My next trip to Armenia is in December, but if it were tomorrow, I wouldn’t be very excited to get on the plane. In fact, right now I want to be as far away from Armenia as possible. And in this moment, I understand why hundreds of thousands of people have left during the last 20 years.
Currently, Vartan Oskanian, Armenia’s former minister of foreign affairs, faces charges of money laundering, embezzlement, and who knows what else. Many people thought Oskanian a likely challenger to Republican incumbent President Serge Sarkisian in February’s presidential election, unless, of course, Oskanian is tied up in court, or worse. Seemingly to correctly prove the hypothesis that the charges are politically driven, the ruling Republicans and their de facto proxy party voted 64-6 to remove Oskanian’s immunity and leave him open to charges, which followed a week later. Every political party boycotted the vote except, you guessed it, the ruling majority and its friends. Interestingly, a party historically loaded with parliamentarians sporting shoddy attendance records somehow managed to convince 96 percent of its membership to show up and remove Oskanian’s immunity. Meanwhile, Georgia just completed a legitimate election and power transfer, further widening the democratic gap between the two neighboring former Soviet states. And yet, this isn’t even the beginning of my frustration…
Oskanian is also the founder of the Civilitas Foundation, a think tank promoting an active civil society. The money laundering charge stems from a charitable donation made to the foundation by U.S. businessman Jon Huntsman, Sr. The foundation’s roughly 60 employees are predominantly young, multilingual Armenians working to improve their country by focusing on issues such as women’s rights, the rule of law, and the environment. Their main vehicle is the news and public affairs website, civilnet.am, which started from scratch with a team of inexperienced future journalists, and has since developed into a real source for independent, analytical news and dialogue. Unfortunately, that mission sometimes interferes with the establishment’s suppressive interests. During my 14 months producing for Civilnet, I learned twice as much as I taught about advocacy journalism and became exceedingly optimistic about Armenia’s future. Civilitas is an oasis for free-thinking creativity, safe from the desert of anti-progressive thought that sometimes pollutes Yerevan.
This all matters because the Armenians with whom I worked at Civilitas are extremely talented and mobile. They’ve turned down full-scholarship opportunities in the U.S. and the U.K., believing they could improve their home country if they only stayed in Armenia. Even those who have left Civilitas and Armenia, including U.S. citizens such as this article’s author, have pledged to return and make Armenia their long-term home. But now, Civilitas is under fire, facing potential interference from the government, which claims it wants to “protect” Civilitas. Nobody knows what that means and nobody is optimistic about it either. While everyone is still fighting for Civilitas’ survival, some of my former co-workers and friends are second-guessing their desire to remain in Armenia.
At September’s Armenians and Progressive Politics (APP) Conference in New York, one attendee astutely described Armenia as an unstable balloon that inflates with each repressive event, such as the one happening now with Civilitas. But as the balloon expands and seems ready to explode, people simply move out of the country, thus diffusing the pressure. We’ve seen it after elections and other events that sully the public. It’s why today Armenia’s population is definitively less than 3 million people. So I suspect we’ll see more frustration and migration with this episode and the upcoming February election. And, unfortunately, the educated and mobile will be the ones to leave, further exacerbating the brain drain epidemic.
I will get on that plane in December, and my long-term plan to live in Armenia has not changed. I am excited to enjoy the city I love and see the friends I left behind a few months ago. I only hope some of them will still be there to greet me at the airport.
Greg Bilazarian is a first year MBA student at the Yale School of Management. He was the producer for civilnet.am in Armenia from May 2011 to July 2012. Bilazarian worked for four years as a television news reporter in the U.S. before moving to Armenia. He grew up outside of Philadelphia.