BY MARIA TITIZIAN
The generation that rallied in Liberty Square as the sun was setting on the Soviet Union, ultimately secured the liberation of a small fragment of Historic Armenia. Their resolve and tenacity was transformative for the Armenian nation. They fought and won a war that liberated Artsakh and ensured the right to self-determination for its people. That generation was instrumental in elevating the social and political consciousness of society by laying down the cornerstones of what would become a shared space, community, solidarity; they not only sought consensus they intuitively molded it. There was faith, hope and social cohesion – they sustained and navigated the nation through some of its darkest and finest hours.
The torch that was lit by the Karabakh Movement generation and which illuminated our world, after a quarter of a century of poor governance, reckless and sometimes negligent behavior by successive regimes had started to fade and was nearly extinguished. The fabric of social oneness that had propelled us to victory and had given us the vigor to survive had frayed and become tattered and threadbare. We no longer cared about one another. We had switched gears to survival mode. We identified ourselves as individualistic, of lacking the tools and characteristics needed to build community and secure cohesiveness. By having to shoulder the burden of poor policies and absence of vision, we no longer saw ourselves faithfully mirrored on the precept upon which our society was structured and we turned inward, became selfish and disengaged.
Some political parties and their leaders rode the crest of social discontent, which ushered them onto the platforms of Liberty Square. With voices rising and fists waving, they promised change and fundamental reforms, they said, “Vote for me,” “Stand by me,” “Believe in me,” “Trust me” and I shall deliver you from this misery. Their rhetoric was sometimes divisive, sometimes inspired but mostly opaque. They instilled hope and eventually failed because of their folly and vanity. While some failed because of their divisiveness and hatred, others were unsuccessful because of their lack of vision and strategy. The days of men standing on platforms in squares named after freedom promising a brighter future seem to be over. A new story is being imagined.
The youth of Armenia, tired of waiting for that elusive leader to lead them to a better place have begun to change the paradigm and are writing a new narrative. They are taking matters into their own hands, implementing mechanisms that might not see the fruition of their immediate objectives but which will surely serve as the building blocks for fundamental, institutional change in the future.
The spontaneous protests that erupted in Yerevan last week after Mayor Daron Margaryan announced a bus fare hike from 100 drams to 150 drams (a 50% increase) left many of us trying to catch our breath. The outpouring of discontent illustrated the resolve and fearlessness of a young new breed of citizen.
The children of the Karabakh Movement generation, 25 years on, returned not to the square in massive numbers like their parents but to the corners and streets of Yerevan. They were relentless and committed, they were sometimes organized, sometimes not but they were most definitely guided by a sense of ownership and most importantly, they acted as a single, living, breathing organism. They reminded us of what collective action could mean and pulled us into their imagination and made us believe again.
The 50 dram increase may seem inconsequential to the rest of the world but to the residents of Yerevan and the protesters it was about more than just a few cents. It was a 50 percent increase in transit fees with no promise of improvement or regulation in services. It was an increase that would have made using public transportation untenable for many who survive on less than a few dollars a day. It was an increase that led to week-long protests and civic actions that revealed the deep discontent and anger brewing under the surface of composed demeanor. It started out with articles and statuses written on the pages of social media, it moved to bus stops and street corners, it brought out young people and not only; it was a spontaneous yet powerful reaction to yet another measure that was deemed unfair and arbitrary.
Perhaps Mayor Daron Margaryan thought that no one would raise an eyebrow in the middle of the hot summer months when students are not in school and life slows down even more as people take their holidays. It’s likely that he didn’t calculate the explosion of protest that expressed itself in so many different ways on so many different levels. He didn’t count on well known personalities, from actors to comedians to journalists to singers finally taking a stand with the people. Their initiatives shifted the nature and depth of the protest.
It also shifted our self-awareness. People began helping one another. Strangers gave free rides to other strangers in their cars. The concept of car pooling spread like wildfire, Facebook pages were set up as were websites (freecar.am) where people offering free rides posted their schedules on line so that those who needed rides could benefit from them. Nurses set up temporary medical services in case people required them. People started handing out water bottles to the protesters stationed throughout the city at various bus stops encouraging commuters not to pay the new 150 dram bus fare but to keep on paying the old 100 dram fare. They printed out signs, handed them out, and stuck them on the windows of buses. One sign read, “You paid 100 drams? Let me give you a hug.” And they did, I was the lucky beneficiary of one of those hugs.
There was an excitement and enchantment in the city but something much more profound took place. A sense of community and solidarity was developed. Citizen helping citizen. Young helping old, old helping the young, there was encouragement and cheer and laughter and assistance. No one was leading and yet everyone was leading the charge, they were magically synchronized, there was above all else love. At the end of the day, that’s what was missing, love toward one another, love toward the city, the country, the nation…
I’ve been living here long enough to know that things aren’t going to change overnight, that there is still a long fight ahead of us, but this 100 dram movement has changed something. Henceforward, everyone from elected officials to bureaucrats knows that their every step is being watched and they will have to be accountable to the people. And those young kids, standing for hours in the heat at the different bus stops will grow up one day and they will be elected officials or bureaucrats and they will remember their protests, their demands for fairness and justice and transparency and they will be just a little more careful than the ones in power today because they will know that the next generation will be demanding accountability from them. This new breed of citizen is much more savvy and knowledgeable about the world than their parents were. They know how to employ methods and mechanisms to ensure some measure of transparency and accountability and boy are they good at it.
We are slowly and painfully building the foundations of civil society and good governance, we are gradually elevating the collective social consciousness, and in the process we are re-inventing the responsible and engaged citizen.
It is an exciting time in Yerevan as the young protesters continue their pressure on officials at City Hall. The generation that led the Karabakh Movement should be very proud of their children who have reignited the torch they first lit, who may not be liberating the lands of Historic Armenia but who are playing an integral role in the process of nation-building.