Can A Comedian Become Mayor of Yerevan?

But the city’s problems are no laughing matter.

Photo: Hayojax.am

Nikol Pashinyan’s Civil Contract party seems to have made a peculiar choice for their mayoral nominee in the upcoming Yerevan City Council elections. Hayk Marutian came out on top of a four-way leadership bid which included parliament deputy Alen Simonian, Deputy Labor Minister Zaruhi Batoyan and an aide to Pashinian, Srbuhi Ghazarian.

The resignation of Yerevan’s Republican Mayor, Taron Markaryan barely a year into his second term has triggered speculation as to who would replace him at the helm of Armenia’s main metropolis. The 41-year old Marutian, a famous comedian, was chosen as the Civil Contract’s nominee. Since the Republican Party has not yet put forward a candidate (and at this point are unlikely to), Marutian is expected to easily beat Zaruhi Postanjian of the Yerkir Tsirani (Apricot Country) party for the post.

Many have been perplexed by the choice of a comedian to run Armenia’s political, financial and economic capital, considering that his opponents offered more in the form of political experience. Marutian has dismissed these concerns, telling a reporter from RFE/RL that “Acting has made up only 20 per cent of my professional life for the last six years, the remaining 80 per cent has been my organizational and managerial work in our production company as well as my political and civic activism.”

Comedians often come to prominence in the political sphere of countries where a general sense that the political class has become out of touch with the people becomes pervasive.

Despite completing an engineering degree at the Polytechnical University, Marutyan turned to comedy during the dark years of the 1990s as a way of making ends meet, and brightening spirits. Indeed, Marutian, who first came to prominence as an actor and comedian when he starred in the cult-film Mer Bake, or in English “Our Backyard,” has been recognized as one of the few Armenian celebrities to champion social or political causes even at the risk of embarrassing the government. His early participation in the 2015 #ElectricYerevan protest brought the movement much public attention and credibility. He also came out as a vocal supporter of Pashinyan during the Velvet Revolution, formally joining the Civil Contract party days after the former was instated as Prime Minister.

In fact, comedians-turned-political leaders are not as unusual as they may seem. Comedians often come to prominence in the political sphere of countries where a general sense that the political class has become out of touch with the people becomes pervasive. The Icelandic comedian Jón Gnarr, for example, famously shocked the world when he defeated the establishment candidate to become mayor of Iceland’s capital of Reykjavik on the promise of “free towels in all swimming pools” and “a polar bear for the Reykjavík zoo”. Beppe Grillo, an Italian blogger and comedian-turned-activist founded the anti-establishment Five Star Party, which rose to become the single largest party in the Italian Parliament this year. Comedians often find themselves in a unique position to capitalize on populist electoral waves since they can sense popular discontent against establishment politics. Their comedy bits often reflect commonly held biases, poking fun at the political elite.

Marutian is still difficult to place. He has definitely taken on some populist rhetoric since the nomination was made public, telling would-be voters: “I will be one of your own and will be looking at the city with your eyes”.

His 15-point tentative political platform, which was released earlier this week, reveals a list of policy objectives which range from the absolutely necessary to the populist. Among other things, he has called for the municipalization of public transit lines, and the creation of a unified transit network. He also wants to create multi-story parking garages to alleviate the city’s parking situation, gradually implement a switch to green energy, formally relegate all casinos and strip clubs to the city limits, protect historically significant structures, and reign in the various private contractors providing garbage removal, water and electrical services in the city.

He has also called for the addition of three new stops on the Yerevan Metro system; for an exact reconstruction of the iconic Yerevan Youth Palace (commonly called Kukurus [or “corn” in Russian, as the structure itself resembled a large head of corn) to replace the original which was controversially torn down several years earlier; and for the city to design a 4-D light show around the Erebuni fortress.

