Last night I went to the third of the “illegal” opposition rallies which took place since June 20 at the Matenadaran manuscript archives, located at the top of Mashdots Street in central Yerevan. The last one was held on July 4 which I also attended for about an hour. I arrived a bit late last night, just after 8:00 pm, with the main intent to hear Levon Ter-Petrossian speak, since I never had the chance to do so before. Usually about 10 other people speak before him, such as fellow opposition leaders representing their own parties Aram Sargsyan, who was once the prime minister in 1999 under former Robert Kocharian’s watch, and Stepan Demirjian, who was very close to defeating Kocharian in the 2003 presidential elections—some argue that he actually did beat him but the vote was falsified. Sargsyan is actually not a bad speaker, he has quite a bit of enthusiasm in his voice and knows how to cheer up a crowd fairly quickly. There were other speakers who didn’t have much to say, they were simply raving it seemed. I weaved in and out of the crowd to guesstimate how many people were there—I figured several thousand. I can’t say exactly or give a close estimate. The people along the stairs which lead up to the museum and the remainder of the crowd where I was were mostly middle aged. Two narrow streets flank the cobblestone steps leading to the archives perched on a hill, so I finally chose to walk along one of them since there was less congestion and thus more free room to move about. Many people were sitting around, either on patches of grass or along curbstones. Sunflower seeds were readily available, the cracked shells of which were coating the walkways. After the last speaker was through—I think it was Demirjian—someone enthusiastically introduced Levon, the first president of Armenia and all-around great guy. The podium is set along a very short wall which is situated directly across from the museum’s entrance. From that point you have an excellent view of the city and it is an ideal place to address a crowd of people, which is why the location is always chosen since meeting at Liberty Square is not possible. That and because Levon is one of those in change of the Matenadaran’s undertakings, so it is actually his turf. There were several trees blocking my view of him so I did not actually see him speak, but it wasn’t a problem for me as well as for the thousands who were in the same situation. Without a doubt Levon is one of the most charismatic, eloquent Armenian speakers I have heard, and in that sense I can see how he can still be able to muster a following. But what ensued after the chorus from Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”--the last movement of his ninth symphony and apparently Levon’s theme song--died down was nothing I was expecting to hear. It was basically a lecture, a typical banter spoken by a graying, eccentric university professor with weakened eyesight. He began by briefly explaining some points in the Armenian constitution, then moved on to discuss the failings of the National Assembly to legitimize the same laws it had passed, the failure of the previous administration to tackle corruption (which came to full blossom when he himself was in power), and after speaking for only five minutes concluded that there is no difference between the current administration and the previous one. He also spoke briefly about the prime minister Tigran Sarkisian, not necessarily harshly criticizing but also certainly not heartily praising him either, since he is actually a disciple of sorts having been a key player in the Pan-National Movement of the late 1980s. But the lecture was slow moving and there was nothing being said to actually activate people, instead they were expected to listen to this man go on and on about how the laws are misinterpreted, how lawlessness was uncontrollably flourishing and so forth. After about 15 minutes or so I had enough and I made my way to the street. Apparently it continued this way for well over one hour—around 10:30 pm Levon’s theme started again and about five minutes later people began marching down the street chanting “Levon, Levon.”
Although he clearly is an eloquent, intelligent man, nevertheless very crafty and shrewd, I as well as perhaps millions of other Armenians who follow politics am not convinced that he can do any good for Armenia. He had eight years to instill democracy in this country, to set up law and order in society and lay a foundation of justice for coming generations. But he didn’t—instead corruption got out of control and the clan system of regional and commercial governance took hold. Levon is personally responsible for bringing the former as well as current leaders of the country into power, the same who the opposition resents. He knew their limitations as tacticians or politicians, but he recruited them anyway. And they did a fine job of continuing the unjust, undemocratic way of life that started during his reign for Armenians living here, which also provoked an exodus. So I have a hard time sympathizing with this movement of his, and I cringe when I hear people chanting his name in support of him. The opposition movement is first and foremost about change—a change in civil society, in governance, in the rule of law. It is not about Levon, and I personally know many people who feel the same way as I do. But they argue that there is no one else to lead the opposition, and that no one can gather the support the way Levon can. So it has come to a point where if you are a supporter of the opposition now, you are known as a “Levonakan,” or a follower of Levon. You can be a neutral oppositionist and not necessarily support one guy or another, just the opposition movement in principle. But nevertheless, I think there should have been a challenging opposition force, a political party which could have given Levon a run for his dissident money if it worked hard enough, but the one I have in mind does not seem to want to fully oppose the government since it has been controlling ministries for years now and is savoring the bounties it has been accumulating during the last eight years. His true supporters gather to hear him rant for two hours, clap and shout, march through central Yerevan afterwards then go home—this has been going on for months, without any real progress in meeting their goals. Yet they persevere. You cannot deny that their will is astounding, despite rallying around a dubious person who has deceived them in the past.
In any case, there is one thing that has impressed me—a group of people have been participating in a 24-hour sit-in protest at the top of the Northern Boulevard which began on July 4, after the last rally concluded. The protesters there demand that all political prisoners—77 of them by their count a week ago—be unconditionally released. A few prisoners have actually been set free and are actually awaiting court dates, probably a feeble effort by the government to impress the PACE and the western powers in general, although it is not really working. They also want to see those accountable for the unrest and violence that left 10 people dead on March 1 be brought to justice and prosecuted for their alleged involvement.
For the life of me I don’t know what the answers are to the problems that people are posing who are against the government and the general system of operation in Armenian society. The opposition leadership in my opinion is weak, and clearly Levon cannot mobilize the public in numbers large enough to change something. A few thousand people are not going to make a difference, but a few hundred thousand can shake the foundations of this society. How to mobilize them? If Levon knew the answer to that dilemma he would be solving it, but he obviously does not know otherwise he would be doing whatever it takes. Sooner or later these people who keep showing up to support him are going to get bored. Levon himself may become disgruntled, although he is trying to form some sort of an alliance called the “Armenian National Congress” by uniting the opposition political parties. But unfortunately, I do not see the status quo changing any time soon, although people should still keep trying to make change happen if they want to realize the goals they expect to reach, namely enforcing law and order and making the judicial system work fairly, two goals that the pro-government parties should work just as hard if not harder to attain.