a diamond around Freedom Square, where the Opera House is situated. A short distance away, one can climb the 118 metre Cascade and look down on the circular road that wheels in an almost unbroken arc around the city centre, pinpointing the various monuments along its spokes – from Matenaderan, home of unique and ancient manuscripts, all the way around to the Hovhannes Tumanyan museum, an edifice built in 1953 to honour Armenia’s national poet, who lived most of his life in Tbilisi. I skirt around the south eastern portion of the circle, past the Church of Grigor Lusarovich (Gregory the Illuminator, who is said to have converted Armenia to Christianity in 301 CE), and hold my breath as I move through the dim underpass beneath the bottom of Meshrop Mashtots Avenue (named for the monk who invented the Armenian alphabet in the early 5th century). From there, I exit the circle and walk over Victory Bridge, finished in 1945 at the end of a war in which survivors of genocide fought for Uncle Stalin against fascism.

Victory Bridge and the Hrazdan Gorge. The road turns right past the cognac factory and up Tsitsernakaberd.

Victory Bridge and the Hrazdan Gorge. The road turns right past the cognac factory and up Tsitsernakaberd.

I did not come to Armenia to research long ago massacres in the Ottoman Empire. For a long time, I felt a childish resentment towards the way in which genocide – the word and the deed – intruded on my studies of the much more contemporary, and thoroughly post-Soviet, war over Nagorno-Karabakh. I refused to delve into history, to dig up the atrocities of what to me seemed like the distant past. There is no excusing this blindness, given the parallels that exist between the formation of the Irish state from the ashes of the 1916 Easter Rising, and the independence of the first Armenian Republic in 1918. In the back of my mind, I saw the similarities, but for almost a year, I had not been thinking like an Irish person. My first glimpse of Armenia was from across the border in Azerbaijan, where the provinces of Gazakh and Tavush meet. The bluish mountains loomed in the distance, and the mother of a friend told me about gathering mushrooms on those slopes in her childhood. My friend told me of her earliest memories: streets torn apart by bombs, a small girl with her limbs blown off. For twenty years, the border has been sealed, but stray bullets still fly across, causing a perpetual sense of insecurity in the villages on either side.

From Victory Bridge, it’s a short walk to the monument, but mostly up a steep hill. On my left, I pass the reddish brown facade of the Ararat Cognac Factory, and on my right, an abandoned service station overlooking the tangled overgrowth of the Hrazdan gorge. All along the sides of the valley, abandoned construction sites are slowly being reclaimed by nature. The scorching heat wraps itself around my arms and legs, and the only bit of relief is the breeze that comes from the cars whipping past along the highway. The air is heavy with exhaust fumes and strange pollens. If there is a signpost for the Memorial Complex, I don’t notice it. I turn right and cross an almost empty parking lot. A single tour bus rests there, looking as though it might have been deserted twenty years ago. Away from it stretches a narrow road bearing more of a resemblance to a country lane, than a tourist destination. The only person who passes me on this road is a woman who, like the battered old bus, strikes me as a relic of the Soviet era. I think she must live in one of the small houses set back from the laneway, behind tall, inscrutable fences topped with vines. I feel that I am journeying back in time.

The road leading up to the back of the Genocide Memorial Complex

The road leading up to the back of the Genocide Memorial Complex. The tip of the monument is just visible near the centre of the picture.

When I lived in Baku, I would sometimes walk to a place called Martyrs’ Alley, which stands on top of a hill jutting out over the Caspian Sea. The “alley” is really a solemn avenue, lined with black marble headstones. Etched on these are portraits of the Azerbaijani citizens killed on Black January, the day in 1990 that Soviet troops entered the city and violently repressed a popular uprising. My landlord, who would sometimes take me for a beer at the seaside and talk about religion and politics, was an eyewitness to that day’s events. There is a general consensus among peacebuilders that this generation – today’s 50-something year olds – are the hardest to reach, having been young adults at the outbreak of the war. Away from Martyrs’ Alley sprawl neat rows of gravestones, marking the final resting places of thousands of Azerbaijanis killed in the conflict between 1988 and 1994 – at least, those whose bodies were recovered. At the far end is the Eternal Flame, housed in a tall temple of sand-coloured marble. Another common way of reaching the memorial is to take the funicular which runs from the sparkling steel and glass station at the bottom of the hill. Speakers blare out too-loud pop music. I still hear the echoes of Rihanna, singing about love in a hopeless place.

Martyrs' Alley, Baku

Martyrs’ Alley, Baku. Down to the left slope row after row of graves, thousands in all.

Before I come to the top of Tsitsernakaberd, the path turns left again and circles part of the way around the hilltop. The sounds of summer – birdsong and insects buzzing in the long grass – are roaring in my ears, drowning out the distant hum of traffic. All at once, I come to a wide flight of stone steps, and find myself climbing up towards a building resembling a small fortress. The museum is built into the back of the hill, and a narrow outdoor staircase leads me up onto the roof of the building, which is perfectly flat and merges seamlessly with the landscaped gardens around it. A manicured lawn stretches away to the right, becomes concrete again, and there on the smooth grey surface is the monument I have been waiting to see. In the foreground as I approach is the tall sliver of granite striking up and up and up, until its tip dissolves into the clear blue sky. Behind it are the twelve slabs, arranged in a circle, to commemorate the twelve lost provinces of what many still refer to as Western Armenia. The slabs bow down towards the inner circle, at the very centre of which is the eternal flame, surrounded by a ring of white carnations interspersed with red. From the same source as the flame emanates the sound of Armenian voices singing in chorus. I do not understand the words, but the effect is haunting.

