March 11, 2013

The Peculiarities of the Armenian Sad Gaze

It is very difficult to find a young Armenian whose future plans include his country. Compared to this, Estonia is in seventh, or even eighth, heaven.

Recently, on February 18, 2013, presidential re-elections were held in Armenia. The presidential seat remained firmly under Serzh Sargsyan’s bottom which will probably be glued to it for the next five years. Unless, of course, Mr President chooses to re-write the laws currently applicable in the country.
Although Sargsyan won the pot with fewer votes than predicted (for example, even OSCE observers expected a 74% victory, but in the end he managed to score slightly less than 60%), this doesn’t alter the gist of things. These elections glided by in a state of hibernation. Maybe the only incident worth mentioning was a bullet hole in the shoulder of the presidential candidate (and former Soviet dissident) Paryir Hayrikyan.
Unlike Georgia, Armenia is currently going through a relatively calm phase in politics, but this calmness might end up being only superficial. The people who seem languid today rioted only five years ago on France Square and next to the Cascade in Yerevan, leaving ten bodies behind. These ‘calm spells’ in the Caucasus always make me feel that they’re just gathering strength.
Ten years ago, there were more than one hundred parties in Armenia. I can remember very well a group of Communists who had just rebranded themselves as Socialists and thought it was appropriate to use the slogan ‘Old Comrade—New Armenia’ in their election campaign. It was hard to resist grinning when seeing those battered Commie leaders, real dinosaurs, with significant numbers of the intelligentsia among them, including an influential 60-year old comrade chairman of the youth section of the Armenian Writers’ Union, yet anyone familiar with the state of affairs in the country knows that grinning would be pointless. These one hundred parties are still there—they’re not just officially registered anymore.
In actual fact, Armenia has always been, and will always be, new and old at the same time. Most uprisings still usually have a clear reference to the nation’s glorious past.
I don’t know, maybe it’s all to do with history and faith, Armenia being the ‘oldest country in the world’. And maybe it’s about joy over losing it all. There isn’t an Armenian to be found—be it in a pub or in a ministry—who wouldn’t explain at length how great (in terms of territory and culture) they used to be and how small they are now. When I interviewed the former Armenian (female!) Minister of Culture Asmik in 2001, she joked (by paraphrasing the good soldier Švejk) that Armenia was the bigger globe inside a much smaller one. She was referring to domestic and foreign Armenians, finding it ironic that the number of Armenians living in Armenia (the bigger inner globe) is actually three times lower than of those living abroad (the smaller outer globe).
In truth, there is no point in underestimating the complexity of the Caucasus; even the most cursory look at the history of the peoples living there would prove that. This is a remarkable region because its relatively compact territory is home to hundreds of peoples who speak different languages, which often aren’t even remotely related.
Still, they manage to find some common denominators. Having celebrated its 1710th anniversary this year, the church in Armenia definitely serves as one. The big guns and the underdogs, the shooters and the victims form a united front on this issue: they represent the oldest and the only culture in the region, there’s no doubt about it!
The Armenian Apostolic Church considers itself to be the oldest national church in the world (established in 301 CE), and with reason. Like Georgians, the Armenians say that Apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus were active in their land during the first century, urging people to become Christians. It has to be admitted that this fact hasn’t been documented anywhere, but certainly the church was active by the beginning of the fourth century. If we take a look at Europe at that time, it becomes immediately clear that in terms of Christian governance and the ‘modern’ world into which it later transformed, they were by far ahead of our Occidental culture.
When the Bagratid royal family fell from power in 1045, the first wave of emigration struck Armenia—people emigrated to Cilicia in Turkey, a region which continues to be highly significant for the Armenians today, as evidenced by libraries, bars and beers named after it. From then on, we can talk about an Armenian diaspora, which often has accomplished greater cultural feats than its motherland. The Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia, located in what today is Turkey, stood strong until 1375. In actual fact, the root cause of the still on-going conflict between Armenia and Turkey and skirmishes between nations and religions that later led to genocides of Armenians (and vice versa) lies in that very era.
