A New Armenia: “We Either Use This Opportunity or Lose Everything”
9 December, 2018

- The prime minister has resigned!

- What? Seriously?

- Watch the news!

Nobody expected big changes in the government on April 23. In the office of Article 3, a Yerevan-based human rights organization, it was just another day. Until activists burst into the hall with joyful shouts: Serzh Sargsyan is no longer the prime minister of Armenia!

“After that, the conversation did not go on for much longer, of course. We all ran out and started celebrating,” recalls activist Maria Abrahamyan. For her, like other Article 3 activists, the news about the victory was particularly important. Indeed, while the main actions of the Armenian Velvet Revolution were unfolding in the streets, activists worked tirelessly behind the scenes.

“During the revolution, our office was one of the main meeting places for community activists. It was a headquarters in a way,” says Abrahamyan. She explains that the organization was named after the Article 3 of the Armenian Constitution.

“In Armenia, a person has ultimate value. And human dignity is the inalienable foundation of his rights and freedoms,” she vaguely quotes the article. “We are trying to spread these values. This is the core of our organization.”

READ MORE: A New Armenia: How The Country Endures Through War and Unrest

Article 3 was founded two years ago. Its activists are mainly engaged in human rights activities, and their office is open so anyone can come. Here you can use the internet, work, drink tea and coffee, and if you want – hold your own event.

“Here, we work in this ‘prison cell,’” Abrahamyan jokes. “There is a problem with overcrowding in Armenian prisons, so we laugh that this is like one of those cells. We offer the entire office to the public, while we ourselves work in this closet, with laptops on our knees.”

“What didn’t we do during the revolution! We handed out leaflets with tips on how to protect themselves from police. English-speaking volunteers prepared press releases for foreign media. People with legal education provided assistance to the rally participants,” she continues.

The conversation is joined by another activist, Sona Martirosyan.

“And I worked in the government. Well, don’t laugh, my life just panned out that way!” she says.

After the revolution, a lot of social activists joined the government. But Martirosyan did the opposite: she resigned from her position at the Ministry of Energy Infrastructures to join civil society.

“I did not participate in the protests then, but I constantly sat in front of the screen and watched all the broadcasts. If I decided to go to rallies then I would have had to quit my job. I couldn’t accept a public salary then protest the government - it would’ve been hypocritical. But, you know, I was probably the happiest woman on the planet when Serzh Sargsyan resigned,” Martirosyan says.

“When I heard the news, I started an online broadcast asking people who is in power in Armenia. When this happened before before, everybody would say Serzh Sargsyan or his Republican Party. Now, everyone answered: the power belongs to the people...For me as a human rights activist, this was the key moment of the revolution.”

“Grant eaters”

When Euromaidan happened in Ukraine, everyone scared us: “Banderists (a term mostly used by Russians to describe Ukrainian nationalists, a reference to Stepan Bandera - ed.) staged a coup!” as if they were talking about some kind of monsters, Abrahamyan jokes.

After the revolution, fake and conspiracy theories began to spread in Armenia. They say that America organized all this, that in fact there was a secret agreement between Nikol Pashinyan and Serzh Sargsyan, that people alone couldn’t change anything and the activists – the engine of the revolution – had been paid for by Western funds.

“We’re grant eaters! (“grantoedy” – literally “grant eaters” in English – is an offensive term in Russian to call organizations that receive grants from other countries’ governments, especially those that are considered enemies by their own state - ed.) We sit here and eat grants all day. Help yourself too, delicious,” laughs Martirosyan while nibbling on a cookie.

“We can laugh but there really is a big campaign against activists nowadays,” says Armenak Minasiants, one of the members of the supervisory board of Article 3.

In Yerevan, he is a well-known activist who rescued protesters detained by law enforcement.

“Now there are a lot of fake pages on social networks that are trying to spread propaganda among the people that the revolution will not affect their living standards. They constantly write that not everyone is happy with the new government and changes. I think this is the work of the previous government. Although, who knows. There are also people who are constantly dissatisfied with something - they also complain,” he says.

The main targets of the attacks are activists who were involved in organizing the protests, including the Article 3 employees.

“Where did you get such a watch? You bought your 600-euro Japanese Citizen using the grant money! What do you mean a gift from an uncle in the U.S.? How come you have an uncle in the States?! Ordinary Armenians do not have an uncle in the States,” Minasiants mimics people who make claims to him. He is tired of such accusations, however, he says that he is already used to it.

A New Armenia

“When I think about those events, sometimes it seems to me that it happened in another universe. I cannot believe that the revolution took place just a few months ago,” Minasiants tells Hromadske.

We continue to speak with him outside the Article 3 office – we are headed to the central police station of Yerevan. During the revolution, it was one of the most important places – most protesters were brought here. Minasiants was a frequent guest here. He spoke with the police and tried to help the detainees.

He says that every day he would leave the house at eight in the morning and return after midnight. Sometimes he would forget to eat – there was that much work. On some days more than 400 demonstrators would be detained in Yerevan alone.

“There is one incident that I remember most of all. The police detaining a 15-year-old boy and keeping him in detention for eight hours – although, according to the law, the maximum is three. His parents were worried and couldn’t rest – what if something happens? I sneaked into the department and asked the investigator: why hasn’t the kid been released for so long? He looked at me and slowly walked to the window. His appearance – a typical policeman from the Caucasus: a black unibrow, stubble, a shirt with stains, under which a thick belly is hidden. He silently lit a cigarette, looking out into the street. Everything in the style of American thrillers from the 1980s. He then came back and calmly said: ‘I lost my keys,’ ” Minasiants describes.

While we speak with Minasiants, the police show up looking similarly to what Minasiants had just described. They ask what we are shooting. Minasiants explains in Armenian, and they leave.

“It's alright,” smiles Minasiants. “The policemen asked what we were doing here and whether it was somehow related to the police.” They were afraid that you want to shoot some kind of critical story. I explained everything to them, and they asked if they could help us in any way. In general, police are better behaved now, and people really notice. The police are the same as us. They also go home in the evening, watch football with us, drink wine, eat, rest – they are also our citizens. ”

There was no lustration of law enforcement officers in Armenia. Leadership changed, but ordinary employees remained in their positions. Minasiants does not support personnel cleansing – he says that there are many professionals in the police who have been working there for 20-30 years and know their business well. According to the activist, although the police are old, they now play by new rules. And after the revolution, they have changed significantly.

“When I think about the new Armenia in 10 years, I want to see a rich country, a very transparent one where there is a place for justice. A country in which human dignity is respected and which will be the real homeland for its citizens. This year, for the first time in the last decades, the balance of people who left and arrived in Armenia is positive. The difference, at first glance, is minimal – only a few thousand people returned here. But the trend makes me very happy,” Minasiants says.

After a little more time at the police station, we go to Republic Square in the very center of Yerevan. In April, the square was the the heart of protests. Now life here is back to normal. Tourists take selfies, couples stroll, children crowd around cotton candy, and pensions feed pigeons.

“We have a unique window of opportunity for change now,” Minasiants says. “It happens only once in a lifetime. We either use this opportunity, or we lose everything.”

/By Ostap Yarysh and Oleksandr Kokhan