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Hrant Gadarigian

Yerevan’s Striking Students: A Clash of Interests and Cultures

I got a call this morning to head down to Yerevan State University to cover the third day of student protests in the Armenian capital.

When I arrived the opposing camps had already been separated by police. It was a stand-off as I perceived it.

One the one side, the activists were urging students to join the ranks. The boycott was to protest what the strikers deemed as the rigged February 18 presidential election.

The walk-out of college and university students began on Monday.

It now seems that the administrations of Yerevan State University and the nearby State University of Medicine have effectively clamped down on the mobility of students.

The strikers aren’t being allowed to approach the campuses to get their message across.

At Yerevan State University, several scuffles broke out between students on both sides of the divide. Several student “leaders” from the school called the protestors “outside agitators” who were disrupting normal school life.

A few school administrators also were on the scene, basically demanding that the activists leave.

It is apparent that the student activists have a tough road ahead of them if they plan to continue such actions.

There is a clash of cultures and interests unfolding in the streets of Yerevan today.

Had it not been for the actions of the strikers and their supporters, this underlying tension would remain hidden to the naked eye.

But it exists and reveals a true social divide in Armenia.

The strikers are in a head to head confrontation with the “culture of hegemony”, as described by Antonio Gramsci, that permeates all aspects of life in Armenia.

It is especially entrenched in Armenia’s educational institutions where the ruling regime, as embodied by the Republican Party, holds sway through a myriad of mechanisms – nepotism, intimidation, pseudo student councils, etc.

It is evident that many students inside these institutions have consciously or otherwise bought into this regime imposed worldview that has been accepted as the cultural and social norm.

The regime has created a system of beliefs, perceptions and values that are to be taken as valid. Students are exposed to them daily and are co-opted into the dominant system.

I saw the strikers being castigated as “puppets of the west” and “enemies of the Armenian people”.

While the police tried to maintain some semblance of neutrality, it was evident where their sentiments lay.

I overhead a few police officials “advising” students opposing the strikers as to tactics.

One or two of the top cops on the scene, even confessed that the strike leaders held values that contradicted the traditional beliefs of “true Armenians”.

Mention was even made of Yeghia Nersesyan, a civic activist widely known for his involvement in the Teghout and Mashtots Park protests.

The police official hinted that Nazaryan, originally from Syria, was a ring-leader who had imported “alien” values to Armenia.

This, I found most disturbing. Not only was an attempt being made to create an artificial divide amongst the students (the strikers were “bad” and those who opposed them as “good”), but there was a subtle undertone of discrimination between local and outside Armenians.

Gender is another factor that plays a role in this “culture of hegemony”. It was clearly evident at today’s events.

While I witnessed a mix of male and female   activists in the ranks of the strikers, I saw not one female in the ranks of the opposition.

It goes without saying that this dominant hegemony is patriarchal as well. The figures of authority and rule are practically all male. This male dominance in the ranks of those opposing the strikers also fits in neatly with their so-called professed cultural values regarding what the role of women should be in society.

Female students taking the bullhorn and speaking out for what they believe is a direct blow at male dominance in Armenia. It’s a fairly new phenomenon that is seen to upset the traditional perception of male and female role models.

Activists like Mariam Sukhudyan and Lena Nazaryan threaten the status-quo. Instead of encouraging more women to become active in social and political issues, the male dominated hegemony seeks to cheaply discredit them as “shameful portrayals of Armenian women”.

Just take a look at the crowds in Freedom Square in support of Raffi Hovannisian. Men outrank women by ten to one.

This equation must be addressed as well. Armenia will never progress if more than 50% of the population is disenfranchised. Unfortunately, many women in Armenia have accepted the values imposed on them by the dominant hegemony as valid and a part of life.

In the end, the dominant cultural hegemony dictates that to “protest” is bad, something alien to Armenian society.

It thus follows, that those engaged in protest are “outsiders” and “provocateurs”, trying to corrupt that idealized society.

This is the social process that is unfolding in Armenia today; whether in Freedom Square or the courtyard of Yerevan State University.