“To dispossess the people unyieldingly, the government has created monopolies (tobacco, salt, railroads, mines), that aim at snatching from the worker’s pocket a part of his earnings and handing it to European or local capitalists.”
Contrary to what many readers suspect, this diagnosis was not written with the Armenian government in mind.
Far from it!
These lines, published in 1892 in the official organ Droshak (Flag) of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (at the time called Federation of Armenian Revolutionaries), are part of a description of the Ottoman Turkish government’s modus operandi.
In the late 19th century, the Ottoman Armenian workers had very few, mostly unappealing, options to avoid humiliation, subjugation, and dispossession. While many Armenians left for the U.S. and other countries to make a living and support their families in the homeland, a very small proportion took up arms. Revolutionary parties like the ARF were born to support and direct that struggle. Most Ottoman Armenians however remained unwavering in their insistence on laying low and hoping for the best.
The rest is history.
Today, in the tiny Republic of Armenia, erected in 1918 on the ashes of the Armenian Genocide in large part due to the efforts of the very same people who wrote in Droshak and swore by it, the Armenian citizen is faced with similar options: To emigrate—as most Armenians already have or hope to be able to one day— or to fight.
The grassroots activism that has emerged and matured in recent years, from Teghut to Mashdots Park to the “I will not pay 150 drams” movement, is the product of the few who decide to stay, decline to lay low, and struggle against all odds. They are bullied, threatened, beaten, imprisoned, and sometimes even killed, while the regime continues “snatching from the worker’s pocket a part of his earnings…”
More than two decades after regaining its independence, Armenia is witnessing a protest movement gaining momentum with every battle, while it seems that the political parties are laying low.
Over-promising and under-delivering has become a staple of politics-as-usual in Armenia. Unfortunately, this also includes much of the opposition, which has thus far failed to muster the strength and ingenuity to tackle the profound economic and social challenges the Armenian citizen faces.
The same Droshak article argues: “To liberate the people from this unbearable situation, to create circumstances for it to enter humanity’s path to development, is only possible through revolution….” In today’s Armenia, such a revolution could only be waged through a robust movement that harnesses grassroots activism and civil disobedience.
One could already discern the contours of such a movement in the “I will not pay 150 drams” initiative.
Yet it seems political parties haven’t gotten the memo about direct action and bottom-up protest movements. This is to their detriment. In these challenging times for the Armenian nation, state, and church, their political reflexes must change. Otherwise, loyalties will begin to shift, and those who fail to step forward may well be forced to step aside.