‘What the Hell Just Happened?’: Armenians, Civic Nationalism, and Rewriting the Activist Handbook

A protester with an Armenian tricolor flag draped across his shoulders stands at an April 17 demonstration against Serge Sarkisian’s premiership (Photo: Avetisyan91)

Among my generation of Armenian-Americans, the “Armenian” part usually stands out. Fierce patriotism, love of the nation, love of our culture and music, and love of our history all usually take their rightful place in our identity. The “American” part does its duty as well. It adds something that some might perceive to be a Western cliché, though the hallmarks are always present: The love for democracy, the rule of law, institutional patriotism, and the Constitution of the United States of America. In my beloved Glendale, Armenian-American activism has made for a unique, inseparable blend of local affairs and Armenian issues effecting change. Ask anyone in California’s 28th Congressional District if you don’t believe me.

In the U.S., we hold our personal rights and freedoms in the same breadth as holy scripture. We learn about our system of governmental checks and balances by the time we are in elementary school, and some of us further study how that interplay regulates our “imperfect union,” in order to build “a more perfect union.” The common denominator in our system of governance is the citizen—the most powerful entity in any functioning political system.

Over the past few weeks, Armenians in Armenia and around the world have been witnessing the “What the hell just happened?” stage in our history. And yes, while there may be better ways to describe it in proper form, I will save that for the policy analysts or the creative writers, and go on with my jargon.

Stale attitudes began to fade. Skepticism began to turn into optimism. The most inspiring part of it all were the creative acts of civil disobedience. I think even deep down inside me, there was this understanding that it’s going to be the same old story: Debates among friends, wringing our hands, and moving on with the day. Except, that didn’t happen…

How it All Happened

In Armenia and around the globe, we were at a crossroads as a people. After calling for genocide recognition from the superpowers year after year, and watching the issue fall on deaf ears, issues of how the diaspora can better engage Armenia were always a matter of debate. Some repatriated Americans living in Armenia tended to side with national security as the most pressing issue in the homeland, which gave a tacit nod of approval to former President/then-Prime Minister Serge Sarkisian’s regime. Whether we liked him or not, he put Armenian security as a priority, and for that we must give credit where credit is due.

Others, much like myself, while holding national security paramount, realized that the situation for those living in the country was simply worsening at a quicker pace than would be expected. Due to the serious issues of outmigration from the country for better opportunities abroad, there would not be a national security apparatus where a nation is losing its population left and right. There seemed to be a deadlock and a lack of momentum within our communities.

Then, it happened. Sarkisian made it clear that he wasn’t going anywhere. After indicating that he was going to walk away as soon as Armenia was to be a parliamentary republic, he gladly accepted the nomination from his ruling Republican Party of Armenia (RPA), which is structured like any Soviet holdover. This would ail the country, by what many correctly pointed out to be the continued, institutional corruption in Armenia.

And so, a handful of elites, led by the now deposed Prime Minister Sarkisian, assumed power without any term limits. As the country switched from a semi-presidential system to a traditional parliamentary system, many feared that the guise of a more transparent government, by and for the elites, had far more sinister implications. That is why thousands of Armenians from all walks of life took the streets in Armenia and around the world: to reject the monopoly of power.

Many critics among us still think that Armenians in Armenia do not have the political maturity to handle systemic change. However, and I cannot emphasize this enough: They are very, very wrong.

In Armenia, there has always been one true check against power: The Armenian citizen. We, as those who have been exposed to institutional democracy, can speak in platitudes of how important civic engagement is. However, Armenia’s citizens no longer accepted the status quo, and took direct action, because they have learned through experience. In other words, they walked the walk, and quite fittingly with the “Kayl Ara, Merjir Sergin” (“Take a step and reject Serge [Sarkisian]”) chant.

So What Does All of This Mean?

