‘What the Hell Just Happened?’ Armenians, Civic Nationalism and Rewriting the Activist Handbook
BY JOSEPH KAZAZIAN
Special to Asbarez
For my generation of Armenian-Americans, the Armenian part usually stands out. Fierce patriotism, love of the nation, love of our culture and music, and love of our history all usually take their rightful place in our identity. The American part does its duty as well. It adds something that some might perceive to be a western cliché, yet at the same time, the hallmarks are always present: the love for democracy, the rule of law, institutional patriotism, and love of the Constitution of these United States of America. In my beloved Glendale, Armenian-American activism has made for a unique, inseparable blend of local affairs and Armenian issues effectuating change. Ask anyone in California’s 28th Congressional District if you don’t believe me.
In the United States, we hold our personal rights and freedoms in the same vein as Holy Scripture. We learn about our system of governmental checks and balances by the time we are in elementary school, and some of us further study how that interplay regulates our “imperfect union,” in order to build “a more perfect union.” The common denominator in our system of governance is the Citizen; the most powerful entity in any functioning political system.
Over the past few weeks, Armenians in Armenia and around the world have been witnessing the “what the hell just happened” stage in our history. And yes, while there may be better ways to describe it in proper form, I will save that for the policy analysts or the creative writers, and go with my jargon… Stale attitudes began to fade. Skepticism began to turn into optimism. The most inspiring part of it all were the creative acts of civil disobedience. I think even deep down inside me, there was this understanding that it’s going to be the same old story: debates among friends, wringing our hands, and moving on with the day. Except, that didn’t happen.
How It All Happened
In Armenia and around the globe, we were at a crossroads as a people. After calling for genocide recognition from the superpowers year after year, and watching the issue fall on deaf ears, issues of how the diaspora can better engage Armenia were always a matter of debate. Some repatriated Americans living in Armenia tended to side with national security as the most pressing issue in the homeland, which gave a tacit nod of approval to the Serzh Sarkisian’s regime. Whether we liked him or not, he put Armenian security as a priority, and for that we must give credit where credit is due. Others, much like myself, while holding national security paramount, realized that the situation for those living in the country was simply worsening at a quicker pace than would be expected. Due to the serious issues of outmigration from the country for better opportunities abroad, there wouldn’t be a national security apparatus where a nation is losing its population left and right. There seemed to be a deadlock and a lack of momentum within our communities.
Then, it happened. Sarkisian made it clear that he wasn’t going anywhere. After indicating that he was going to walk away as soon as Armenia was to be a parliamentary republic, he gladly accepted the nomination from the ruling Republican Party of Armenia, which is structured like any Communist holdover. This would ail the country, by what many correctly pointed out to be the continued, institutional corruption in Armenia.
And so, a handful of elites, led by the now deposed Prime Minister Sarkisian, assumed power without any term limits. As the country switched from a semi-presidential system to a traditional parliamentary system, many feared that the guise of a more transparent government, by and for the elites, had far more sinister implications. That is why thousands of Armenians from all walks of life took the streets in Armenia and around the world: to reject the monopoly of power.
Many critics among us still think that Armenians in Armenia don’t have the political maturity to handle systemic change. However, and I cannot emphasize this enough, they are very, very wrong. In Armenia, there has always been one true check against power: The Armenian Citizen. We, as those who have been exposed to institutional democracy, can speak in platitudes of how important civic engagement is. However, Armenia’s citizens no longer accepted the status quo, and took direct action, because they’ve learned through experience. In other words, they walked the walk, and quite fittingly with the “ Kayl Ara, Merzhir Serzhin” chant.
So What Does All of This Mean?
Taking a stand is nothing new to the Armenian people. Since the founding of the 26-year-old Armenian Republic, and even before, Armenians have been actively seeking to change their plight both locally and globally. The Artsakh Liberation Movement was the first organic national movement within the borders of the USSR. This was instrumental to the founding of the third Republic of Armenia in 1991. Thereafter, thousands of Armenians took to the streets in 1998 to successfully call for the resignation of former President Levon Ter-Petrosian. They also took those same steps, when then President Serzh Sarkisian assumed his role as president in 2008. This movement even led to a crackdown that was allegedly led by Sarkisian and then outgoing president Robert Kocharian. They showed their civic force in 2012 when vendors in Mashtots Park were forced to shut down. They did so during the “Electric Yerevan” movement in 2015. With each of these civic movements came lessons. All of these major movements led to “What the Hell Just happened;” and what a beautiful thing it was to watch.
Within the last three weeks, Armenia’s citizens and Armenians around the world truly rewrote the activist’s handbook. It started with determination: the daunting task of toppling a corrupt regime, and positive energy… While Armenians everywhere are no strangers to activism, we found the missing ingredient in the formula: across-the-spectrum unity in the face of corruption and nepotism.
While many of us are fiercely patriotic and nationalistic, we also discovered a new type of nationalism in the process: Armenian civic nationalism. An informed citizen is a powerful citizen… And so, Yerevan coordinated with Glendale. Attorneys both here and in Armenia began to focus their efforts on uncovering the mechanisms of the fraudulent activities that regime members have been or still are engaged in. Across the globe, Armenians are discussing the Constitution of the Republic of Armenia, it’s parliamentary processes and procedures, and practically all of us are sitting and predicting what could possibly come next in a new Armenia.
So What is Next?
What we witnessed over the course of the last few weeks in our beloved homeland was awe-inspiring, beautiful—organic. Local activism has reached the global stage, and become a case study into how civil disobedience, unity, and trust in the youth of a nation can shape the future of of a nation. As of this writing, not a single person was seriously injured or killed. This is the bloodless revolution, and hopefully, in the next coming months and years, it will stay that way.
Globally, this too will have its impact. As a friend pointed out, “Armenia finally left the Soviet Union.” Armenians, by taking matters into their own hands, were able to put themselves in a new position, one of strength and unity. The best reflection of this strength will be when the people inside Armenia’s borders are happy, prosperous, and civically engaged.
Because of the irreversible civil awakening that occurred in the past few weeks, the Armenian citizens showed, in taking back the country from the throes of authoritarianism, they will come to the international stage with more leverage. They will come with open hands, much like the revolution did. The population, currently at a state of war with neighboring Azerbaijan, now has more dignity. Needless to say, a motivated, dignified Armenia will better protect its borders. Better still, the confidence of investing in Armenia and its people will increase. Our generation of so-called diasporans will engage the homeland in a more positive light. Gone are the days where corruption was a foregone conclusion.
While there are miles and miles to go, in order to build a nation are ancestors can only be proud of, the future is bright for our young republic. Power to the people.