Who will decide Armenia's destiny -- patriots or tyrants?
As Armenia begins its 20th year of independence, its dreams for democracy have been mugged by the reality of a repressive government. But some patriots are working to ensure that the tree of liberty will grow in Armenia one day.
Across an ocean and a continent, on a sliver of land tucked between two seas, a little republic today enters its 20th year of independence. I know a man there, an American by birth – except that 20 years ago, he quit his law firm in Los Angeles, decided he had no further business in the United States, and went to search for his destiny in Armenia.Skip to next paragraph
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It was a romantic time. One by one, the 15 Soviet satellites were breaking from the Kremlin’s orbit, and exiled sons were returning to their homelands to share in the creation of new republics.
As for my father, Raffi K. Hovannisian, once the football star of the Pali High Dolphins, he left a promising legal career and moved with wife and children to Yerevan, the capital of Soviet Armenia. After independence was officially declared on Sept. 21, 1991, my father was handed a fax machine and a first month’s paycheck of 600 rubles – $143. He was told he was the republic’s first minister of foreign affairs.
Post-Soviet seeds of democracy
All across the Soviet plains, the seeds of democracy were being sown into soil tyrannized for generations, but no one doubted that they would grow. My father certainly didn’t. Within a year, he had established diplomatic relations with every major democracy in the world. At United Nations headquarters in New York, he had raised the red, blue, and orange Armenian flag.
That was nearly 20 years ago. Everything was possible then.
But the shadow of history soon closed in on the Armenians. The capital went dark. Faucets dried up. Grain shipments stopped coming in. And suddenly, as if for the first time, the Armenians realized where they were. To the west: a history of horror with Turkey, the memory of an unrequited genocide in 1915. To the east: the anticipation of war with Azerbaijan, occupant of the ancient Armenian enclave of Artsakh, or Mountainous Karabagh.
It is a dangerous thing, when survival becomes the sole ambition of a people. But that is what happened to the Armenians in the years after independence. They lost their hope, their cause, their conviction. They were not as generous as they used to be. And the old Soviet symptoms reappeared.
Corruption and failure
On the streets of Yerevan, a generation of child beggars emerged. Policemen waved batons for two-dollar bribes. Teachers worked for bribes, too. The presidents came to control every judge, prosecutor, and public defendant who wanted to keep his job. Fair trials and free elections became failed promises. Incumbents almost always “won” – while losers almost never went home without first leading a mob of a hundred thousand citizens through the capital.
In 1999, during a session of parliament, all the president’s key adversaries were assassinated.