Some Armenians, Fed Up with Injustice, Leave the Country. Others, like Shahnazaryan, Stay and Resist…
An Interview with Anna Shahnazaryan by David Barsamian
Mountainous and landlocked Armenia has had a long history, but as a nation state it is relatively new. Armenia declared its independence in 1991. This wide-ranging and revealing interview with Anna Shahnazaryan, an environmental activist and a feminist based in Yerevan, covers many issues facing Armenia.
Left with a legacy of 70 years of Soviet rule, Armenia has a major corruption problem. The adoption of neoliberalism by elites has produced massive inequality. Oligarchs dominate the state and the economy. Unregulated mining is causing environmental damage. Water supplies are being threatened. Quality healthcare, extremely expensive, is available for the rich. Education? More of the same. The media parrot the government line. Patriarchy and misogyny persist. Women are seen as child-producers for the defense of the nation. A decades-old conflict continues with neighboring Azerbaijan. Both that border and the one with Turkey are closed. Some Armenians, fed up with injustice, leave the country. Others, like Shahnazaryan stay and resist.
This interview, which was recorded in Yerevan, on June 9, first aired on Barsamian’s Alternative Radio (AR) program and was transcribed for the Armenian Weekly.
To listen to the original recording, visit https://www.alternativeradio.org/collections/newly-digitized/products/shah001.
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David Barsamian: 2016 was the hottest year on record, breaking the previous record, set in 2015. This trend has become the norm over the past several decades. The polar icecaps are melting at an alarming rate… Talk about climate change and Armenia: Is there much awareness of the issue, and is attention being paid to it?
Ann Shahnazayan: There is a cynical attitude in Armenia regarding global warming, particularly sea-level rise, because Armenia is a mountainous country. It’s barely the size of Maryland in the United States, with a population of less than 3 million. It’s located on a portion of the Armenian Highlands, between Turkey and Iran. It’s a cynical attitude, because people say, “OK, the lowlands may be flooded by rising sea waters, but we will stay up in our mountains, because this is also where humanity was protected in biblical legend.” Noah’s Ark landed on top of Mount Ararat, which is not far from the present border of Armenia. It was part of Armenia historically. Anyway, that’s kind of a joke.
But global warming and climate change are threatening Armenia, together with disastrous economic policies that are destroying the unique ecosystems of the country and creating an even greater threat, which is coupled with climate change, causing extreme levels of desertification. There are many reasons for desertification, so let me enumerate them.
Armenia is rapidly being deforested. One reason for deforestation is mining. As a mountainous country, there are extractive minerals in its subsoils. With no regard, and with no calculation and—no, let’s say, forecasting—of what will happen with deforestation, just in terms of climate change, this country’s corrupt government has issued licenses and given a green light to disastrous mining projects and is continuing to do so. Our mountains are important ecosystems that also are sources of water: This is where the snow melts and fresh water originates. These fresh waters are threatened by deforestation.
And another reason is illegal logging of forests. This is being done in part because people are poor and they have to cut down trees for fuel. But a large part of illegal logging is done for industrial purposes, by oligarchs.
Another cause of desertification is unsustainable overuse of groundwater—especially in the Ararat Valley, one of the flattest areas of Armenia. The land is very fertile, with artificial irrigation, thus there is a lot of farming. The groundwater has been overused by big fisheries, which are operated mostly by local oligarchs.
But the local oligarchs cannot function and exist outside the global system. This criminal capitalist system, particularly the financial sector, allows for capital flow out of the country without any monitoring or control. Money flows to so-called offshore tax havens, where local oligarchs can hide their identities and reappear in the country in the guise of Western investors.
Environmental issues caused by mining, the threat against water resources, and desertification lead to not just economic problems but also migration. Migration is Armenia’s plague, maybe like for any other small state, and particularly in what neoliberals call the former Soviet republics: the “transition states.” Living here, you always think this is a unique thing,how people desert the country. So the country is also desertified by having people fleeing not just for economic reasons but also for environmental ones.
D.B.: So the Ararat Valley, the breadbasket of the country, has fish farms?
