Changing Armenian realities

By Harry Hagopian
May 4, 2018

The past few days have seen some highly significant events unfolding in Armenia. Let me try to tie in three of them that marked me as an Armenian from the Diaspora, and to set them in context.

The first and probably least expected event was the popular uprising in Armenia. Labelled a ‘Velvet Revolution’, but more like an Intifada of sorts from my perspective, the massive demonstrations resulted in the resignation of the recently-appointed prime minister Serzh Sargsyan. But things have not calmed down yet, as the parliament in Yerevan did not succeed in electing a replacement prime minister. In the meantime, young and not-so-young Armenians continue applying pressure upon the government as they seek the appointment of Nikol Pashinyan as the new prime minister who is waging a campaign against rampant corruption. Failing a consensus in parliament, though, Armenia might well end up with fresh parliamentary elections.  The new president, who only recently was Ambassador to the UK, is trying to find outlets from this standoff.

Ever since Armenia gained its independence in 1991, the ordinary men and women in this South Caucasian country have suffered from constant economic hardships. Just imagine that over the past quarter of a century, over 1 million Armenians have somehow managed to emigrate to Western Europe (including few of them to the UK), North America and Australia – in addition to a large business-savvy community in the Russian Federation. The average monthly salary for public employees is a measly $200, and some 35 oligarchs pretty much control the wealth of the whole country. Sadly, the Armenian Apostolic Church is not above reproach at times either as some Armenians I know accuse its leadership of being more interested in their financial transactions or real-estate acquisitions than in the spiritual well-being of their faithful.

So it is no wonder that this uprising erupted at long last. But the future is fragile as Armenia is surrounded by two major foes – Turkey and Azerbaijan – and has a festering conflict over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh let alone an aggressive president in Turkey. So Armenians must be prudent about their existential future and the manner they make their choices or seek their dignity and welfare.

The second event was the 103rd anniversary of the Armenian genocide. Once more, Armenians commemorated the massacre of their forefathers in Ottoman Turkey when they were either summarily executed or deported to their deaths in the vast Syrian Der Zor desert or – if fortunate enough – fled the country and settled down elsewhere. There is hardly an Armenian family in the Diaspora that cannot trace its roots to Ottoman Turkey and some grandparent or great grandparent who was killed during this orgy of murder and spoliation of Armenian life and property under the cover of WWI. My own family were not spared those crimes. And although there is ample scholarly and archival evidence of this genocide, Turkey persists in its denial. In fact, the last two American presidents Barack Obama and Donald J Trump have described this calamity against Armenians, but also against Assyrians and Pontic Greeks, as a Medz Yeghern or Great Calamity.

Many people suggest that this genocide is now part of the annals of history and should be forgotten so that the new Armenian generations can move forward and focus on their future rather than constantly mourning their past. But those people do not understand the Armenian ethos that has been traumatised by those crimes. And whilst Armenians have risen up from the ashes and re-constituted communities across the world, the genocide continues in different ways today as their culture and history are scavenged by those who simply do not wish for the existence of Armenians.

The final event for me was an encounter with the Chair of Christian Philosophy at a reputable College in the USA. This American academic (with no Armenian genes whatsoever) has been campaigning for years in support of the recognition of the Armenian genocide as well as for the welfare of Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh. The main thrust of her argument – and I must admit that I tend to agree with much of it – is that Armenians should stop squabbling amongst themselves and unite their efforts, energies and resources in order to form a strong countervailing force to those who wish to deny them their lives, history or culture. Fragmentation weakens them further, and so they need to come together.

Peaceful protests and civil disobedience in Armenia. The commemoration worldwide of a genocide. A conversation over a coffee with an American scholar. What is the common denominator that binds those three events for me? I suppose I can posit many explanations or arguments that might attempt to sound erudite. But I do not wish to go there. Instead, I would simply say that the overriding - nay, overwhelming - motivator is a thirst to celebrate life. At a time when we Christians are living those fifty precious days between Easter and Pentecost, it is perhaps apposite to remind ourselves that the cross led to the Resurrection. In other words, Armenians who have suffered – and still suffer – many challenges in different ways have learnt to prize life and not to give in to despondency or defeat. No matter the defying odds, there is always a faithful fire in the belly of most Armenians to pick up the gauntlet thrown by life and then simply move forward.

But Armenians are not alone in their journey. Many strangers – known as odars in Armenian – stand in solidarity with Armenians too. After all, they too aspire for those same things, don’t they? And this is what characterises our humanity and its innate optimism over all trials and tribulations!

The late Armenian American novelist and playwright William Saroyan once wrote, "Old people are good because they've come to wisdom through failure. We get very little wisdom from success, you know." 

There is a lesson in those wise words that impacts changing Armenian realities every day.

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© Dr Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as Legal Consultant to OTS Solicitors in London (particularly on Brexit and immigration issues). He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land (The Russell Press).  Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net -- follow him on Twitter here: @harryhagopian and on Facebook here: https://m.facebook.com/MENA.analysis/

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