The euphoria is gone, but not the hope.
Joshua Kucera -eurasianet
On May 8, 2018, Nikol Pashinyan was elected prime minister of Armenia, capping off his meteoric rise from backbencher MP to protest leader to the highest office in the country. Armenia had had a difficult 27 years since gaining independence from the Soviet Union and the “Velvet Revolution,” as Pashinyan calls it, gave Armenians a rare occasion for optimism.
One year on, we surveyed Armenians to hear how their lives had changed since then, their assessments of Pashinyan and the new government, and their hopes and fears for the “new Armenia.” The euphoria of one year ago is gone, and doubts about the pace of change are widespread. But even those who have seen little change in their own lives or in Armenia as a whole still see reason for hope.
“He was an activist, now he’s a guy in a suit and a tie.”
When protests erupted in Yerevan last year, Rudolf Kalousdian, a French-born diaspora Armenian, didn’t take part. “I’m not into politics myself, I’m a very neutral person,” he said. “I don’t really believe in a good politician.” As the protests gained steam, though, he changed his mind. “When I saw how the people were really all together for all that stuff, I decided to join too.”
Kalousdian, 36, is a tattooed rocker who operates a chain of popular bars in Yerevan, and he sees the new government through the eyes of a small businessman. The taxes and license fees he pays have gone up in the last year, and while the government has proposed a new plan that would eliminate taxes on small businesses, Kalousdian worries that his revenues may be too high to qualify for the break. “I pay in tax what I pay in rent. It doesn’t make sense – taxes are very, very high,” he said.
But the corruption that used to plague small businesses is gone, he says: “It’s good that we’re working more like Western countries now, everything is in order. Nothing is hidden. Back in the day it used to be a lot of bribery to get things faster. Now it’s not like that, you can’t bribe.” And he’s seen his fellow business owners change their mentalities along with it. “The people who were willing to do a lot of under-the-table stuff, they’re willing to change, they’re willing to integrate into the new Armenia,” he said.
Still, he’s worried about whether things are changing fast enough. He applied for a license to keep one of his bars open past midnight, and still hasn’t gotten it. Under the old government, police raided him and shut him down for operating past midnight, and he worries that could still happen. “But does Pashinyan know about this stuff? I don’t think so.”
Like most other Armenians, he resented the former regime for its corruption. “It wasn’t a real political party, it was a mob, they just wanted to steal a lot of money. Pashinyan won because people were fed up with this stuff.” Now the new government has “a lot of young people, people with open minds,” he said. “It’s not going to be the same 55-year-old guys with the big stomachs, who drink and eat kebabs all day and don’t even know how to write a letter.”
He’s seen a change in the mood of his friends and customers toward Pashinyan over the past year. “It’s not like it was before; before he was a hero, he was a god in this city,” he said. Now, “you see a lot of memes making fun of him online. It’s not bad stuff, but people are making fun of the guy,” he said. “He was an activist, now he’s a guy in a suit and a tie. That’s the difference.”
“I mean, he’s still better than anyone else,” he added. “If I had to choose, I’d choose this guy.”
“They need to act now, and they’re very slow.”
Last year, Gevorg Kaas was 21 and in drama school in Yerevan. His dreams of becoming a film director were dying and he was getting ready to drop out and move abroad. “There was no hope for a new life, to change the country, for justice,” he says. “The education system and everything else in Armenia was corrupted, and for someone like me, who wanted to do art, there was no hope that any sort of door would open.”
Then came the protests against Sargsyan, and he decided to go back to his hometown, Gyumri, and help organize the protests there. When they succeeded and the new government came to power, he changed his plans. “The revolution created hope, so I decided to stay here,” he says. He moved back permanently to Gyumri, changed schools (he’s now studying psychology) and started an NGO called Restart. “I felt a responsibility to do what I can to change the whole system in Armenia because the government can’t do everything.”
He says he had no illusions about change coming quickly: “I knew it would take five years, minimum, for the sick, rotten system that had developed since the fall of the Soviet Union, to be destroyed and to create a new one that would make a new Armenia.”