A.S.: Yes. To put this in perspective: the aquifer under the Ararat Valley was almost the size of Lake Sevan, which is not just one of the largest sources of fresh water in Armenia but in this whole upper highland region. Sevan is located at 2,000 meters above sea level. The aquifer was once the size of this lake, but it has, just within almost 20 years, shrunk two-fold. This has occurred because of the fisheries, which have no recycling and a very unsustainable manner of operation. They belong to, for example, a former prime minister, who controls much of the agricultural system. He is from the Ararat Valley. Another oligarch, who has been a parliamentarian for a long time and has big economic interests, including a monopoly over imports of commodities like food, also has huge fisheries.
But the local oligarchs cannot function and exist outside the global system. This criminal capitalist system, particularly the financial sector, allows for capital flow out of the country without any monitoring or control.
But what’s really alarming is our understanding of what we have in terms of water resources, along with what is happening, through a financial global perspective. We are one of the most rapidly water-privatizing places in the world. For example, back maybe 15 years ago, when the first water privatization project took place with the support of the World Bank—but it was more of an insistence by the World Bank—it was just the water supply in Yerevan, the capital, which has almost half of the population of the country—over 1 million people in an urban area. The water was privatized and sold to a French company, Veolia. Veolia is a global transnational known all over the world, and it’s notorious for corrupt practices.
But here in Armenia this conversation about water is not taking place. Why in hell should we privatize our own water and give it to a foreign transnational corporation to come and sell it to us? So, after these 15 years of Yerevan being under the private water supply system, now almost all of the country is being sold water by Veolia. That’s one thing.
Another thing is that we have absolutely no idea of what is the political and global view of Armenia’s water resources. There is a rumor that Lake Sevan is viewed as a commodity. For example, a neighboring country, Azerbaijan, with whom Armenia has a military conflict, has oil. And in Armenia there is this rhetoric: “They have their oil, and our oil is our water.” Which for me is a very cynical approach to understanding the preciousness, or pricelessness, of water. You cannot just put a price on water and say, “This is our natural resource,” because that leads to thinking that one day we will have to sell it. This is what capitalism has brought us to, that you can buy canisters of water for your home needs, and then you can just sell off an entire lake. This is horrible.
D.B.: In Cochabamba, Bolivia, the water system was privatized and sold to an American conglomerate, Bechtel. There was a popular uprising and the government had to cancel the deal, and it became once again publicly owned.
A.S.: This is one of the more inspiring cases, that an uprising takes place and results in demands being met. What is quite dispiriting [in Armenia] is the lack of critical public discussion of what is actually happening here in terms of what privatization means. We live with the extreme consequences of post-Soviet “fire-sale privatizations.” And even now it is continuing. We were a largely industrialized country, at least until the end of the Soviet era. Many of our factories and equipment were sold for almost nothing in the first years of the post-Soviet era.
The most important things that will actually sustain the functioning of the country, which are infrastructure and the facilities that sustain supply of, for example, energy, water, pipelines, and services, like the post office… the last remaining pieces are literally at this moment on a list for sale. Take hospitals. Ten large hospitals were put on the list yesterday in a non-publicly discussed, non-parliamentary discussed bill, which will certainly be adopted. Hospitals are being sold, post office buildings are being sold, energy infrastructure is being sold. There is no discussion that this is not fair.
This [lack of discussion] is the result of basically draining the country of a critical approach: It can be journalistic, it can be academic, it can be public popular thinking. This has been deliberate. For example, filling Armenia’s academia with capitalist ideology when it comes to the economy and driving out any possibility of a critical approach. Because what would be a criticism would be labeled as “you’re being a stupid communist or an idiotic Marxist” or whatever. And because of public disgust with the Soviet totalitarian system, this is also transferred into disgust with ideologies like communism and Marxism.
Effectively, this might be a local thing, or it can be [nurtured] with the help of international donors, which are normally the large “development financial institutions,” such as the World Bank and the IMF, their European counterparts, the Asian Development Bank, and intergovernmental so-called “aid agencies.” I’ve taken the following term from Latin America, and the example of Bolivia: Compradors [agents of foreign economic entities], local servants; [they] have brought about an empty intellectual and critical approach to putting what’s happening in the country in the larger global context and criticizing it from this perspective and finding local solutions. An uprising against privatizing the water supply system would not be imaginable at the moment in Armenia, because the issue is not perceived or understood in those terms.
