WASHINGTON — Varazdat Avoyan joined the Armenian Democratic Liberal Party (ADL) in 1991, and soon became one of its most prominent leaders in the Armenian parliament. A native son of Shirak province, he personally suffered a tragic loss during the 1988 earthquake in Armenia. Afterwards he dedicated much of his life to remedying the destruction in his native region.
Avoyan was born in Medz Sariar village of Shirak province, Armenia, in 1947. He graduated from the Mikayel Nalbandian Pedagogical Institute of Gumri (called Leninakan in the Soviet period) in 1969, specializing in teaching and psychology. From 1970, he worked as a journalist, secretary of the Communist Youth League of the Pedagogical Institute, agent of the City Committee of the Communist Party and director of the Gumri city council’s culture department. He rose high in the political system in Gumri, which is the second largest city in Armenia. One of its major sections is called Moskovyan. From 1985 to 1990 Avoyan served as the Second and then the First Secretary of the Moskovyan District Committee of the Armenian Communist Party.
In 1988 he lost his wife to the terrible earthquake of December 7, and henceforth raised his sole daughter alone. Avoyan said during a recent visit to Washington, DC that “the events of the 1980s and our most important movement, the Karabagh movement, brought a new spirit to our national ideology. At the same time, the main figures in the former order shared the common concern that during the general collapse of the Soviet Union Armenia should not fall underneath the rubble. Very careful and precise policies were necessary to get Armenia safely through this period, and generally this was accomplished.”
During elections to the Supreme Soviet of the Republic of Armenia in 1990, which was to become the first parliament of an independent Armenian republic, Avoyan’s candidacy was proposed by his colleagues. He won a seat from Gumri’s Veratsnund (“Renaissance”) 91st Electoral District. Avoyan was one of the first parliament deputies to join the ADL once it became an officially registered political party.
Avoyan explained that he learned about the “traditional” Armenian political parties of Western Armenia initially through his father and grandfather. His family immigrated from Kars after the Russo-Turkish war of 1829. He learned about Armenian self-defense in Van and elsewhere during 1915, during which the Armenagans, called Constitutional Democrats at that time, played an important role. Unofficially teachers even in schools during the Soviet period cautiously told their students about such historic events. Repatriates to Soviet Armenia, especially after World War II, provided more information, as did some writers and intellectuals like Karlen Dallakyan, who sympathized with the ADL to an extent even in the Soviet period.
Once it was possible to freely discuss politics in the Armenian parliament, factions formed. former Writers Union of Armenia president Vardges Petrosyan and Avoyan took their oaths to join the ADL together. The ADL faction in parliament soon had 10 representatives, and at its peak, Avoyan said, it reached a number of 18 deputies. Avoyan declared: “In about one year, the ADL became the second most important political force in the first parliament. It was active in the economic, political and social fields. This was the successful period of the ADL. It had of course behind it 130 years of experience.” He said, “The ADL’s ideology is that Armenia should be a free country, with a free market, free economy, and individual rights.”
Avoyan soon became a member of the Standing Committee on Foreign Relations of the Supreme Soviet of the Republic of Armenia, while Armenia was charting its course of independence. Among other things, in this capacity, he accompanied the president of Armenia during his first visit to Syria in 1991. He represented the ADL too, and said, “I was proud that Diaspora Armenians in Syria received the deputies and the president of Armenia with great enthusiasm. We had meetings with Ramgavars there, and in Egypt and Beirut. I appeared as the representative of our state and gave information on conditions in Armenia and how to strengthen our ties.”
In 1992, Avoyan was elected as secretary of the parliament, still called the Supreme Soviet, and served in this high position until 1995, which marked the close of the first parliamentary session. Avoyan said, “In the first parliament, we had to make laws to run society…The ADL had a serious influence during discussions and the preparation of specific laws which dealt with economy and freedoms or rights. We, the ADL, prepared drafts of certain laws ourselves. Also as a party, we were in relations with political parties with liberal ideology in different parts of the world, and participated in various assemblies on parliamentary progress.”
Avoyan was reelected to the second session (when the elected body was renamed as the National Assembly), which ended in 1999. During this second session, Avoyan was the only ADL representative in parliament. The reason, he said, was that “unfortunately, due to internal dissensions and external interventions, the party split apart, and slowly lost its authority.” He rejoined the Committee on Foreign Relations.
In 1998, Avoyan left parliament and worked for the Armenian state, administering programs to improve Yerevan’s water distribution system until 2012. For example, he was manager of the World Bank funded Municipal Development Project’s Project Management Unit.
He continued to be a member of the ADL, and today is a member of the central executive committee of the ADL of the Republic of Armenia. Efforts to reassemble and revitalize the party there led five years ago to a convention which united the Armenakan and Ramgavar Azatakan parties in Armenia. In October 2015, the 23rd representative assembly of the ADL of Armenia, the second after the reform of the party, was held in order to clarify its goals for the future. Avoyan was elected as chairman of the assembly. Members of the ADL from the diaspora were present and gave advice. The party is preparing to participate actively in local elections of government bodies, with the goal of winning positions in the 2017 parliamentary elections, according to Avoyan.
He said, “Our success depends on several factors necessary to strengthen the party in Armenia.” The party must organize events and participate in elections. He said it is important for all parts of the party to work in unison. For this reason, he exhorted the ranks of the party to unite, both in Armenia and abroad, and focus on Armenia, increasing its membership. He said, “I believe we are facing new realities, and the party that correctly preaches these realities will be the one to achieve success.”