But over the past year, he’s become more pessimistic. He’s seen Pashinyan delay an aggressive prosecution of corrupt former officials – “a year has passed, and almost no one is in prison” – and take on a team of largely inexperienced young people. “I know that with time they’re gaining experience, but people can’t wait,” he says. “That inexperience is pushing the new Armenia even further away. Now I think it will be 10 years, 15 years.”
As a result, he worries that many Armenians, especially older ones, are falling prey to negative narratives about the revolution: “They say nothing has changed. I say it’s changing, but very slowly.”
“I’m worried that in a year, in two years, Pashinyan and his team won’t be as popular as they are now,” he adds. “And if something can be changed, it needs to happen now, because in one or two years it’s going to be too difficult. New political forces are going to appear, people’s opinions will change, Pashinyan will lose his popularity. They need to act now and they’re very slow.”
“You can dig and dig and dig and find another problem and another problem.”
A year ago, Arevik Anapiosyan was doing a six-week fellowship in Washington, D.C. The head of an education policy think tank, she wasn’t directly involved in politics but was friends and colleagues with many of the people who organized the protests. She returned to Yerevan on May 13, and two hours after she landed, she was offered a job as deputy minister of education. “I wasn’t even given any time to think, there was an urgency, ‘we need you here,’” she says.
She took the job, becoming one of many young, Western-educated liberals who now occupy senior positions in the government, trying to implement the broad vision of a new Armenia in their particular fields. Under the previous government, Anapiosyan says, “it was about having a good quality education for a few. What we want, and it will require a systemic change, is to have quality education for all.”
Having worked in education in Armenia for 10 years, including regular close work with the ministry, “I thought I pretty much knew what the problems were and how they should be solved,” she says. “And then I came to the ministry and I found that it is endless. You can dig and dig and dig and find another problem and another problem, and you never get to the root of the problems. I think I never knew that the state bureaucracy could be this slow, and that to solve the systemic problem, it’s going to take me longer than I anticipated.”
She says she sees that, from the euphoric days immediately after the new government came to power, many Armenians’ sky-high expectations haven’t been met. “The level of enthusiasm has decreased in the public, and I understand,” Anapiosyan says. “Especially in the field of education, to have any changes it takes years, decades. And we need to have those fundamental, strategic changes along with some small, quick gains that the public can see.”
Some of those quick fixes will be popular: The government has already allocated money to boost preschool enrollment, with a target for 70 percent of children attending preschool within three years. The government also is working on improving vocational education to better meet the needs of employers, and working toward an American-style higher education system that combines research with teaching.
But other reforms won’t go over as well: There are about 35,000 teachers employed in the country, and only 25,000 are needed. The ministry is now working out a testing program to measure teachers’ competencies, and will get rid of the ones who don’t meet the benchmarks. That process will start in September, and “we’ll start letting people go in 2021,” she says. “We’re going to be very unpopular among these families.”
She believes it will bear fruit, though, and eventually “we can change the system itself to serve the vision of the country that we want to have in 10, 15, 20 years.”
“The most important thing is that he thinks only about citizens, our people.”
In the Soviet days, Albert Madatyan was the head of the collective farm in Berkaber, a village in northeastern Armenia famous for its fruit. “Under the Soviet Union this was a beautiful village,” he said. “Everyone knew us for our orchards – apricots, peaches, pomegranates, watermelons. Everyone had work, we were always busy.”
Now 72, he socializes with other retired men on a bench on the village’s dusty central square. He laments the decline that the village, along with the rest of Armenia, sunk into after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the war with neighboring Azerbaijan. But with the new government, he finally has hope again.
“We were tired of the old leadership, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It’s been almost 25, 30 years. They just took, cheated, got rich,” he says. So when the protests began last year in Yerevan, then spread to other towns – including Ijevan, the regional capital here and Pashinyan’s home town – people in Berkaber joined in. “We have a small village, but people went to Ijevan and Yerevan to take part in protests,” he says. “All the young people, all of them, went.”