The genocide memorial seen from the west. Many of the trees bear dedications from visiting heads of state, from Russia to the Vatican.

The genocide memorial seen from the west. Many of the trees bear dedications from visiting heads of state, from Russia to the Vatican.

One and a half million Armenians are thought to have died between 1915 and 1923, and another five hundred thousand were permanently displaced. For more than half a century – since the adoption of the Convention on the Prevention and the Punishment of the Crime of Genocide – a debate has raged over the correct interpretation of these events. The story that the museum on top of Tsitsernakaberd tells is the one that Armenians remember, and it uses the word genocide unapologetically. At times, its evocation of the bloodthirsty Turks and the pious Armenians seems like a pastiche of World War I propaganda. More often than not, however, the crude stereotypes simply fall away in the face of so much human misery. The cruelty seems wanton, but the destruction is systematic. A quote from Armin Wegner, a German medic who witnessed the massacres, leaves a deep impression on a long white wall: “They died all of the deaths on earth, the deaths of all the ages.” In between tightly packed blocks of text in Armenian, English and Russian, are the photographs I don’t dare to look at for too long. The emaciated children on the death marches into the Syrian desert. The priests whose bodies swing from the gallows. The women with the tattooed faces, marking them out as captives of Turkish or Kurdish traders. The Ottoman soldiers who pose around the piles of white, grinning skulls.

An old woman sweeps the ground inside the genocide memorial.

An old woman sweeps the ground inside the Armenian Genocide Memorial

In Azerbaijan, I spoke with countless men and women who had lived through the war over Nagorno-Karabakh and remembered it as if it were yesterday. More than half a million Azerbaijanis are internally displaced persons, meaning that their homes are still officially considered to lie upon the territories now controlled by the de facto republic of Nagorno Karabakh. A quarter of a century ago, the movement to unite that region with Armenia – a desire which was repressed throughout the Soviet era – recast itself as a war of secession, in which hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis were driven from their homes. When it comes to peacebuilding, the proportion of IDPs increases, as one encounters more and more Azerbaijanis who are desperate to achieve some small degree of progress towards peace, to recover both the land and the dignity that was lost. The organisers of such meetings are almost unanimous about the success they have had in re-humanising the relationships between young people from both countries. Yet, for the most part, Azerbaijanis and Armenians seem to come to these meetings with cross purposes. Each side tries to convince the other: ‘Let us have our home! Let us live in peace!’ For both groups, these words have different meetings.

I could not make sense, when I first arrived in Armenia, of the way the genocide would spill its bloody history into the pages of my field notes, the transcripts of the interviews I recorded. I was prepared to meet the Armenians who had fled from the pogroms in Azerbaijan, who recalled with a mixture of nostalgia and fear their homes in Baku, Sumgayit, and Kirovabad (now known as Ganja). I was prepared for the defiant stance of those who supported independence for Nagorno-Karabakh – which was everyone I asked – and those who referred to the ‘liberation’ of the territories my Azerbaijani friends considered occupied. I was prepared to accept the validity of their views – or to borrow a lofty phrase from Northern Ireland, the legitimacy of their aspirations. In my own head at least, I could reconcile these mirror images and cultures, but what I could not understand was the way in which 1915 cast its long shadow over the region, and how the Karabakh question came to be identified with the hundred year thirst of the Armenians – was it for justice, or revenge? Whatever it was, it seemed to me that my friends were fighting two separate wars, a hundred years apart.

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A ruined building in Fuzuli, Azerbaijan

In Azerbaijan, I had walked among the ruins in Fuzuli, a south western region lost to Armenian forces in 1993, then partially regained after the 1994 ceasefire. I had stood on the overgrown railway line that once connected Baku and Yerevan. I had turned my face towards mountainous Karabakh and felt a fleeting curiosity about the people living there, before being plunged back into the reality of the Azerbaijanis living in impromptu settlements  and growing their gardens along the frontline, just a few dozen kilometres from their former homes. In that moment, I felt the impassibility of Time lodge itself in my heart. Now, on Tsitsernakaberd, history began to shrink, until I was standing at the epicentre of a vast conflict that spread its tentacles across fifty years in either direction, and hundreds of miles to the west and the east. I felt the present in the past, and the past in the present. What had once been in monochrome was now in colour. The marble and steel of Baku, the desert and the deep blue sea; Yerevan’s rusted pink and brown buildings, the luscious green mountains capped with glistening snow – it all swirled together as on an artist’s palette, and what I saw was not a problem to be solved, but a landscape of time and space to be observed and pondered.

After three years of witnessing setbacks and struggles, do I still believe that peace is possible? Yes – because I have glimpsed some sort of order in the chaos. Peace is not built between nations and governments; it is painstakingly achieved through the work of neighbours and communities. It requires climbing to the top of those hills and surveying all that lies around, with eyes that are constantly straining to see from the Other’s perspective. It means attending to the Other’s hurt, even as we hunger desperately for justice to be served to us. It means the freeing of our minds and our bodies, so that they can begin the journey across borders and towards a deeper understanding of both the Other and Our Selves. This is an act with both personal and political ramifications. I have seen many people try, and fail, and try again to comprehend the nature of this conflict from all its aspects. I too have failed, time and time again. There are hills and mountains left to climb, there are a million voices yet to be heard. Yet there is inspiration everywhere, if we dare to look around.