By Viken Berberian

Opera House in Armenia Sings Requiem to Democracy

It was New Year’s Eve 1989 and throngs of Armenians descended on the Opera House in Liberty Square. They were celebrating the dawn of a new year and the prospect of a state free of Soviet tyranny. I happened to be in Armenia at the time, researching my graduate thesis. Citizens gathered in the square for many reasons. One was to test First Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev’s commitment to his policies of restructuring and openness. Twenty-five years later, there is little sign of that openness among Armenia’s ruling elite, and the only restructuring taking place is the destruction of historic buildings to erect new ersatz residential complexes, most of them too expensive for residents to rent or buy, and so Liberty Square has turned into a hotbed of political unrest. Sleeping on a bench across from the Opera House was Raffi Hovannisian, the leading opposition candidate in February’s rigged presidential election. Mr. Hovannisian went on a hunger strike for three weeks to protest the official results, demanding the resignation of the incumbent president, Serzh Sargsyan.

“This is not just a hunger strike, but a boycott against lies and fraud,” he told his supporters at a rally in Liberty Square in Yerevan, the capital. “If on April 9, Serzh Sargsyan takes his fake oath on the Constitution and the Holy Bible, and the Supreme Patriarch blesses the candidate, who mocks the people, then that will happen over my dead body.” Since the presidential election, the opposition has held a number of peaceful rallies across from the Opera House, under the banner of Barevolution, a play on the word barev, which means “hello” in Armenian. Ordinarily, no one says hello to strangers when walking Yerevan’s gray, traffic-congested streets. It is difficult to elicit a smile from a curmudgeon in these forbidding times, and so ever since the election was pilfered by the authorities, as elections routinely are with the smug certitude of a hammer pounding a nail, I, too, have been traipsing this mirthless metropolis, saying hello to strangers. They mostly stare back, disconsolate, hopeless.   

I should disclose that I am neither an activist nor a Panglossian idealist. But having come to live in Armenia to research and write my novel, I felt it was my duty to offer Mr. Hovannisian, on behalf of my family, a pink rose, which he gingerly placed on a bench covered with a knitted tricolor flag of the Armenian Republic. If George Orwell survived a shot in the throat by a fascist sniper, surely I could muster the courage to walk past a pro-government storm trooper to offer a polite flower. There was no wind whistling pandemonium. The rose neither cringed nor cowered. I suppose in an alternate reality, I could have suffered a bullet wound and “shriveled up to nothing” and lived to write about it the way Orwell did. But that’s not what writers in the English language do these days. We are mostly craven individuals.

On my next visit to the Opera, the flower was no longer on the bench where Raffi, as Mr. Hovannisian is popularly known, had left it. Raffi, too, had abandoned his bench and tent. He stood on the steps of the Opera, speaking forcefully from the bottom of his lungs, denouncing the spurious election. He skewered the corrupt cabal that had helped engineer the incumbent’s win, largely against the will of the people, and so the struggle was set between David, whom no one expected to win, and Goliath, whom the majority wanted to lose, except that somehow he didn’t.

Why this unfair battle matters to me is because I want to see my ancestral homeland governed according to democratic principles. Why its outcome should matter to the rest of the world is because Armenia is part of a security alliance dominated by Moscow, and more than two decades after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, is one of its last bastions where Russian soldiers still have a military presence. Russia has no plans of letting go of the South Caucasus anytime soon. In 2008, it invaded Georgia in support of the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Last year, it continued major military sales to Azerbaijan, delivering dozens of attack helicopters to a country that has threatened war with Armenia. At the same time, as part of its “balancing approach,” it has delivered an undisclosed number of attack choppers to its regional ally and protectorate, Armenia.

Russia’s economic footprints across the southern Caucasus are disproportionately large, just as they were during the Soviet era. Bilateral trade between Russia and Armenia is on track to surpass $1 billion, and the trade balance, conveniently, is heavily in favor of the former. Armenia’s dependency is particularly noticeable in the energy sector, with more than 80 percent of its energy infrastructure under Russian control. The palpable difference is that during the communist era, Armenia had a thriving manufacturing base, most of which is now gutted. Factories that once employed thousands have turned into oxidized carcasses and sit abandoned around the periphery of the capital and in the countryside. Along with Russia, Iran has emerged as an erstwhile trade partner. Armenia’s other frontiers are with Georgia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan, an oil-rich dictatorship that lost a war with Armenia in 1994 over the autonomous republic of Nagorno-Karabakh.

A small, landlocked country with a population of 2.9 million, Armenia has few regional allies to turn to, with the exception of Russia, and so the consequences of regime change and continuity are always discussed closely with Moscow. It is as if Big Brother had never left. Yet sanctioning sham elections every five years risks feeding popular discontent, which is why agitated crowds trickled into Liberty Square on the president’s inauguration day.

It was not always so.