Tauno Teder, an Orthodox cleric and author for the newspaper KesKus, has said: “Similar to several other ancient Christian peoples, the Armenians have followed the example of Jesus in not finding quite their own permanent place in this world.”
No doubt, it is Armenian Christianity (and hence its culture) that has been the deep freeze and the key conserving agent for Armenian identity. For example, services in the remotest villages anywhere in the country continue to be held in Old Armenian, which modern Armenians as a rule don’t grasp at all, but in which they still know enough to mutter some sentences during services. Over centuries regional conflicts have only reinforced their feeling of being the ‘chosen ones’, if only to spite everyone. This is why I’m always tempted to speculate that these very roots provide the reason behind the sad gaze characteristic to the Armenians.
I’m also seriously tempted to fall for the unpopular Armenian stereotype and to claim that democracy is more comprehensible to Armenians than to their neighbours. For example, let’s take the church.
Among all Eastern churches, the Armenian Apostolic Church is definitely one of the most democratic (bishops are elected and lay delegates from congregations have the right to speak and vote at church assemblies). Still, the Caucasus is the Caucasus. Once a bishop has been elected, no one disputes the choice. You simply don’t do something like that.
The Armenians have sad eyes that look to the past, to the same old ‘glorious’ past which most of them don’t know at all. If I had the time, I could spend hours telling stories about locals whom I’ve met close to barely standing churches near one village or another and all they could say was: “It’s old. It’s so very old. It’s the only one of its kind in the whole world.” At the same time, a flimsy tin-plate plaque somehow hammered into the wall for tourists states that the church was built in the 16th century. I’ve heard with my own ears a guide saying at a church near Gyumri that “this is the world’s largest church among small churches”. The jokes that spread throughout the vast expanses of the former Soviet Union about Armenian radio often weren’t jokes at all.
The Armenians have a peculiar way for communicating with the outside world; they did so in Soviet times or even earlier. While we struggled with linguicide and hordes of immigrants, the Armenians did it their way.
The late Armenian literary giant, Zhirayr Avetisyan, the Tammsaare of the Armenians (whose wife is an Estonian who still lives in Yerevan), made a wry remark sometime towards the end of the 1980s about the proportion of Armenians in the population (92%): the Russians leave voluntarily because for them the primary meaning of the word ‘community’ is to gang up on someone for beating him, but for us ‘community’ means people.
On the other hand, when drinking around a table with well-off Armenians—they usually drink vodka, not wine—all of them take care to stress that they had personally participated in the Nagorno-Karabakh War, adding some vivid descriptions and the number of Azeris they sent to the afterlife. This applies to everyone from heads of large private companies to the mayor of Yerevan or the agriculture minister of Armenia. It takes only one massive heroic step to reach Stepanakert from Yerevan.
However, Nagorno-Karabakh is an issue that backfires most against Armenians themselves. It is a huge stumbling block that prevents the state from having any kind of foreign relations.
Let’s start with flying to Stepanakert—even that might pose a problem. The thing is that air connection with the city doesn’t seem to work (unless we’re talking about private jet flights, which are also pretty difficult to figure out) doesn’t seem to work. At this point, let me just remind you that de iure Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh for the Armenians) forms part of Azerbaijani territory, but de facto it is an independent state.
In other words, the Azeris treat it as an insurgent region that is arrogant enough not to obey the central government. So, Baku has explicitly threatened to shoot down all aircraft that enter Azerbaijani airspace and some helicopters have even met that fate. Yet all aircraft flying to Nagorno-Karabakh have to enter Azeri airspace.
In short, it’s safer to take the bus. A week-long visa (a ‘stamp’ is actually a more appropriate word) costs 7,000 drams or 14 euros. In essence—according to the Armenian theory—Armenia’s Artsakh has suffered from a blockade similarly to the whole country that has been under partial blockade (some trade relations can be pursued with Iran, but definitely not with Turkey—at least officially. In that particular geographical context, however, borders actually can’t hold back people who want to haul their stuff from one place to another).
