The Development of Grassroots Activism in Yerevan and the Role of Political Parties
By Maro Matosian
In 2009, while doing postgraduate work in Canada, Gayane Melkom-Melkomian began a civic initiative called “The City Belongs to Us” (Menk enk mer kaghaki dere). Interestingly, the initiative was based not in Canada, but in Armenia.
Gayane is the daughter of Diasporan Armenians who moved to Armenia in1991, when Gayane was only four years old. A lawyer by profession, she completed her studies in Yerevan in 2009 and moved to Canada for further training. But even while in Canada, she stayed in touch with developments in her homeland… by phone, by email, and increasingly via social media like Facebook. One day while in Canada, she became enraged at the Yerevan municipality’s disrespect toward the city’s inhabitants – especially their health, safety, and quality of life. From Canada, she got in touch with other activists in Armenia, primarily Vahram Soghomonian, a PhD in political science, and became among the first to openly defend public spaces in Yerevan with the support of citizens.
The goal of “The City Belongs to Us” is to utilize legal means and public activism to secure and protect parks, and to make accountable those who endanger public green spaces throughout the city.
The group’s first initiative took place in 2010, with the spontaneous defense of Students’ Park, adjacent to the national library. In a matter of three days, over 4000 people joined their group on Facebook and over 100 people physically joined the nascent protests on a daily basis. In the end, even though construction in the park was not halted, more than 20,000 people signed a petition protesting the city’s actions. This was an early sign that people are not indifferent to the destruction of green spaces, nor are they indifferent to the larger forces that seek to take over public spaces – often illegally.
Even though the initiative failed, it bolstered a process of civic activism that has gained real momentum in recent years. For 10-15 years following independence, there was little development of civil society, as we know it here in the West. People continued to look up at the State, as they had during the Soviet years, as the source of all good and the source of all evil in their lives. The notion that people could organize themselves – around neighborhoods, consumer rights, environment, women’s rights, and more – was slow to take hold. But take hold it did, and now we find small but growing sparks of would-be social movements dotting the Armenian political landscape. This has been furthered by the advent of social media; indeed, through Facebook and other means, young people started to get connected and share their concerns with one another. Although still a small percentage of the population, there is a growing mass of activists who engage in ongoing activities that reject the domination of Armenia’s economy and society by oligarchs who reduce all human good to making piles of money.
“The City Belongs to Us” also spearheaded the defense of Dragon’s park (Vishapi Bourag) in 2011. In this case, the city of Yerevan handed over a lush, forested park to an individual who sought to build a ten-story building amidst the park’s 3000-year-old dragon stones. Leaving aside that such a development would destroy much green space and ruin the park aesthetically, the larger issue is that this is illegal: The dragon sculptures are found in the Armenian Monuments preservation list, and thus according to law cannot be disturbed. Within a few months, activists won the right to preserve the park.
The most recent confrontation is taking place before our eyes, on Yerevan’s Mashtots Boulevard. While many activists have been busy defending Teghut forest from illegal mining, the city took advantage of the relative quiet inside Yerevan, and swiftly moved in on one of Yerevan’s centrally located parks, adjacent to the maternity hospital. Boutiques on nearby Abovian Street were quietly dismantled and without any announcement or formal decision were reassembled at Mashtots Park. Immediately, a group of concerned citizens reacted by staging sit-ins and other protest actions. For over 19 days, the defense of Mashtots Park became a very hot topic in the city and the numbers of supporters began to increase. To this day, protesters hold continuous sit-ins in the snow, blocking cement trucks from entering the park, giving interviews and press conferences as well as petitioning the government and appealing to the courts, pointing out the illegality of this project. (To this day, the municipality has not shown any proof of the legality of building shops in the green space. Instead Mayor Daron Margarian has sent policemen who now encircle the shops so the work can continue undisturbed. As of this writing, activists have been able to halt construction.)
As might be surmised, this construction project does not comply with the main urban plan of the city or with the city’s central zoning ordinances. Nor did City Hall inform the population of its plans through public hearings – again required by law. Even the required photo with the planned project has not been displayed at the site. But none of this matters: With the government utterly incapable of policing itself, the only counterbalance comes from concerned citizens willing to take a stand.
Vardan Geravetyan stated during a press conference on February 27: “This is not a struggle against anyone, but only the struggle of citizens in defense of their human rights, their right to public green spaces.” Activist Gor Hakobyan added: “Let’s not legalize an illegal act by naming these temporary boutiques. This is our right according to the RA constitution that we ask to be implemented.”
