‘Armenians in our own country have to be liberated,’ says Heritage Party leader
YEREVAN, Armenia (A.W.)—It is the fifth day of Raffi Hovannisian’s hunger strike in Freedom Square. An Armenian American, he is a former foreign minister of the Republic of Armenia and is the leader of the Heritage political party, serving as one of its representatives in the National Assembly. His trademark mustache is gone and he has noticeably lost a considerable amount of weight, but he appears fit and serene, as if practicing meditation. There are 50 or so people loitering in the vicinity, chatting to one another about politics or other issues, every so often taking a glance in his direction to see how he is holding up. While perched on his park bench, with a knitted tricolor coverlet supporting his back, sipping bottled spring water, his supporters, famous folk musicians among them, approach to express their admiration. He is cordial to everyone who greets him, and rises from his seat to embrace those he knows intimately. Some of them tell him they did not ever wish to see him resort to his chosen form of protest. He responds, smiling, that the will of the Armenian people must be heard. For those living in Armenia, his convictions and aspirations for the Armenian state are commonly known and respected. Yet his message has not resonated quite loudly enough for Armenians living in the diaspora to perceive.
The following interview with the Armenian Weekly was held on the site of protest at Freedom Square in the early afternoon of March 20, 2011.
Q: Why are you here?
A: The answer to that question lies in the wisdom of the people, which in its broad cross-sections already stated its demand nearly 20 years after Armenia’s declaration of independence to live in a country where rights rule, where the people form their government through free and fair elections not only in the Western way but in the Armenian way.
We all know that after 1991 there has been no transfer of authority through legitimate elections, and all of Armenia’s presidents have been elected against the will and the voice of the Armenian people. This is something that is not new, and everyone knows this.
The acting president using the presidential palace in a conflict of interest signed as a leader of a political party with two other political party leaders a memorandum, the ultimate essence of which was l’etat c’est moi—the state is me—and for the next seven years there will be no play against me because two years before the next presidential elections I’m announcing my candidacy, these parties are supporting me, and this failed domestic and foreign policy will continue.
This was a formalization of the challenge to the Armenian people, the brunt of which is that the Republic of Armenia is being transformed into the gusaksabedutyun, the two-party state of Armenia, and the parties who signed the memorandum said that in terms of ratios in parliament and elsewhere, they will increase their presence in the parliament at the expense of opposition seats. There is nobody except for the people of Armenia who have the right to make that determination.
And so the initial expectation of my fast for freedom is one that the leadership of Armenia, as illegitimate as it is, has enough conscience and calculation to understand that we find ourselves in an emergency situation that requires emergency solutions. It is necessary to return the power to the people through pre-term elections and take other steps that will serve to resolve the legal political socioeconomic and other challenges that Armenia faces today.
Q: How realistic is it that snap elections will be called as a result of your actions here?
A: My citizens’ alarm to the authorities and the people of Armenia is not based on any fleeting consideration or a question and answer about realism. If we postpone to the next cycle of elections the resolution of the issues that face us today, we’ll find ourselves in front of a predetermined election, in other words the people will become more fatalistic than they are today. We talk about what is real in Armenia, which means do nothing or there’s a great danger of renewed violence because there’s a lot of pent-up frustration based on the injustice, inequality, and unlawfulness that reigns in the country today. So my one expectation is from the authorities, and the second expectation is from civil society, from the Armenian public, to find itself the master of the public agenda and not to wait for anybody, whether it’s the incumbent president or opposition parties, to tell it from rostrums and podiums and elsewhere what to do, to empower the Armenian public with the message that their rights are in their hands, that this square, the symbol of liberty, democracy, and liberation for Artsakh, belongs to all Armenians, and there’s no reason for Armenians to be displaced from this square, from their expression of their free will and different views. And I’m happy to report that thousands of people entered the square for the rally on Thursday [March 17] to express solidarity, to take back the square, and to exercise their constitutional rights to be the masters of the square. The important thing now is for the Armenian people to be the master of their own destiny and their own political agenda.
Q: It seems that most Armenians are not politically active, that they can’t be bothered with politics, the youth especially. I’m wondering if they expect regime change or want things to remain status quo, since people are dressing better than they used to, they are working to a certain extent, and so forth. What is your take on the general perception of society?