Taking a stand is nothing new to the Armenian people. Since the founding of the 26-year-old Armenian Republic, and even before, Armenians have been actively seeking to change their plight both locally and globally. The Artsakh Liberation Movement was the first organic national movement within the borders of the USSR. This was instrumental to the founding of the third Republic of Armenia in 1991. Thereafter, thousands of Armenians took to the streets in 1998 to successfully call for the resignation of former President Levon Ter-Petrosyan. They also took those same steps, when then President Serge Sarkisian assumed his role as president in 2008.  This movement even led to a crackdown that was allegedly led by Sarkisian and then outgoing President Robert Kocharyan. They showed their civic force in 2012 when vendors in Mashtots Park were forced to shut down. They did so during the “Electric Yerevan” movement in 2015. With each of these civic movements came lessons. All of these major movements led to “What the hell just happened?”—and what a beautiful thing it was to watch.

Within the last three weeks, Armenia’s citizens and Armenians around the world truly rewrote the activist’s handbook. It started with determination—the daunting task of toppling a corrupt regime, and positive energy… While Armenians everywhere are no strangers to activism, we found the missing ingredient in the formula: Across-the-spectrum unity in the face of corruption and nepotism.

While many of us are fiercely patriotic and nationalistic, we also discovered a new type of nationalism in the process: Armenian civic nationalism. An informed citizen is a powerful citizen… And so, Yerevan coordinated with Glendale. Attorneys both here and in Armenia began to focus their efforts on uncovering the mechanisms of the fraudulent activities in which regime members have been or still are engaged. Across the globe, Armenians are discussing the Constitution of the Republic of Armenia, its parliamentary processes and procedures, and practically all of us are sitting and predicting what could possibly come next in a new Armenia.

So What is Next?

What we witnessed over the course of the last few weeks in our beloved homeland was awe-inspiring, beautiful, organic. Local activism has reached the global stage, and become a case study into how civil disobedience, unity, and trust in the youth of a nation can shape the future of a nation. As of this writing, not a single person was seriously injured or killed. This is the bloodless revolution, and hopefully, in the next coming months and years, it will stay that way.

Globally, this too will have its impact. As a friend pointed out, “Armenia finally left the Soviet Union.” Armenians, by taking matters into their own hands, were able to put themselves in a new position, one of strength and unity. The best reflection of this strength will be when the people inside Armenia’s borders are happy, prosperous, and civically engaged.

Because of the irreversible civil awakening that occurred in the past few weeks, the Armenian citizens showed, in taking back the country from the throes of authoritarianism, they will come to the international stage with more leverage. They will come with open hands, much like the revolution did. The population, currently at a state of war with neighboring Azerbaijan, now has more dignity. Needless to say, a motivated, dignified Armenia will better protect its borders. Better still, the confidence of investing in Armenia and its people will increase. Our generation of so-called Diasporans will engage the homeland in a more positive light. Gone are the days where corruption was a foregone conclusion.

While there are miles and miles to go in order to build a nation our ancestors can only be proud of, the future is bright for our young republic. Power to the people.

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Joseph Kazazian

Joseph Kazazian is a Los Angeles-based activist and Juris Doctor Candidate. Kazazian has previously served on the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) Western Region's Government Affairs Committee and has worked broadly on campaigns and policy at the local, state, and federal levels.

4 Comments

  1. Well said. Now Armenia, particularly rural Armenia, needs tax power. Local communities must be able to manage shared tax revenues and even institute worthy local taxes if the community so wishes. With more local monetary control democratic participation/debate will follow, particularly by the frustrated young activists. For 28 years 99% of dram power flowed solely from over-controlling Yerevan to the detriment of local democratic participation, resulting in pronounced apathy. Once Yerevan puts faith in local elected leaders to be responsiveness to local needs, the young generation will more participate. City districts can follow the same model and exert their own local influence.

  2. I am very happy that the truth about the past administration -the rule of Serge- is finally coming out. Time now is to question why did we not talk about this years ago, 5 years ago, etc.? Why was ARF so comfortable in its coalition with the Republican party and so detested in Armenia because their opposition voice to this corruption and nepotism were completely stifled to get some 3 ministers in the corrupt system? Some accountability is required from ARF too.

  3. Great article. It’s not so often that a diaspora based analyst accurately assesses a complex situation in Armenia. Kudos to you!

    While ARF’s move to join the people is welcome, they are yet to explain why they went against the same people for years on. We haven’t forgotten that, and that question is going to hang in the air. ARF needs to be accountable for its action. Some ARF leaders’ heads need to roll, otherwise, it looks like a simple case of opportunism. Nothing to be proud of really.

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