By Edmond Y. Azadian
As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the independence of the Third Republic of Armenia, we cannot shake off the somber sentiments and concerns that mirror those that shaped the mood at the threshold of the First Republic in 1918.
The First Republic rose to independence following the Armenian victory at Sardarabad. Despite that decisive victory against the much more powerful Ottoman army, the achievement of sovereignty seemed so tenuous that the last prime minister of the First Republic, Simon Vratzian wrote: “Armenian people were crying like a mother who had given birth to a sick child,” (Republic of Armenia).
Similarly, the emergence of the Third Republic in 1991 almost coincided with the victory at Karabagh; however, Armenians have yet to celebrate that victory properly, because the Karabagh issue has remained tangled up in the web of regional and world power rivalries.
One positive outcome of the Karabagh war which was forced on Armenia was the formation of a professional army, out of ragtag volunteer fighters. Today, the Armenian army commands respect as the most effective fighting force in the region.
The independence also came to redefine patriotism for Armenia and the diaspora. During the Soviet regime, Armenians were never allowed to demonstrate ethnic pride; nationalism went against the federal Soviet mindset. To oppose it meant incarceration or death. Instead, Soviet internationalism was glorified and, for a while, that drive for unity was so effective that Stalin was able to coalesce the forces of all these varied nationalities into a victorious force against the awesome Nazi war machine.
But with the collapse of the Soviet empire, that patriotic internationalism splintered into pieces. That is why so many unresolved ethnic conflicts emerged and patriotism turned into a hollow slogan.
A case in point was the abuses that followed the earthquake in Armenia, when the country was still in the throes of its metaphorical labor pains. A minister, named Yessaye Stepanian, swindled $1 million in aid money and fled to Bulgaria. That money was destined to save thousands of victims from dire cold and punishing poverty. It was blood money. Since stealing from the government had become the norm in the Soviet era, it degenerated the concept of patriotism to such an extent that theft, even when it might have meant death for another, was committed.
Raising that concept of stealing state property on a collective level, the first generation of the rulers of the independent republic deconstructed the manufacturing infrastructure of the country, which had taken 70 years to develop. They gifted whole enterprises or entities to their cronies under the guise of privatization.
Many opportunists dismantled those factories, sold them as scrap metal in Turkey and Iran and transferred their capital to foreign countries. Armenia suffered a double loss: its industry collapsed and its capital was robbed.
Armenia has never recovered from the self-inflicted destruction committed with zeal at the onset of the republic’s third incarnation.
Diasporan Armenians had completely the reverse image of patriotism; Armenia and Armenians were so idealized that they could do no wrong. An extreme example of patriotism — or worship from afar — was demonstrated by a Mekhitarist luminary, Very Rev. Ghevond Alishan, a poet and a scholar who had never seen Armenia yet he knew every inch of its historic territory. It is said that when Alishan met any traveler who had been in Armenia, he would kneel down and kiss the dust of his shoes.
Therefore, Armenians in the diaspora who had idealized Armenia to such a degree had a rude awakening when the walls fell and they found out the population in Armenia was also composed of human beings, with all the attributes and flaws of humanity and perhaps even a little more corrupt because of their suffering under the Soviet regime. That is why all diaspora business investments which were brought to Armenia with all good intentions failed.
The Soviet-era heritage was a mixed bag. Under freedom and independence, the nefarious trends survived and thrived while its edifying traditions were neglected. Corruption, bribery and nepotism continued and were exercised on a larger scale. The Soviet educational system, with all its handicaps, was superb; culture, music, literature, science and technology, which had seen their golden age during the Soviet period, were no longer priorities in the new society. Market forces were assigned to evaluate the social life of the citizenry.
There is another lopsided and ironic concept of patriotism, too. The youth will fight and die for the homeland, but when back home, they do not care much about that very same homeland. Another example: Every Armenian family takes meticulous care of the interior of its home. Yet when members of a family leave the entrance of their house, they are not concerned with the exterior of their homes. Cleaning the steps or picking up litter outside their building is someone else’s responsibility. During the Soviet period, there was something called “Shapatoriak,” or Saturdays when the students cleaned their school buildings, factory workers their own factories and yet others cleaned parks and recreational areas, all to help the state. That concept is all but abandoned and that civic spirit is as much a measure of patriotism as fighting the enemy to defend the homeland.
Today’s independent Armenia is a six-centuries-old dream come true. But are we able to conceptualize, as a nation, that this opportunity can leave us should we lose this hard-fought achievement?
In the last 25 years, Armenia has experienced economic decline and depopulation.
During the first year of independence, people entertained hope in the cold, darkness and misery. But as the conditions improved, expectations rose and the depopulation increased.
The prominent writer Vardges Petrossian, who was assassinated mysteriously, once wrote: “Your homeland is not a hotel that you can pack up and move if you don’t like your neighbor.” Had he been alive, he would have witnessed how Armenia’s population has been disproving his adage these days.
Armenia is located at one of the hot spots of the world. Many of its problems are sometimes thrust upon her, yet Armenians are not in the habit of taking responsibility for their own plight.
Twenty-five years is time enough to take a good assessment of our life during independence.
People always bet on the youth; they want to see that generations replace other generations, so that more effective ways of governance may emerge. Despite all the problems, Armenia is still producing world-class musicians, artists and sportsmen. The youth can no longer tolerate Soviet-era rule. The restless indications are there, signals are being issued that change is imminent. If and when those signals are heeded in a timely fashion, we may have fair and democratic elections, a fairer way of wealth distribution, education without bribes, an army equipped with state-of-the-art weaponry and a diaspora with a more realistic approach to Armenia. It takes more effort to maintain independence than to declare it.
As we celebrate 25 years of independence in a somber mood, let us take stock of our past failures and victories and hope that lessons will be learned in time to correct Armenia’s tortuous course before it is too late.