Poor people know that they have a problem with their water. People right now, today, are blocking interstate roads from the villages because of the water issue. But that doesn’t lead to saying, “Well, the problem is privatization, the problem is no public control and monitoring of how water is used and prevention of overuse.” It’s a very local, shortsighted approach. People just block the road. And if they get some water tomorrow, which they will, they will go home.
D.B.: So the resistance is not sustained.
A.S.: It is not sustained, because, as I said, it’s not put into a larger political perspective. A lot of the actions or protests that are happening are local, just with their sort of grassroots organizing. But this organization, as important as it is, lacks a political understanding and maybe ambition. Ambition being that, OK, we have to think, “What are the root causes of this problem?” That thinking is not taking place. Unfortunately, almost the entire academic sphere is filled with noncritical, capitalist, financialized “knowledge,” in inverted commas, because this is not knowledge. It is ideology.
This [lack of discussion] is the result of basically draining the country of a critical approach: It can be journalistic, it can be academic, it can be public popular thinking. This has been deliberate.
D.B.: In terms of the lack of discussion in Armenia of these important domestic issues, is that a result of direct or indirect repression, or are people self-censoring themselves?
A.S.: This is a difficult question. How to explain? The broadcast media, for example, are entirely controlled by the ruling elite or the ruling government or the party.
D.B.: So there are no independent radio or TV stations.
A.S.: There are local TV stations that could be considered independent. I can confidently say there is no independent TV broadcasting channel that is aired throughout the entire country. There are some comparatively independent local ones, as in Gyumri, for example. There are different owners and different entities that operate TV stations. But the system is such that one company is an intermediary between the businesses that pay for advertising and the stations. This intermediary company is owned by the current president’s son-in-law. I normally call the president the “person who holds the president’s seat,” sometimes I call him “the person who has seized the president’s seat.” I don’t recognize him as a president. So this person’s son-in-law is taking hold of these intermediary companies. So any TV that is doing “the wrong thing,” let’s say being critical, will never get funding—will never get ads—because the intermediary will hold it back.
This is a very sophisticated system, when you want to understand how the media is controlled. It’s not in a blatant, dictatorship-way blocked, with the police going in and shutting down the TV stations. No. It’s done in a systemic manner.
But there are other outlets, mostly on the Internet, that can be, comparatively, considered independent. But, again, those outlets actually are more like NGOs. Their organizational status is either an NGO or some foundation. Their sources of funding are mostly intergovernmental grants. This is another issue. I’ve seen myself the sort of soft censorship, or maybe self-censorship, when it comes to criticizing a foreign government, because you actually depend on a grant from that government. It may or may not happen. It depends on the [grantor] country.
But this is a problem, especially with civil society in Armenia, and maybe all over the world. When civil society depends on governmental organizations’ grants, be they different development agencies or other types of organizations that are funded by the government of different states, we have a huge problem with the sincere and actual independence of the civil society institutions. Armenia is one of them. And I criticize very much what is happening in the civil-society sector for this very reason: Their agenda is very much donor-driven, not grassroots.
The problems are visible, of course. Civil society organizations work on corruption, but the way that they formulate their actions—it looks like they are just another arm of the donors working with the government. So the donor will say, “Government, here is what you should do to reform your system. And, in addition, I will also give some money to civil society organizations to make sure there is monitoring of your reforms.” This is not an independent situation.
D.B.: What about social media such as Facebook? Is that used by activists to challenge hegemonic thinking?
A.S.: Facebook became very popular eight or nine years ago. This was a period when it was expanding all over the world and becoming a useful tool. It was successfully used by some grassroots campaigns. Facebook, as much as it is social media and gives the impression that this is where you can express your opinions freely, is controlled by a corporation that is making a ton of money. So the system and the internal logic of Facebook has changed.
We as activists are now facing that situation. When we didn’t have access to public outreach and access to people, it was OK at some point. But now you have to actually pay to be able to reach a larger population with Facebook. If you, for example, have a campaign page, it will not get the views that it used to get maybe five or six years ago. You probably have to pay for an ad to have your post reach people who are registered on Facebook. Locally, from a government perspective, Facebook is not blocked. It’s operating freely at the moment. The internal setup of Facebook hinders it from being this large mobilizing tool, just because it’s shifted into a very profit-making logic—the algorithm it’s operating on.
