Over the course of a fortnight, thousands of Armenian opposition activists – thought of as marginalised and irrelevant by most of the international community only a month ago – managed to oust its corrupt leader Serzh Sargsyan after he positioned himself to become the country’s eternal leader following a decade in power.
Despite the jubilation and sense of relief felt by most of the Armenian population since Sargsyan’s sudden resignation on April 23, few believe that the changes put in motion by protests that had originally begun as a reaction to Sargsyan’s power-grab can fundamentally transform the country unless irreversible reforms take place and they rid themselves of the abusive and corrupt political class that has dominated Armenia’s politics since gaining independence from Moscow in late 1991.
Having somewhat flown under-the-radar compared to other former Soviet republics, Armenia has a strong street protest tradition and an active civil society that is significantly boosted by its 11-million-strong diaspora, most of whom are descendants of the 1915 Armenian Genocide and who live primarily in the US, France, Canada, Lebanon, and Russia.
Prominent among those who have come out in strongly in support of the protestors is the Armenian-American musician, composer, and political activist Serj Tankian, who answered New Europe’s questions about the events unfolding on the streets of Yerevan and in other cities around Armenia.
1) As a prominent member of the diaspora, what do you think the ousting of (Serzh) Sargsyan means for the young professionals, artists, musicians, and entrepreneurs who have generally had to leave Armenia to pursue their career and life goals?
The resignation of the president-turned-prime minister, Serzh Sargsyan, by the will of the people conducting civil disobedience is a seismic event in modern Armenian history. For years, many incorrectly believed Armenian citizens were too apathetic to stand up in the numbers we just saw and make their voices and demands heard. I guess the bullet finally hit the bone. The unfolding events though so far symbolic are very important in the rebuilding of confidence in Armenia as a place to live, invest, work, create. etc. The inertia displayed in the streets by the youth are extremely attractive to all Armenians, especially those who have left for abroad more recently due to economic opportunities. If these events unfold further into rebuilding Armenia in a more egalitarian vision, then without a doubt you’re going to finally see positive inward migration for the first time in many years.
2) From the diaspora’s perspective, what made these protests so much more powerful than those seen in 2013, during the landmark Electric Yerevan demonstrations in 2015, or the rallies that followed the Erebuni hostage crisis in 2016?
There are a number of differences between these latest protests and previous ones from the demographic being younger, the decentralised nature of the protests, to the strict adherence to the doctrine of civil disobedience and unity. However, the major difference is almost intangible – a feeling that is different as seen on the faces of the youth on the streets. They have reinvented themselves culturally in such a way that they have become irrefutably powerful. They won’t stand for injustice the same way as their parents did but will react with understanding and love also different from the previous generation. I consider the Electric Yerevan protests the lead up to this as it was the youth that initiated the single issue protest.
3) What do you think the next steps should be to guarantee that a similar regime doesn’t come to power in the future?
The next steps will be to first initiate a vast package of reforms – starting with law enforcement – so that elections are no longer stolen or bought so that they truly represent the people. The step after would most likely be fresh parliamentary elections to reform everything else. These next moves will not be easy as the ruling powers still control all the branches of government. It is through public pressure, diplomacy, and negotiations that these things will follow through. One thing is certain though. The people now realise they are the power and I doubt anything will be able to stop them now.
4) The protestors are mostly a young urban crowd who generally don’t belong to a party and have no representation in the current government at a time when parliamentary elections are needed. How do you think the protestors can take the solidarity they had in the streets and use that to force a new round of free and fair elections and, ultimately, turn that into some sort of electoral result?
There are plenty of qualified smart delegates, technocrats, and young professionals who are qualified to run for parliament. If the system is reformed to rid us of electoral corruption, the right people will make it in and they will help mould a new Armenia.
5) What role do you see for the diaspora in terms of political, social, and economic engagement in the country if a more transparent, corruption fighting, and democratic government comes to office?
The diaspora will be all in at that point. What that means is that there will no longer be hesitant to invest in the country as there has been in the past. But investments will also pour in from everywhere as the climate will be more transparent. The multi-layered cake of corruption on every level of society has been disruptive, disillusioning and has ultimately caused de-population. There is always corruption at the top as we see on K Street with lobbying firms, super PACs, superdelegates, and electors in the US. But it’s nice when it doesn’t affect the average citizen in court cases, police infractions, voting, and many fields where people have to bribe to get a placement or job. It’s created a downward spiral of quality in industries: proper reforms need to address all of these issues.
Politically, I hope Armenia will be more open to the diaspora’s thoughts and actions. After all, we are a people separated by the trauma of genocide, empire, corruption, and economic stagnation. Till now, the regime wanted to see the diaspora but not hear it (tourism vs political engagement). That’s gonna change as the diaspora has a wealth of experience, especially in the field of foreign policy, contacts, lobbying in foreign countries, and the like. Armenia can better access the diaspora when there’s a better balance of power.
Socially, we have always been linked and will continue to be so even further as visits will undoubtedly increase.
Photo by Shayan Asgharnia