A: Well I don’t agree with that characterization. Yes, in the city center and the cafés they are better dressed, yes there is a certain fatalism that people don’t belong to the system, to Armenia, that it is impossible to effect change through political process, and that there is general alienation. At the same time, I don’t believe that most Armenian people are well dressed. I would say that at least half of them, my compatriots, are at the poverty line, they live in very difficult conditions. Economic inequality, inflation, and impunity continues to prevail as an epidemic in the country. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a proud citizen of Armenia to try, as long as God allows him, to find himself in the same predicament as the [other] 50 percent of Armenians.
Q: I wanted to ask you about the recent protests lead by Levon Ter-Petrosian. I read that you felt slighted when he and other leaders of the Armenian National Congress entered the square with the protesters on March 17 and did not greet you. Ter-Petrosian seems to have a cult of personality, where he addresses the people like he’s some sort of messiah and does so once every month, but lately more frequently. Does he have any clear-cut goals and is his message actually getting across to the people?
A: Well, it’s not really for me to comment on Armenia’s first president and his political activities. The information you gleaned from the press is incorrect—I was not slighted by anything, I had no expectations. The fact of the matter was that the days prior to the entry of the National Congress and demonstrators—our fellow citizens—into the square, we were in the square, we were proud to be here, and we feel that the return of the square to the people does not belong to any single individual—certainly not to me or for anybody from that podium over there. To say that thanks to him or them the people are back on the square is a disservice to the truth and the people. When they entered the square we welcomed the people, because those are our people, the people of Armenia, that is their right, and it was a political decision for the first president and his entourage not to express their solidarity to me but to rise up to the podium and immediately say that ‘this is an Armenian National Congress rally, and you must follow the commandments and the directives of the National Congress.’ My position is that the time of directives and commandments has passed, that the people themselves have to tell the National Congress, the Dashnaktsutiun, Heritage, and all the others, what their political agenda is. So it was his choice. I think a lot of people expected that expression of solidarity, but I doubt it was a lack of political culture; it was a political position, and all I can say is that from my reading of Armenian politics there is no rethinking in the opposition as to how they approach the issues of the current national crisis. If everybody tries to find a solution by pursuing his supremacy, then there will be no political result, and the Armenian people will stand before the next in a series of disillusionments.
Q: Has anyone ever told you that ‘the country’s not a country,’ and how do you respond?
A: ‘The country’s not a country’ is a reflection of a sense of desperation and fatalism that we find throughout Armenia. It is a call to do nothing, to live your
life and to die. And my background and upbringing, and my life in Armenia, are based on a different set of precepts that each of us, and especially all of us together, can change the country and transform the country even if in the last 20 years it has not met our expectations, in terms of domestic policy, rule of law, democracy, and national interests. So some come to me and inquire about my health, say ‘the country’s not a country, and your fast for freedom will fall on deaf ears.’ I understand and respect that point of view, but I will not allow us to be guided by that precept because in the last four days, with what has been taking place in this square—with people coming and going, debating, raising their voice, and expressing themselves—I think that has been a very important development. But a lot more has to be done so that this development is not only the beginning of liberty in Armenia and the return of the people to the square, but a true expression of a national quest to affect political change, not just a subsequent moral victory where people can be happy that they entered the square, the police allowed them, and they left two hours afterwards.
Q: I wanted to ask you about the confrontations protestors often have with the police. It seems that whenever there’s a protest there are police involved, and it’s sometimes hard to understand which side is provoking the confrontation. Most recently at a protest in front of the government building, your fellow parliamentarians were involved in a scuffle with police officers, and there were videos that appeared on the Internet showing what had transpired. Do you think these confrontations are effective at all? What point are people trying to prove by confronting the police?
A: Well on that day, there was a clear cause-effect relationship. There were mothers with sons they lost in the army, people who have been dispossessed, people demanding changes in socioeconomic conditions, drivers who are forced to pay exorbitant customs taxes, vendors who have been driven off the street without being allowed to tend to their families’ needs. They are there every Thursday, allowed to protest before the government meets, and Heritage as an active parliamentary group is always there to support its fellow citizens. On that Thursday the police had prepared an operation against the people. They did not allow the people to approach the government building; it was commanded from above. In my view it was in response to Heritage’s demarche on Feb. 28 in parliament on the issue of the coalition memorandum on the danger that Armenia will turn from a republic to a party state, if it hasn’t done so already. This was a punitive action by the police. So in response to the question of whether anyone gains something from this, of course not. But that’s something to be asked of the police bodies and those who instruct them to deprive Armenian citizens of their constitutional right to gather, to express and to deliver their protest to the powers that be. And so on that particular day it was clear to me that it was a predetermined police operation where they pushed around MPs and citizens who responded in kind. I hope it doesn’t repeat itself, but on that day the police were way out of order.
