The other day I read a headline in an Armenian outlet that Turkey was launching a satellite into space in collaboration with Tesla. The Armenian piece of it was that Armenians and Greeks were protesting this. What more appropriate juxtaposition to illustrate the state of the Armenian Nation in relation to the state of Turkey?
For decades, we lied to ourselves that the incredibly cheap investment in perpetual periodic protest was a sufficient answer to the salvos of our enemies. We have forced ourselves to make believe that marching down Hollywood Boulevard and chanting slogans in front of Turkish and Azerbaijani embassies and consulates the world over is somehow an adequate response to the ever increasing military, economic, and diplomatic power of our enemies. We have chosen to subvert the agonizing work of fortifying our nation to anachronistic and often annoying acts of civil disobedience like interrupting lectures and shutting down traffic.
This year, it is painfully apparent that these past two decades of protests have been either ineffective or, in the case of Yerevan’s 2018 protests, astoundingly catastrophic. If we have any intention of recognizing the mistakes of our past, we must likewise recognize that the time for protest is over.
Armenians protested in the 1960s and 1970s and 1980s and 1990s, often because that’s all we had. In some cases, like in lobbying Soviet authorities to build the Armenian Genocide memorial in Yerevan and in energizing the Artsakh independence movement, it is clear that protest had a considerable role to play. Nevertheless, even in these cases, the protests were tools used by the Armenian political leadership in the respective periods to achieve other, greater ends.
Otherwise, protest has been an excuse to assuage the nagging urge to do something. Protest is among the easiest forms of action: it is easier to protest than to build teams of well-educated lawyers ready to work for decades toward substantive goals like reparations or training teachers and administrators who will educate Armenian youth; it is likewise easier to protest than it is to build a country by planting crops, growing businesses, or working unglamorous but honest jobs.
We have hoped that protest will grant us a better homeland, Genocide recognition and restitution, and respect among the family of nations; it has given us none of these things.
Yet we continue to protest; inertia is a powerful force.
While we convinced ourselves in our thinly veiled coffin of obliviousness – and were convinced by others – that we were “doing our part” to “raise awareness” and “ensuring our voice is heard,” our enemies, those permanent fixtures on the Armenian landscape, forged ahead. We protested the injustices of Azerbaijan while they employed force and cunning to achieve their evil ends, culminating in their occupation of Artsakh. We protested Turkey’s denial and scrubbing of Armenian history and culture from its present-day territory while it artfully positioned itself to again become a global power.
Azerbaijan and Turkey succeeded; we did not. Our maturation is conditioned on us reconciling with these facts.
The top universities in the world are filled to the brim with Turkish students who often return to serve in their foreign and defense ministries. Azerbaijan, learning from their Turkish brethren, have emulated this model. The Bayraktar drone that wrought havoc on Armenian soldiers in the Second War for Artsakh’s Independence, one of the most advanced military drones in the world, was developed by Selcuk Bayraktar, who received his master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), two of the top schools in the world.
There was an attempt to redirect Armenian resources to educating our youth on a large scale and it was called the Luys Scholarship Program, launched by the Serzh Sargsyan administration. However, rather than develop a cadre of young Armenian professionals ready to serve the Armenian state, it created an elite class of professional ingrates that often used the educations they received at the top ten universities in the world to berate the very government and officials that gifted them the opportunity to receive a world-class education. Among the most vulgar detractors of the Sargsyan administration and among the most fervent supporters of Nikol Pashinyan’s protests in 2018 were newly-minted graduates of the Ivy League universities on Luys scholarships.
It was the failing of the Luys program itself that it did not require those receiving the generous financial aid to serve the Armenian state; many used the opportunity to establish themselves abroad, an updated version of “take the money and run.” Indeed, their complaints of the government were transparently ludicrous attempts to rationalize the immorality of benefiting from a system without making any substantive contribution in return.