Avoyan said that the ADL stands at the side of the state and homeland, though not necessarily the authorities in power. In general, for this reason, it approves of the foreign policy of the state, and supports it domestically and in the diaspora, though it might express some concerns periodically. When constitutional reforms were proposed, the party, he said, was concerned in particular with provisions which might affect the security of the country, such as the appointment of the commander during wartime. This led to changes being adopted in the reforms. Avoyan was part of an ADL delegation to meet with Armenian President Serge Sargisian to discuss the reforms on September 17, 2015.
In the sphere of the domestic economy, Avoyan said, “the reality is that we cannot say that economic relations in Armenia are truly free. Monopoly strangles small businesses. Personal interest is given preference to equality among all economically. The defense of the law, the middle class and small businesses must be implemented in the Republic of Armenia without obstruction.” The ADL, he said, must always voice this concern loudly. He said, “This is one of our most important issues. We must pursue this as a political force, even if marginalized.”
Avoyan declared, “If the other political parties in Armenia are largely run based on individuals, the ADL, in my opinion, must be intellectual, with its leaders enjoying great authority because of their abilities. It had such leaders in the early period in the present Republic.”
The party’s ideology is particularly important now, he said, since in general parties without ideology are dominant in Armenia. Avoyan said, “Liberal ideology was difficult to accept in newly independent Armenia since the psychological influence of the former social order created many difficulties for the ideology of the free market. All parties resorted to socialist methods to solve social problems, but the ADL did not retreat in its views. At present, 25 years have passed and a new generation exists in Armenia. This is the right time now to preach liberal ideas.” The ADL needs to expand its reach further through television, internet and the press.
In general, Avoyan said, a very complicated socioeconomic situation exists now in Armenia, with little economic progress. The blockade is a major problem. It is difficult to trade with outside markets, like Europe, while the Eurasian Economic Union is newly formed. Armenia’s customs and laws cause difficulties for trade, and, Avoyan continued, monopolies and corruption do not allow for increasing prosperity. Unemployment is very high — at least 30 percent in general, and 40-45 per cent in Gumri. Supporting the defense of Artsakh, he said, is important for Armenia’s safety, but also affects the economy.
Beginning in 2012, after leaving his state job, Avoyan turned his undivided attention to the problems of Shirak province. He was elected that year as president of the Shirak Compatriotic Association (SCA).
This nonprofit organization was founded in November 2000, with member of the Armenian and Russian Academies of Science Sergei Hambardzumyan serving as its first president. It formed over 10 commissions and soon over 1,000 people joined. Avdoyan declared, “We speak about the issues and concerns of the people of Shirak. New types of compatriotic unions can try to unite all the people from one region, like the Western Armenian ones did in the past. We want to involve our compatriots.”
The organization’s goal is to revive industry and commerce in Shirak province and its capital of the city of Gumri, as well as to better organize agricultural production and in general improve the socioeconomic state of the population. Several decades after the 1988 earthquake, Shirak still has a very high level of unemployment, homelessness, and poverty, with poor health and continuing emigration as consequences. The local government does not have the means to deal with these issues on its own.
Emigration has led to Shirak Armenians being scattered across the globe, from the United States to Europe and Russia. Avoyan declared to those who have left Shirak, “If you leave your homeland or your birthplace, you do not have the right to forget it. Financial aid is not the main goal. It is not to collect money, as the diaspora is not just a ‘bag of money’. If you have the ability to help your birthplace’s school, help it. If you can help your compatriots, do it. If you can’t, then once a year, have your child, or somebody else, come visit the homeland and in this way make it stronger. I ask for all people originally from Shirak to do this.”
He felt that the perception of a sad or desperate situation existing in Armenia today is wrong. He wanted diasporan Armenians to know, he said, that “Armenia is living. Despite all difficulties healthy forces are so great that they will slowly strengthen the homeland. We should be optimistic. I am the first proponent of criticizing, but this must be done in conjunction with participation in the development of your country.”
The SCA coordinates with Shirak emigres who donate supplies for the needy from abroad. It sponsors cultural events in Shirak, and is supporting the preparation of a CD of the famous minstrel of Gumri, Sheram (Grigor Talian). It has a Facebook page and other media outlets. It has prominent members throughout the world. In California, for example, they include the translator and literary critic Maro Madoyan-Alajajian and Saro Gyodakyan, the editor of Hamaynapatker magazine.
The SCA has prepared plans for the economic revitalization of Shirak and presented them to the central government periodically. In July 2014, for example, its delegation, including Avoyan, met with Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamyan for this purpose. It has participated in meetings with various international organizations and banks, and sent open letters to the government to call its attention to the crisis in Gumri and the province in general.
Most recently, upon the initiative of Gumri’s mayor, Samvel Balasanyan, a special meeting was held on February 11 to initiate a new effort called “Gumri without Shacks.” Bishop Mikayel Ajapahian, Primate of the Diocese of Shirak of the Church of Armenia, was unanimously elected president of its board of trustees, which include a core of 21 journalists, artists and political leaders. The goal of the movement is to help those families still living in shacks, or “domiks,” which were created as temporary housing after the 1988 earthquake, as well as the homeless. Avoyan estimates some 1000 families are completely without shelter. In addition, according to Balasanyan, over 3,500 shacks are still being used. SCA is a supporter of this effort.
Avoyan said that, “As SCA president, and as a leader of the ADL, I urge Armenians to support this worthy effort. Not only compatriots from Shirak throughout the world, but philanthropic organizations, Armenian political organizations like the ADL, and the broader Armenian public can help remedy this longstanding problem and improve people’s lives.” Avoyan also encouraged outside investment for profit in the Shirak plain.