Q: What is Heritage’s relationship with the ARF-Dashnaktsutiun, and do you foresee as the leader of Heritage an alliance with the party?
A: I think there is great potential for cooperation, for closer coordinated political work in the future. I think we’re very far from reaching the capacity of that united work product. We cooperate very well together in parliament, especially after the ARF came out of the ruling coalition and joined the opposition. We welcomed that. It doesn’t concern us that there are those in the opposition field who are questioning the opposition credentials of the ARF because at one point it was in the coalition, and somewhat responsible for the ills that we see today. I think the ARF is making a transition, and it’s important that in addition to the foreign policy objections that we share, including the shameful Armenian-Turkish protocols, and Armenia’s approach to Artsakh, that democracy, rule of law, human rights, and civil rights, in other words Armenia’s domestic policy, also become the true second focal point of the ARF’s opposition policy. Dashnaktsutiun was founded not only with the aim of liberating Armenia, but with liberating Armenians, and today Armenians in our own country have a great need to be liberated. It is to be hoped that both the domestic and foreign policy agendas of Heritage and Dashnaktsutiun will become more in sync in the months and years ahead.
Q: The other day the Republican Party spokesman Eduard Sharmazanov said there is no way that snap elections will be held anytime soon. What is your response, and what would the people need to do to make the authorities understand that snap elections are expected?
A: Well, obviously if there is no great visit of wisdom into the minds and hearts of the Armenian authorities, then clearly a large show of strength on the part of the people will do that. After the coalition memorandum, if standing above internal divisions and past injustices, Dashnaktsutiun, Heritage, and the Congress stood together, hypothetically, in the same square, in the demand for justice and new elections, I think we would have had a new situation in the republic. That did not happen for reasons known to each of the parties and obvious to the public perhaps. But if we want political change, that’s what needed to happen.
In the current situation, there needs to be a strong political challenge and transformation in the country, and at this point no opposition force can do it alone—no opposition force. That’s why I welcome Dashnaktsutiun’s electoral initiative, I welcome when citizens attend Armenian National Congress rallies. When opposition parties and their leaders take a monopoly on the truth, when they consider themselves the absolute leaders of the opposition, that is the beginning of the end for civil society and political success. It is my hope that we will find a way to get into one square, in one venue. All of Armenia’s citizens who care for their country and want change, including the youth—and there have been a lot of young people coming here from university in the last couple of days—to get them empowered and to convey the message that if there’s no fundamental solution to our national crisis today, we are just postponing the inevitable, and that inevitable is an abyss and a potential violent situation in Armenia. So it’s up to us…in this square and elsewhere, we have to raise our voice.
Q: We’re seeing a few toddlers here playing. What is the future of Armenia for them when they reach adulthood? What will be Armenia at that time?
A: Well, that’s really not for me to say. When the youth approach me, some express their solidarity, but many ask questions—what this is about, what can they do. I ask them, ‘What is your vision of Armenia in 20 years, and how do you expect to get there?’ I had a press conference yesterday and I said that for Armenia’s future, politically, economically, legally, and societally, we have to seek outside the triangle of Armenia’s three presidents. The new alternative for the new Armenia has to come from without that triangle. One journalist close to one of the presidents said there’s no alternative, and I said that for anybody to say in government or opposition that there’s no alternative, the nation-state is damned. You almost always must have an alternative, and in my view the alternative for this movement, for the next elections, and for Armenia’s future in general is the youth and to get them engaged in the Armenian political scene, in the NGOs, in civil society, and ultimately to bring together economists, environmentalists, civil society activists and legal defense of human rights initiatives into one plane and understand locally that we can register this or that little achievement, but we will not have a quantum leap to Armenia’s transformation unless the youth get involved.
Neither revolution nor evolution have proven themselves effective in Armenia, so we have to find a special formula for Armenia’s transformation, and it is the youth that will ultimately have to give you an answer to your question in fact and in deed.