Geravetyan added that Mashtots Park today symbolizes the plight of all public spaces which are threatened by rampant overdevelopment: “The procedure is the same for all these illegal constructions: No public hearing, stealing space from courtyards, parks, sidewalks without taking into consideration public opinion – as is the case with Mashtots Park. We view this pattern as an institutionalized approach for illegal activity: Oligarchs are not solely to blame for this situation, as it has become standard operating procedure for government officials directed against Yerevan’s citizens.”
Today, the sit-ins continue at Mashtots Park, attracting more and more supporters and finding extensive coverage in the media. The public attention has had its effects, to be sure: During the peak of activity, several political parties did not lose the opportunity to use this cause for their own propaganda purposes. For example, after the sit-ins were in full swing, Dashnaktsutiun (ARF) representatives sent letters to the President and the Mayor of Yerevan requesting “ a public discussion to raise awareness of the municipality’s projects ....and to listen to the interests of individuals...” This is fine, but it would have been so much more useful if the ARF had been concerned with public spaces and environmental issues through the years, rather than simply reacting when there is public outrage. At best, their stance could be viewed as reactive or palliative. At worst, it is pure opportunism. Indeed, the more skeptical activists believe that the ARF raises such issues only to be put on record as having been on the right side. This seems to be borne out by their recent behavior: During the past week, on several days Dashnak youth – maybe 6-7 individuals – have made loud, impromptu appearances at the sit-ins, singing 19th century revolutionary songs, and then promptly leaving. One wonders what happened to the Dashnak tradition of grassroots activism (at least in Armenia).
I mention the Dashnaks first only because of the stark difference between what they say and what they do. Certainly other political forces are not far behind. For example, there is the Armenian National Congress led by Levon Ter Petrosian, which also has behaved quite opportunistically: Its leadership jumped in with a general statement of support for the young activists, but then promptly presented their political platform on environmental issues, asking all to join them, in an effort to co-opt the specific activities underway. What happened to those ANC supporters who once filled Opera Square in anti-government demonstrations? The presence of more people in the park would have undoubtedly had a greater impact, but these reinforcements were not forthcoming. The sad truth is that today, in a city of one million, many people are still disinclined to join such actions. True, things are beginning to change, but slowly…
Perhaps the one political party that has played a real part – supportive, impactful, ongoing – is the Heritage Party. Its members – both leaders and followers – are almost always in the streets together with the protesters.
I should quickly add that I understand the political situation today: With parliamentary elections only 2 months away, Armenia is in pre-election mode and therefore political parties, as everywhere, are set to score popularity points in order to garner quick political gains. But it is also time that these parties become accountable and deliver on their promises. Political parties in Armenia should be more in tune with the country’s young activists and social movements.
As was the case for “SaveTeghut”, “Real Army” and now “The City Belongs to Us,” we see civic initiatives that feature increased participation of youth. These initiatives are steadily growing into proto-social movements demanding change, the rule of law and accountability. Thus far, these are largely spontaneous groups that are formed through Facebook and other means, and are adamant not to be affiliated with any political party. They also refuse money from any organizations, in order to maintain their independence. (In general, young people in Armenia don’t like to be associated with discredited political parties and don’t want to become pawns of politicians.) This also represents a change from previous years, when NGOs often followed the money around, even if that meant watering down their mission or social vision.
Environmental activist Ruzanna Grigoryan points out: “Today we see support from many citizens joining us in the cold and on the ice for long hours and days -- coming from Vanadzor, Gyumri, Echmiadzin, and from different socio-economic, educational backgrounds... citizens of all ages. This proves that our struggle is growing and citizens are starting to demand that their rights be protected”.
Gayane Melkom-Melkomian concludes: “Even though we can’t win all the cases, I am encouraged and energized by the growing numbers of young Armenians, and also intellectuals, who take a stand on various social issues. I would also like to see Diasporan Armenians become more involved and supportive of our actions. They can write letters of protest to government officials and take a more proactive stance towards democracy-building in our country. We need to join forces and become numerous.”
 The drive to protect Yerevan’s public/green spaces has emerged over the last 6-7 years. One early effort that garnered much publicity was SOS Armenia, an NGO-driven initiative in 2005-06 that (successfully) protested the opening of cafés in the parks adjacent to the Komitas Chamber Music hall.
 See www.tert.am 2/20/2012