Madatyan, like many others in this village distant from Yerevan and its politics, has trouble recalling Pashinyan’s name at first – “our new, what’s his name…” – before being reminded by a younger local. But the new prime minister is nevertheless a hero. “The first person to really do something [since the fall of the Soviet Union] was our local guy, Pashinyan,” he says.
Berkaber has seen some concrete benefits already: Farmers are buying livestock using a new government-subsidized loan program. The new authorities “pay a lot of attention to agriculture,” Madatyan says.
More generally, the spirit in the village has lifted. “The mood has gotten better,” he says. “People started to trust the government … People now believe that our future will be good, that things will get better.”
“The most important thing is that [Pashinyan] thinks only about citizens, our people. He understands that corruption is a dangerous thing, he wants to eliminate it. Whether he will succeed, we’ll see. I think he will,” Madatyan says. “He’s a fair, principled man, and the most important thing – he’s smart. He’ll figure it out.”
“People don’t have work, there’s nothing for them to do.”
Ara Khazaryan, 49, is a construction worker by trade, but hasn’t held a proper job since 2003. Instead, he works as an informal taxi driver in his beat-up white Volga. With a smattering of English he offers “mini-tours” around Gyumri, Armenia’s second city, but can’t go further afield. “I have an old car, so I have to stay in the city.” Business is slow, and a sign in the back window of the Volga offers it for sale for $1,000.
When his home was destroyed in the massive earthquake that hit the area in 1988, he says corrupt officials demanded bribes for permits to rebuild it and then stole the land out from under him. “We had lived there for half a century!” But he’s seen a decrease in corruption over the last year. “There are a lot of changes,” he says. “The police already behave better toward people. Officials are afraid to take bribes.”
But the biggest problem in Gyumri – that there is no work – remains. “We need to restore industry here. The worst thing here is that there are no factories, industry doesn’t work. And people don’t have work, there’s nothing for them to do. That’s what they need to do. We’re hoping.”
He also worries about Armenia’s precarious international situation, in particular its difficult relations with Russia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey. The border with Turkey runs just next to Gyumri, but it has been closed since 1993 as a result of the war with Azerbaijan. “We’re surrounded by neighbors who don’t share our religion; there is animosity. And all the roads are closed. And we can’t resolve that issue, that has to be resolved in the international arena. Pashinyan can’t do anything about that.”
“The main thing is that people have become a little freer, they trust the government and that’s already good,” he says. “Give Armenians the possibility and they can do anything.”
“If you talk about something all the time, and now you have the opportunity to do something, you have to do it.”
A year ago, Arsen Karapetyan was an architect and urban development activist with a popular, opinionated Facebook page. But he wasn’t in politics himself. “I think people in arts or architecture have to be in opposition to any kind of government,” he says.
“Before, it wasn’t so terrible to be in Armenia – it wasn’t North Korea,” he says. “But I like change, and for a long time I didn’t feel like anything was changing.”
And then the changes in Armenia spread to the municipal government in Yerevan, and he was invited to join the city council. “It’s more that I have to do it, than want to,” he says. “If you talk about something all the time, and now you have the opportunity to do something, you have to do it.”
He is especially active in urban planning, and trying to eradicate the corruption that plagued Yerevan. “Corruption is a system, and it was working. It’s a way to solve problems, to manage the city. It was clear to investors – you come, you pay, you get your papers. Now we’re trying to do it more transparently and without corruption,” he says. “It was like a pyramid, but now it’s more horizontal and that makes it more difficult. But it’s the way it has to be done.”
He sees himself in government only for a short time. “I want to do something, and then leave. But I want to have some results first,” he says. In the new Armenia, “it’s not that I have found everything I wanted, absolutely not. But now I don’t see any problem to change it again. Now in a more organic way – without protests, without crowds, just to go to the election and elect another prime minister.”
Joshua Kucera is the Turkey/Caucasus editor at Eurasianet, and author of The Bug Pit.