But the problem of the Luys Scholars was a mere microcosm of Armenian society. By the time these top students reached college age, their minds had already been poisoned by a society bursting at the seams with activists funded by foreign governments and organizations who built a narrative that it was more important to “develop civil society.” This ambiguous catchphrase included perpetual protest and civil disobedience based on the insistence that opening a park in a cafe or raising electricity rates by a few pennies were just cause for blustering indignation and to bring the country to a standstill.
Years of protest culture that had convinced people that their own moral and ethical failings were not the problem and that they were doing something of value by hitting the streets to complain about every last thing. This culminated in the protests of 2018 that led to the current tragedy through which we live today: protest culture was the damp, dark cavity in which the fungus of Nikolism was able to multiply and flourish.
Many in Armenia and the Diaspora, instead of slowly and painfully building the institutions which would allow nationhood to eventually function – because it never does from the outset – spent resources on cultivating an activist class which knew how to organize a spectacular protest, replete with slogans, songs, and merchandise. However, the Armenian Nation failed at cultivating a politically mature citizenry that knows how to debate ideas, accede to political compromise, and build the long-term political thinking needed to sustain a country through the inevitable tumults of nationhood. This is evident now more than ever.
This has, in no small part, been exacerbated by outsiders, including some enterprising Diasporans, who have moved to Armenia, permanently or temporarily, and who have organized and participated in protests in a sort of irresponsible adventurism not unlike what’s described by Teju Cole as the “White Savior Industrial Complex” in Africa (he is not the only one who’s written about this in Africa).
There is an inherent moral hazard to this adventurism on the part of Diaspora Armenians. They try to address perceived injustices through an easily accessible form of political activity in protest, not least because they do not have the capacity to participate in or promote any higher form of said activity like debate, but are often in the position of convincing locals that they are experiencing injustice that needs to be met with outrage and protest without considering that the consequences of their protest will lead to instability and, as we saw in the autumn of 2020, death.
This is unsurprising because these Diasporans import their largely innocuous and inconsequential understanding of protesting in the stable countries of their origin to Armenia.
Easy, cheap, and great for visuals, these protests reached exactly zero of their goals, whether it was Genocide recognition, preventing further Azeri injustice, or stopping the closure of a mismanaged Armenian TV station (yes, there was a protest for that, too).
If asked why go through the trouble, the answer is invariably that it is to “raise awareness,” the favorite refrain and non-answer.
The point is best illustrated by the mother of all protests, that in Los Angeles in commemoration of the Armenian Genocide’s centennial. There were a reported 135,000 people who attended, shutting down major streets in one of the largest cities in the world. Thousands of man-hours were expended by hundreds of organizers over several years to organize this gargantuan event. Yet, it is impossible to say what effect this, or the dozens of other demonstrations that occurred throughout the world, had. On the question of awareness, there was little more than a news clip a few seconds long on local TV – but our ability to get the permits to shut down a few streets in Los Angeles and the drone pictures of the crowd peppered with the tricolor made us feel good.
Each distraction that does not contribute to the strengthening of the Armenian Nation in view of our reality, which includes powerful opponents, is a waste of our limited and currently dwindling resources. Our fantasies about having it all by fighting the fights of others, spreading ourselves too thin, and believing that we will be able to compete with our highly-focused enemies has brought us to the very edge of the vortex of dissolution. But, it is these torturous times that offer the opportunity for us to reflect on our mistakes and correct them.
Protest is a means for weak, disaffected people who are unable or unwilling to find other means to extricate themselves from their circumstances. In the years before Armenia’s independence, we were in the former camp: without other means; today, we are firmly in the latter camp. Our unwillingness to replace the exciting, instagrammable, and often ego-centric protest culture that provides cheap thrills with the incredibly tedious, drab, and thankless work of thinking through problems and working behind the curtains for a greater good which some of us may not see has demonstrably crippled us.
Now, decades after protests that distracted us from the work to be done that ultimately resulted in the loss of Artsakh and an enfeebled Armenian state, are we ready to admit our mistakes and not repeat them? We’ll soon know.