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.
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My father long ago resigned from the Yerevan government, but he, at least, never gave up the dream. Instead, in 2001, he gave up his American passport once and for all. The following year, he founded Heritage, a national-liberal party, which now represents the opposition in the Yerevan parliament. To this day, my father is admired by his people. In a recent poll, Gallup pegged his popularity at 82 percent – but not for the obvious reasons.Skip to next paragraph
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“Achke kusht e,” the people say of him, “His eye is full.” In other words: the man has seen the world, and he’s not in politics for the money. In Armenia, that is enough.
Today the Yerevan government is linked to a group of powerful businessmen called “oligarchs,” who invest in and control the political game. One of them has the monopoly on gas, another the monopoly on sugar and flour. All of them have nicknames, armies of bodyguards, and fleets of luxury cars escorting them ostentatiously through the city.
The rulers are multimillionaires, the lot of them, though they have incurred great debts to the original power tycoons surrounding the Kremlin in Moscow, to whom they have been selling the country’s gold mines and electricity plants. And they are ready to sell much more than that.
Last month, Armenia hosted a summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a post-Soviet alliance including Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan – republics unclaimed by the West, republics that are now following an ancient gravity to its source in mother Russia. During the August meeting, Russia secured a 24-year extension of its lease on a key military base in Armenia. Actually, lease isn’t the word. The base is funded and sustained entirely by the Armenian state.
Now you see why today, in Yerevan, there is not much independence or democracy left to celebrate. And by now my father, too, must see what his romanticism has long prevented him from seeing: Armenia is not free, not independent, not united. The Soviet soil has spit out the seeds of democracy.
Hope foreshadows freedom
Of course my father still keeps the faith, and there is some evidence to support it. For the first time in Armenia, a civil society is taking shape to bridge a government and a people, so far disenfranchised from each other. Denied television airwaves, opposition media are now transmitting their protest through the Internet. And that little party in parliament, though it has not realized a revolution, can at least symbolize – and foreshadow – a free and independent Armenia.
And so we hope, and we even know, that the tree of liberty will grow from Armenian soil one day. But not today, not until, in the words of another founding father, “it is refreshed by the blood of patriots and tyrants” – both of which, I’m afraid, Armenia has plenty.
Garin Hovannisian is the author of “Family of Shadows: A Century of Murder, Memory, and the Armenian American Dream,” released today.