Almost every school or museum has a map which should give everyone an idea of the Armenian perception of their state borders—it usually depicts the so-called Wilsonian Armenia. This is an Armenia whose boundaries were drawn during the First World War and which incorporates a major part of modern Turkey while also biting off a chunk of Iran. The Urartian ‘Great Armenia’ is also often depicted on the same map, showing how it spanned from ‘one lake to another’, from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea.
So, its lost territory (whose ownership was often dubious) adds yet another melancholic component to Armenian sadness. Admittedly, it’s a fact that even today there are a lot of Armenian villages in eastern Turkey (from where I once drove to Armenia, a trip I don’t recommend to anybody)—although, of course, after the genocide there have been no Armenians living there for about a century already—but Armenia’s ambitions reach even higher: it wants its rights as a former great power restored and quite arrogantly pays no heed to existing state borders. This probably doesn’t make it easy for Armenia’s neighbours either, although the sense of loss is certainly rather on the side of Armenia. After all, it has lost a major part of its ancient territory—I dare not to use the word ‘forever’—for at least our lifetime.
I hate to say it, but the people with the sad gaze have often no-one else but themselves to blame for their poverty and isolation. In this case, ‘isolation’ might not even refer so much to economic opportunities, but to the mental plane. Like Jews, the Armenians have deported themselves (admittedly with some urgent assistance from the international community) to a desert, but unlike Jews they haven’t managed to lift their grievances to an international level. By the way, their own neighbours like to compare them to Jews—this is done without any cynicism, but with sympathy for them at a grass-roots level.
Clearly, the Armenians have a lot to be sad for. Or it could be that Armenia is an unhappy place for yet another reason: it is very difficult to find a young Armenian whose future plans include his country. Compared to this, Estonia is in seventh, or even in eighth, heaven, the more so as our gaze is definitely not as sad as theirs.
Armenian presidential elections and candidates
Serzh Sargsyan—the incumbent president (elected in 2008) won a clear victory on February 18, 2013, with 58.64% of the vote. Although people were often critical of him, they were still convinced that ‘there’s no better alternative’.
Raffi Hovannisyan—the chairman and founder (in 2002) of the Heritage opposition party. The first foreign minister (1991–1993) under President Ter-Petrosyan, he came in second at the elections with 36.75% of the vote.
Hrant Bagratyan—former Armenian prime minister (1993–1996). An economist by education, he outperforms others with his long list of books. He garnered only 2.15% of the vote.
Paryir Hayrikyan—he was shot in the shoulder on his doorstep on January 31. In Soviet times, he sat in prison for no less than 11 years and the Soviet Armenian authorities exiled him for his membership in many subversive organisations and for publishing a politically unacceptable samizdat journal. In 1991, he ran for president and got the second best result after Ter-Petrosyan with 7.2% of the vote. At the 1998 presidential elections, he won the support of 5.4% of the electorate.
The rest of the candidates—four more men—had no party affiliation. Even before the elections they weren’t expected to be particularly successful and they didn’t have any significant role to play.
Nevertheless, I’ve listed them here:
Arman Melikyan also ran at the 2008 elections and got 0.27% of the vote. His election slogan was ‘Don’t remain silent’.
Andrias Ghukasyan is a political scientist who went on hunger strike on January 21 because he thought that the elections weren’t fair. He promised to starve until the withdrawal of the candidacy of the incumbent president or the departure of international election observers from Armenia. Consequently, when the OSCE mission had left, he ended his hunger strike.
Vardan Sedrakyan has previously run for parliament, though unsuccessfully. His election slogan was ‘God is the greatest’.
And last, Aram Harutyunyan, who has been an MP since 1999 and defence minister since 2007, was also going to run for president, but he withdrew his candidacy before the elections.