But I have to tell you, we haven’t witnessed a situation when the regime would be so threatened as to start blocking Facebook. Because we have had an experience of having a complete moratorium on both social media and generally media. That was in 2008, when a state of emergency was announced. This was the year of the presidential elections, and the opposition was not recognizing the results. The oppositional rallies—basically, it was a sit-in for almost one month in the central part of Yerevan—were put down violently by the state. This was the situation when that government announced a moratorium and everything was blocked. What I want to say is, When the regime feels like it’s threatened, anything can be blocked in this country, including Facebook.
D.B.: To get back to environmental issues, what about sustainable energy? Is there any movement in that direction? This is a country with solar energy and wind energy potential.
A.S.: On the grass-roots level, yes. On a governmental level, maybe some people have some awareness who are not completely servants of their masters. (And I will come back to who the masters might be.) They have this consciousness and concern and the opportunity. Even in the scientific fields, there are people who have been speaking out and who have been experimenting with alternative energy.
But we have to realize who we are. As a country, as a state, [Armenia] is largely colonized by Russia. Russia’s number-one strategic security threat is renewable energy. Because Russia exists on selling its fossil fuels, and anything that is renewable is a threat. Armenia depends on Russia for gas. This is another story of how we sold all of Armenia’s gas infrastructure facilities and the distribution system to Gazprom, the Russian semi-state enterprise. We’re not a big market for Russia, but having Armenia in this situation of dependency keeps the strings attached to Russia.
So, when we speak about alternative energy in Armenia, importing wind turbines, for example, is extremely expensive because there’s no preferential exceptions for these technologies. You can reduce or waive customs fees for anything else—mining equipment, Caterpillar tractors—but for things having to do with alternative energy they haven’t been possible. So [it’s done] with some, again, donor support from KFW, the German development bank, and some other European agencies, also the IFC has been sponsoring renewable energy.
D.B.: What is IFC?
A.S.: The International Financial Corporation is the World Bank’s business arm. Some moves have been made in laying the groundwork for developing renewable energy in Armenia, particularly solar. Because we had a bad experience with small hydro, which caused huge environmental problems, draining the rivers. One might think using river-water energy would be sustainable. But the technology that they used simply put the river water into generators, thus killing all the fish. Also, nearby streams were being drained. Trying to develop alternative renewable energy resources in Armenia is difficult.
This is a very sophisticated system, when you want to understand how the media is controlled. It’s not in a blatant, dictatorship-way blocked, with the police going in and shutting down the TV stations. No. It’s done in a systemic manner.
D.B.: You’re saying that the state gives preferential treatment to heavy industry, but when it comes to wind turbines and solar panels, they don’t waive the import taxes.
A.S.: Not until very recently. The government has been talking about trying to find the resources, which would be preferential loans, for developing solar and wind energy.
D.B.: You mentioned the privatization of hospitals. What about healthcare in general? Is it affordable? Do most people have access to it?
A.S.: No. The healthcare system is another sector, which has been rapidly privatized. When you look at the large hospitals that have quality services, these are private and belong to the economic, oligarchic elites. One hospital is registered in the name of the former president’s wife—a private institution that gives quality care, but is very expensive and not affordable for many people.
The system that is still state-run is underfunded. There is rampant corruption. Doctors and the entire medical staff have very low salaries. They only subsist on under-the-table payments. This is making the life of people who need care miserable. Anybody who wants treatment will have to pay something extra. This is just about the existing system—not the quality of the healthcare, which has been going down in Armenia. Some independent journalists did an investigation and collected data on the high number of deaths taking place in hospitals, especially pregnant women dying during childbirth.
Underfunding of education and the health system is a conditionality placed on Armenia’s government by the World Bank, which is done under so-called “optimization.” Which is austerity. But in Armenia they call it “optimizing” the public sector. This austerity policy has resulted in disastrous consequences for the population. A lot of people also migrate. They get what they call humanitarian or health immigration status, in Europe particularly. People just go and say, “I cannot get treatment for hepatitis C in our country.” It’s super expensive to get treatment for some forms of cancer and other diseases, so they get the status of health migrants. European states provide free health service and start curing people, whereas had they remained here in Armenia these people might have died.
