By Aram Arkun
BELMONT, Mass. — On October 13, Hayk Demoyan delivered a lecture ominously entitled “The End of the Third Republic? Or, What to Expect for Armenia’s Future” at the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) in Belmont, as part of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation Lecture Series on Contemporary Armenian Issues. The title did not mislead, as Demoyan delivered what might be considered a “wake-up call” for the diaspora.
Demoyan has been director of the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute in Yerevan since 2006, and from 2011 to 2015 served as the secretary of the State Commission on Coordination of the Events Dedicated to the Commemoration of the 100th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. He is the author of twelve books on topics ranging from aspects of the Armenian Genocide to Armenian sports in the Ottoman Empire.
Demoyan is a public figure in Armenia who, although sometimes associated with the political establishment because of the positions he has held, has not been a stranger to controversy. He presented himself at NAASR on a more basic level, saying, “I am not going to provoke anything. I am a scholar and I am a citizen. I feel myself obliged to share with you some thoughts and anxieties as a person, an Armenian, from Armenia.” He declared that he is not and has never been a member of any political party.
Demoyan identified himself as an eyewitness and survivor of the cataclysms and changes of the past 25 years of Armenian independence, and he showed 25 photographs in slides accompanying his talk to remind the audience just what the people in Armenia have passed through. In other words, the quarter-century anniversary of the Republic of Armenia should serve not only as a festive occasion but an opportunity to examine the challenges and threats facing Armenia’s future.
He proceeded to present several issues, both internally and externally, which are threats to the existence of the Republic of Armenia. In foreign policy, the relationship with Russia is fraught with problems. The decision of Armenia to join the Eurasian Economic Union in September 2013 and give up serious efforts at integration into the European Union was problematic, he said. Demoyan called this Russian-dominated environment “USSR 2.0.”
The unprecedented escalation in hostilities which led to the April War this year with Azerbaijan, Demoyan observed, triggered renewed discussion over the value to Armenia of its strategic relationship with Russia. Many Armenians wondered how Russia could sell arms to Azerbaijan which were then used to kill Armenians. This in turn domestically contributed to a deepening gap between Armenian society and government, which, Demoyan said, was “truly disturbing.”
A further complication or challenge is an attempt to frame the Soviet legacy in a positive manner. In Russia this is evident in bookshops which have whole shelves of expensively-printed volumes praising Stalin, Beria and Lenin, he said. Armenia to a degree is part of a joint cultural “space” with Russia and there are similar efforts to rebuild Soviet memories there, but this phenomenon is dangerous. Demoyan exclaimed that you cannot — after 25 years — restore what was broken apart. An attempt to do this without the necessary resources would lead to a new tragedy, he added.
Demoyan gave one example of his opposition to the creation of a statue honoring Anastas Mikoyan, the Armenia-born former chairman of the Supreme Soviet. Mikoyan, he explained, was involved in mass purges of Polish officers as well as Armenian officials regarded as suspect by the USSR.
Relations with another one of Armenia’s hostile neighbors, Turkey, remains stuck in a quagmire. Despite Armenia’s signing the Protocols with Turkey, the border between these two countries remains closed without effective efforts by Russia, the US or Europe to change this situation, which constitutes a semi-blockade for Armenia. Whether Russian-Turkish relations are tense or friendly, he noted, the Turkish-Armenian border remains closed.
The destruction in Syria today and the consequent flow of Syrian-Armenian refugees to Armenia poses another problem for Armenia.
Domestically, Demoyan feels that after Armenia voted for a parliamentary system of government last December, the forthcoming April parliamentary elections will be “a crucial landmark date for Armenians and for all of us—this is the fate of the Republic that we will secure for future years.”
He said that the armed attack and hostage situation by the fringe political group Sasna Tsrer (The Daredevils of Sasoon) for two weeks over the summer was part of “new disturbing developments.” He noted that the majority was protesting and sided, actively or passively, with the attackers though their actions were illegal and resulted in fatalities. He concluded that “if former combatants will try to solve issues in Armenia, this will be just starting the end of statehood.”
The gap between the government and society is really dangerous, Demoyan said, as the government remains silent. Its only means of communication with the people is the police.
Demoyan openly declared that government corruption is rampant, but he said that “a little hope” exists with the new government and its appointments. Yet there are still some of the same people remaining in government. Aside from corruption, Demoyan pointed out that the external debt is huge and the economic situation is “very, very serious.”
The most serious threat facing Armenia, according to Demoyan, is the depopulation of Armenia through emigration. He said that nearly one and a half million Armenians have left already, and if the economic situation is not ameliorated, this could trigger new emigration and endanger the existence of the country.
Demoyan said that the main weapon in Armenia’s hands is its human resources, which are now leaving the country. Secondly, Armenia must be strong internally. Demoyan once told the Armenian president that the problem with Azerbaijan cannot be solved with more or better weapons. The only way is for Armenia to become a more democratic state, respecting human rights and with rule of law leaving no room for corruption. This will make it a more powerful country than authoritarian and corrupt Azerbaijan, he said. One hope for the future is a new generation of Armenian decision makers, but it is not clear how they will overcome the entrenched present system and come to power, he added.
Demoyan concluded by examining what the diaspora can do. The situation in Armenia was important for Armenians living in the republic as well as those abroad. He said that recent efforts of several individuals to criticize with public letters or petitions were not sufficient. The diaspora should be a form of leverage or a factor in triggering change in a positive direction in Armenia. He stressed that involvement is necessary to help create change, but not efforts to control. In other words, agendas from the US or Russia should not be imported.
One way, Demoyan said, would be by involving diasporan structures in Armenia through a permanent pan-Armenian commission as the successor to the Armenian Genocide centennial commission.
Demoyan elaborated on his ideas during the extensive and freewheeling question-and-answer session. He pointed out that there was no serious political opposition in Armenia, but for the most part temporary opposition figures who disappear after the elections. He said, with his typical humor, that “we don’t want people sitting in parliament with nicknames.” Those with nicknames are usually criminal or Mafia-type figures. If these people are reelected next year, this will be a big problem, he said.
He added that election fraud is a common occurance. He feared greater violence if the upcoming elections were seen as fixed and unfair as the preceding ones.
Corruption, he told another questioner, emanates not just from the Soviet legacy, or the influence of former Karabagh combatants. A lack of official punishment for misdeeds is combined with tolerance or acceptance in common society, Demoyan said. Demoyan declared that he did not want to either target or praise the government, but rather to show directions which could help resolve the situation as well as prevent violence.
The audience generally responded in a sympathetic manner to Demoyan’s talk. Some praised his openness. A few gave positive examples of change in Armenia, but most seemed pessimistic about the possibility for change. A handful called for drastic action. One suggested total withdrawal of diasporan support to Armenia until the government changes, while another felt that armed violence was necessary to carry out a revolution, including the assassination of Armenian “traitors” as in Operation Nemesis after the Armenian Genocide.
After answering many audience questions, Demoyan made a final statement: “I am here to give a bold and serious message…for all of us. I am one of you. I am not an extraordinary person who can identify or make historical predictions. That is not my task. … But I feel I fulfilled one minimum obligatory task. I raised the issues, I broke the silence. … We have to raise our voices, at the least, and then to act.”
He concluded, “We have to draw this roadmap for bringing Armenia back from that swamp that we are now in after 25 years. If not, the final result will unfortunately be predictable. We can lose our state. This is not an exaggeration…. All the possibilities are in our hands, individually or on a group level.”