Examples of Civic Activism in Armenia
Artur Avtandilyan, a member of “This is our city” grassroots group, active since 2010, talked to Kanachastann about the notion of civic activism, highlighting the development of civic activism for the protection of green areas in Yerevan.
– How would you define the notion of civic activism?
– Civic activist is a person, who fights for social issues not for political aims. That is, it is impossible to serve civic activism for pursuing political interests, but it is possible to use political resources to achieve the goal. Civic activism has two preconditions: first public agenda in general, which represents a narrow or wide range of social issues, secondly process of civic activism, which goes parallel with politics.
– What was the process of establishment and development of civic activism in Armenia?
-The first phase of civic action in Armenia launched approximately in 2004-2007. It was marked by the campaign held by the group “For the development of Science’’, when amendments were made in the military law, according to which masters and post graduates students were to join the army. It was followed by “Skskela’’ (It has started) civic group, which launched its activity in 2007. The second phase was marked by the movements, developed by “Save ‘Moscow’ cinema summer hall”, “We are against foreign-language schools’’ and “This is our city’’ civic initiative groups. I consider the establishment of these groups to be closely connected with the peak energy after the presidential elections in 2008. And now we can witness the third phase of civic activism, which is distinguished by more targeted agenda, for instance the one developed by “Save Vishaps’ Park’’ (Dragons’ park) group.
Internet is another feature defining civic activism in Armenia. Social networks, especially Facebook, have played a fundamental role in the formation of such initiatives. Facebook has also penetrated in the lives of authorities, who at first failed to perceive it as a means for two-way communication. For instance the final virtual attack within the framework of struggle for saving Vishaps’ Park took place on the Mayor`s Facebook wall. It had a considerable impact on Mayor`s decision to ban the construction in the park.
-How is civic activism perceived in Armenia?
-Unfortunately, the lack of established culture of civic activism makes it hard for people to distinguish forms of political and civic activism coexisting in one individual. Naturally, the perception of civic activism has undergone a few phases of development similar to the establishment process. Gradually the society has come to realize that civic activism is quite an effective means for struggling and achieving results.
At first, activism per se was an unknown beast, especially for political circles, who considered activism to be an incomprehensible form of action. Officials were trying to find political motives in the actions of activists. The fact that one can hold mass activities without a political agenda or supporting any officials is still incomprehensible for many people, especially for politicians.
However, the perception of activism has changed now. The society has realized that all of it belongs to them. For instance, when at Tamanayan statue we started collecting signatures for canceling construction in Student Park, people treated us, as if we were from Mars. But when the struggle for saving Vishaps or Main Avenue Parks began, the residents began to participate actively. Moreover, they undertook the core part of the struggle.
-What is the role and importance of your group?
– The group was established in April of 2010 on Facebook by a student Gayane Melkumyan, studying in Canada at that time. The group aimed at banning the construction in the Student Park. We collected signatures, organized campaigns, small gatherings, concerts and other events.
There are 4100 virtual registered members in the group. In reality, we can count on about 150 members to take action.
As a result of our activities we realized that we should broaden the range of the issues, gradually including entire Yerevan. There are many issues. 2010 was quite a complicated year for the environment of Yerevan, as the main construction process was already completed and only green areas remained vacant. The issues of Main Avenue, green area in Komitas 5, Sarkavag Street, Vishaps’ Park and others emerged.
Our group established networks, and we tried to make the issues public instantly within a few hours. For instance, one of our members, living in Kanaker noticed how a tree was being cut in the street. He took photos via cell phone and posted those on Facebook. As a result of such action, we manage to respond immediately, which often makes it possible to prevent damage done to the environment.
-Would you share the achievements and failures that the group has experienced during the two years of operation?
-We had input in including pressing environmental issues of Yerevan in public agenda. As a result of our activities and organized campaigns many residents of Yerevan got the feeling that they should “own” the city. We contributed to the defeat of large corporation in Vishaps’ Park, which was unprecedented in the history of the Republic of Armenia.
Authorities, especially local self-governing bodies, began taking environmental issues more seriously. They began to take us into account as civic activists. But more importantly, the opinion of residents was heard. Our experience demonstrated that unless a resident or a customer supports you, there won’t be any result.
On the other hand, we have acknowledged that in their core, most issues in Armenia are politicized, as those are often based on the preferences of a specific political group instead of administrative or bureaucratic reasons.
-What issues has your grassroots group set in the future?
-At present we deal with a number of issues demanding solution. We try to cancel the construction, which has moved from Vishaps’ Park to an open green area at Gayi 2 Street. Secondly, the case of Student’s Park has already been taken to constitutional court. We are monitoring the situation of a small park, situated near the Writer’s Union on Baghramyan 3 street, and a green area on Komitas 5 A street.
-Why have you chosen the format of civic activism for solving these issues?
-Is there another more convenient format? We were often offered to join different parties. In the first place ecological issues are a last priority in politics. Intrigue dominates in Armenian politics and finally the society is alienated from political decision making. Social issues should be raised and solved by society. Our activities have strong opponents. If we get involved with politics we will increase confrontations.
– What other initiatives have you undertaken as a group of activists?
-We have tried to use almost all means of civic activism, from positive events for children to taking issues to court, collecting signatures, organizing pickets, awareness campaign etc. We have chosen environment in Yerevan as a field of activism and we manage to maintain that focus. For instance we refused to take part in campaigns held against Dolphinarium as we considered it to be out of the scope of our activity.
-At the end, what is your message to the youth on their civic activism?
-I am not going to say anything extraordinary. The youth should be active and practice some civic disobedience; this is their main “function”. The image of a conforming young person is the most disappointing. This is a sign of society’s degradation. Churchill used to say: “The one without a sense of romanticism at young age has no heart, the one, who is not conservative at mature age, has no brains”. If young people are deprived of that romanticism, that rebellious mood, it is not clear what will happen to them in the future.