Though many of these ideas, at least in principle, deserve to be implemented, the would-be mayor will have his work cut out for him. Despite constant improvements, the capital city has a dark history of neglect, controversial urban renewal, and corruption. For a city that boasts being older than Rome, Yerevan has very little in the form of historic architecture left to show for it. Much of the tiny historic centre has been sacrificed over the years to benefit urban redevelopment projects, first by the Soviets, and later, in the hands of controversial developers in the post-communist era. Entire neighbourhoods suffered from years of neglect only to be bulldozed and replaced by bland condo developments in the very core of the city. In certain cases, facades have been ‘preserved’ with the purpose of eventually rebuilding them into the bastardized ‘Old Yerevan’ project.

A marshrutka in Russia (Photo: MaSii)

Yerevan’s public transport situation has decayed to such an extent that obsolete and dangerous mini-buses known as ‘marshrutkas’ have come to form the core of the city’s commuter transportation solution. Many of these lines are owned by figures connected to the Republican Party, and tend to overlap (rather than spread across the city) in order to gain access to the most financially lucrative transport corridors, thus adding to their ineffectiveness as a means of commuting. Yerevan’s municipal tramway system was shut down in 2003 due to cost overruns, while the short-sighted previous administration sold the miles and miles of tracks as scrap metal. A cable car system which connected the city center with suburbs in the outlying mountains had received such little maintenance that it was indefinitely halted after it crashed killing five of the 11 passengers on board, despite the fact that the communities it served still remain in desperate need for alternatives (Armenia is, in fact, a country that would benefit from a gondola system to facilitate transport to and from its mountainous suburbs). The city’s only bike path, which the previous mayor swore would meet “European standards” was literally painted by hand, and actually goes down a set of stairs. The unreliable public transit network has inadvertently compounded the city’s traffic problem. As a larger share of Yerevan’s denizens can afford their own vehicles, many have abandoned the overcrowded and unsafe marshrutkas in favor of commuting in their own cars. As more and more families begin to own more than one set of wheels, they are quickly overloading the city’s road network, which was not designed to carry so many vehicles. Another problem is where to put all these cars when not in use. Since Armenians won’t accept parking their car any further than right in front of their destination, cars have progressively taken over pedestrian space and turned small parks into parking lots.

Yes, it is clear that Yerevan’s public transport system is in dire need of a major overhaul, complete with new technologies to facilitate commutes across the city and reduce lost productivity.

Though the previous administration has had success in privatizing the garbage collection and water distribution, these services have come under criticism as of late due to a noticeable decrease in service quality.

Despite being well-known for riding his bike to work, Marutian has limited experience in public transportation infrastructure development, which one would expect in order to overcome such daunting challenges. (Though it is worth noting that during the 150 Dram protests in 2013, where citizens protested the government’s decision to raise the cost of public transportation from 100 dram to 150 dram [or, from 20 cents to 30], he became one of the first celebrities to ferry senior citizens across the city for free—a noble gesture, though whether this translates to “experience in public transportation” is questionable.)

The challenge for any mayor is for the capital of a velvet Armenia to offer its inhabitants a modern place to do live healthy lives, do business, and connect to the World, all the while rooted in history and tradition. For whoever gets elected, it’s clear that reaching this goal will be no laughing matter.

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Raffi Elliott

Raffi Elliott is a Canadian-born entrepreneur and occasional journalist who likes to ramble on about socioeconomic and political issues in Armenia. He lives in Yerevan with his family. He also holds a masters degree in International Relations.

1 Comment

  1. I think its a bit unfair to present Marutian as a comedian. In a small and relatively poor country like Armenia, he managed to make art a profitable business. Unlike many other actors, he did not resort to political prostitution to survive. He is self-made and principled. He made himself a mini-empire, at least by Armenia’s standard, by making some of the most successful Armenian movies in the last few years. His biggest challenge will be to dissociate himself from his comedy characters.
    I wouldn’t mind if they elect Zaruhi but in the last few years after leaving Heritage party, she acts like a stubborn political activist instead of an experienced politician. From her refusal to cooperate with any other political party to her assertions that her party is the only real opposition. She couldn’t even work with the two other male members of her own political party in the city council. I really love her as a strong woman in Armenia’s politics but with that attitude she cannot control a city with one million population.

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