D.B.: What about housing? Is it affordable?
A.S.: There is almost no public housing system. Right after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the completely public housing system was privatized. People who were occupying their flats became owners. It was an easy process. People became owners of private property. But what continued is Armenia’s loss of population. So there is little demand for housing, because by the early 1990s almost a quarter of the population left the country.
D.B.: Because of the economic conditions.
A.S.: Yes and because of the war in Karabagh, and because of injustice. A lot of times—and this is something that I think is speculation—surveys, and research use this claim that, “Oh, well, we’ve studied [the issue], and people leave for economic reasons, because they don’t have jobs here.” But I think a lot of people who have income also leave just because they can’t handle the political system, they can’t handle the injustice, they can’t handle a situation when the judiciary is not independent. Basically, it’s a police state, where the police can sue people. Law enforcement serves the banks, for example, when they have to foreclose on homes. People can’t handle these situations anymore. The injustice is so huge, they leave. Economic and environmental injustice also force people out.
There is no big demand for housing, so it’s a very decentralized market, in a way. But people cannot buy new flats and houses without having to rely on mortgage loans. And mortgage loans are extremely expensive. There is almost no public preferential loan system.
There are some other things. And this is another corruption scheme. The state will take money from international banks under the guise that it’s building public housing, like low-interest-rate loans, and will create these special programs: This housing block that is going to be built in Yerevan is for, let’s say, university professors or journalists. It’s one thing who gets listed to get this flat; there may be some corruption, or maybe it’s completely transparent… I won’t speculate on that. But they [the government] get these loans. For the people, it’s still a mortgage, so people have to actually get a mortgage from the bank to pay for this housing. Then the government licenses, commissions the construction to oligarchs, to themselves, to some oligarchic companies. So they largely benefit from construction…. But also they profit a lot from money laundering. These loans wouldn’t have been possible if the government didn’t have connections to international finance. So there is always some loan available, be it a World Bank so-called “development loan” or from other banks in the global financial market. This is so accessible to the government that they always find ways of making money.
D.B.: Is this process you’re describing a form of gentrification?
A.S.: Yes. Let me just describe one scheme. It’s heart-breaking, but this is the truth. The government has a law that it often abuses. It’s called public eminent domain. This law allows the government, against the will of people, to make a decision—to issue a decree—using eminent domain. As an owner of property, you could own land, perhaps agricultural land. (This is taking place with mining particularly but residential areas too.) It could be your own house in the central part of Yerevan. The government can take that property. Even if you’re against it, even if you’re saying, “I’m not selling this property to any construction company or mining company,” the government will make the decision for you. So they use eminent domain to simply seize property from people.
For example, in central Yerevan they’ve seized property to build new large buildings on Northern Avenue. From a safety consideration, this is very dangerous because we are sitting on a seismically active area. We remember the disastrous earthquake in 1988. But they build these huge residential and office buildings. They’re not skyscrapers—they wouldn’t be able to build those here—but very disproportional to the landscape.
Before the construction starts, the builders start selling apartments. So people go and start buying. People take loans to do that. That’s just a bit cheaper [to buy ahead of time] than if you buy when it’s finished. So what these construction companies do—and they’re completely, again, in the hands of the ruling elites… they can be parliamentarians, they can have posts in the prosecutor’s office, or various officials who own or whose family members own these construction companies—is they sell the exact same apartment to a number of people. So when the building is finished, people come to ask for their keys. And then one family says, “This is my flat,” and another says, “No, it’s mine. I paid for this exact floor, this exact flat.” Of course, this breaks their hearts. They file a futile suit in the judicial system.
What the company does now—listen to this—“OK, there was a mistake. We will compensate. We will give you another flat, which is not in that same building, nor is it even in that same district. It’s in the outskirts of the capital. We will give you the same thing.” Which means the construction company is ripping people off, taking money out of their pockets and circulating it for construction. This is a money-laundering scheme. Which means they have profited already from the money people paid for this flat, which was much more expensive than another flat in the outskirts of town. So people are left with no choice. This is just a scheme. Gentrification is taking place. The economic elite benefits. The economic elite is able to do what it’s doing because their money is deposited in Switzerland or in Cyprus offshore banks or in islands under British jurisdiction. They can do these things because they are protected politically and financially.