Last week a peaceful protest in front of the Government Building in Yerevan turned ugly when a swarm of police officers that actually outnumbered the protesters themselves came on the scene. The people collected there were voicing their objections to the highly controversial ban on street trade throughout Yerevan, forcing grandmothers selling cilantro and lemons into dark corners to earn an honest living. A shoving match caused Anahit Bakhshian, a National Assembly representative of the Heritage Party, to fall ill. Nothing came out of the incident other than continued confrontations between her fellow party members (also parliamentarians), despite video footage being broadcast on the internet by a pro-opposition news site, A1 plus. Some statements of condemnation were issued and the matter was forgotten.
Similar types of incidents of unrest occur on a near-weekly basis, yet they spark no chain reaction in an apathetic society damaged by the self-destructive mindset that “the country’s not a country.”
The year did not get off to a good start in Armenia after rumors of natural gas price hikes circulated and the costs of foodstuffs inflated. Further panic ensued recently when the price of sugar was expected to rise by 20 percent, which has yet to happen. In the meantime, rather than creating jobs the authorities are taking them away by drastically limiting consumer trade.
There were tepid rumblings of “revolution” just days before the three-year anniversary of the tragic March 1, 2008 events—and I mean tragic in the sense that the people’s demands for change were cruelly quelled. The opposition was sounding a renewed call for change to citizens nationwide to take a stand against a nepotistic regime that demonstrates little to no tolerance for dissent.
Addressing thousands of citizens, former president Levon Ter-Petrosian issued a 15-point list of demands for the government to meet, followed by a “final warning” for the authorities to comply. What that warning is supposed to infer is anyone’s guess, but his track record shows that it is nothing to take too seriously.
Regardless, in order for change to happen the public has to want it. Yet whether regime change is something Armenian citizens truly desire is not quite obvious.
A convincing, compassionate leader is needed in the opposition camp, a person who would be able to negotiate with the oligarchs from the start of a “revolution” to ensure that a somewhat smooth transition can be effective without much obvious turbulence. The oligarchic structure in place is deep-rooted in the economy, with certain families enjoying monopolistic control of staple foodstuffs or basic consumer goods; any abrupt rupture could feasibly cause the entire Armenian economy to collapse within a day. Virtually all of the oligarchs today (except for one ostracized notable figure who sided with Ter-Petrosian in the last presidential elections) are pro-government, and their business interests would have to be protected if any change of power were to happen. The only opposition leader at the moment who has that negotiating power, since he essentially allowed that oligarchic structure of privilege and influence to be established in the first place, is Ter-Petrosian.
But Ter-Petrosian had his chance three years ago for revolution, yet when 10 lives were lost at the hands of what is now widely believed to have been the bodyguards of oligarchs in police clothing, he sent everyone home and went silent for months, which was followed by scores of arrests of his supporters and the distress of countless families suspected to have been sympathetic to the opposition.
He has long proven that he is not entirely committed to regime change, and his recent threat to the authorities does not necessarily indicate otherwise. Ultimately he risks the likely chance of imprisonment if he goes too far—something he and his supporters, who have already been expressing their discontent with him behind closed doors, cannot afford.
Perhaps the only other political figure closely linked to the opposition who has the charisma, and now the respect, as a brave patriot, is the editor of Haykakan Zhamanak, firebrand Nikol Pashinian, who is currently serving a seven-year prison sentence for inciting mass unrest. He is not expected to be released under the general amnesty law or by a presidential pardon before the next presidential elections for the obvious reason that he is considered a direct threat to the establishment.
Nevertheless, for change in the form of “revolution” to happen, it will mean massive upheaval as an indignant public attempts to transform an institution known to be undemocratic, corrupt, and unjust into one that satisfies their interests of proper government. As we’re seeing in North Africa now, change will also bring about violence, death, and more importantly, wild uncertainty. And no one who is living a relatively decent life today, especially those comprising the nouveau riche of Armenian society, is willing to take such a gamble—to risk their own lives and those of their loved ones without promises of a better future.
While the have-nots and the downtrodden are crying out for change, the opposition rants but waits. All of them realize there’s too much to lose. Perhaps the public’s only hope is to switch gears and start believing that their country is indeed a country, then start fighting for it.