During the Soviet era, the Opera and Ballet Theater complex was hailed as an enduring symbol of the country’s cultural heritage. It has since evolved into ground zero for simmering grievances. Built in a neoclassic style that critics, including my three-year-old son, have compared to a wedding cake, it can attract both demonstrators and concertgoers. My family attended a number of performances at the Opera after we moved to Armenia from France two years ago. The old Paris Opera House, with its Marc Chagall fresco, was never home to such ferment, at least not when we lived there. The most politically engaged I felt in Paris was during a citywide metro strike. It forced me to ride my bicycle to work past the old Opera. Now I occasionally brave a cantankerous crowd around the Yerevan Opera to catch a glimpse of the revolution.

The president may have achieved a crushing second five-year mandate, but when speaking to ordinary citizens, one gets a sense of his bruising defeat. “Those crooks stole the election from us and everyone knows it,” said Arayig Khachatryan, a cab driver and former air force pilot who served in the Nagorno-Karabakh war. His growing sense of apathy is characteristic of the larger population. “What’s the point of protesting when nothing changes and the majority of the people continue to live in abject misery and fear?” Five years ago, mass protests against electoral fraud outside the Opera resulted in fatalities. In a bid to quell civil unrest, police broke up a tented camp in the square, killing ten people. A state of emergency and a media blackout swiftly followed. The opposition leader and first president of Armenia, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, led those rallies, alleging electoral fraud, yet his reelection in 1996 was also marred by flagrant violations.

Twenty-five years have passed since the Liberty Square rallies in the twilight of the Soviet one-state. Raffi, the most vocal critic of the incumbent president and his team’s failed economic policies and entrenched corruption, greeted supporters on a bench in Liberty Square. On my fourth visit to the Opera, the once-portly Raffi had slimmed down into a svelte Giacometti. He was in his second week of fasting and looked considerably more upbeat and fit than the protagonist of Franz Kafka’s The Hunger Artist. I threw several salted peanuts into my mouth, feeling guilty. I felt I had betrayed not just Raffi but the undernourished writer in Knut Hamsun’s feverish 1890 novel, Hunger. I had turned soft during my sojourn in Armenia, feasting on bonchiki and deep-fried pirojki.

I walked toward a gaggle of kids and elderly people. Their eyes bore the hallmark of apathy. But unlike most of the pedestrians I encountered in the city, at least they responded to my hello with a barev. Perhaps the revolution was in our midst, and we could still overthrow the guards in the control tower in Bentham’s panopticon, flooding us with their blinding light and propaganda. During a speech that followed, I punched the air with my fist. I looked up to make sure that I had not injured an imaginary dove flitting above; my hand recoiled, propelled by its own volition against the forces of determinism. I kept it in my coat pocket during the rest of Raffi’s talk on the rule of law and the finer points of democratic liberalism. On my way back home, I bought another paper cone of peanuts from one of the babushkas hawking cornucopias of nuts and seeds. She, too, had voted for Raffi. “Do you know anyone who hasn’t?” she asked, and took my two hundred drams.* 

A former foreign minister, the U.S. born and educated Raffi presents a stark contrast to the more staid Sargsyan, a veteran of the Nagorno-Karabakh war, who, perhaps unsurprisingly, commands a bigger following in the army than his rival. “I voted for Sargsyan,” said Hamlet Martirosyan, a resident of Stepanakert, the capital of the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh republic. “He has a CV, a biography that goes back to his years in the military. I can see him sitting down with world leaders like Obama and Putin and being taken seriously.” Raffi’s trajectory is a story in contrasts. He received a masters degree from Tuft’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a law degree from Georgetown University. In the mid-to-late 80s he worked as an international lawyer and civil litigator at Whitman and Ransom, among other firms. He settled down in Armenia in 1989 and was appointed the first foreign minister of the republic in 1991. His democratic-reform-oriented politics aspire to create a country governed by the rule of law, and a foreign policy that is decidedly less Russia-centric than an Armenia under Sargsyan has been. U.S. embassy cables released by WikiLeaks show that he has repeatedly urged U.S. officials to balance their geopolitical aims with support for domestic democratic reform. 

According to official figures, Raffi received 37 percent of the votes, compared to 59 percent for Sargsyan. Yet a report from the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reveals a different reality. The OSCE found a close correlation between high voter turnout and the number of votes received by Sargsyan. The national voter turnout average was 60 percent. In those voting stations where voter turnout exceeded 80 percent, which seems implausibly high, Sargsyan received more than 80 percent of the votes. Where the turnout was closer to 50 percent, Raffi captured the majority of the votes. “The tendency of higher results for the incumbent observed at the majority of the stations with high turnout raises concerns regarding the confidence over the integrity of the electoral process,” concludes the OSCE report. The upshot: there was ballot stuffing.

An ad hoc poll I conducted with a sample of more than one hundred pedestrians and taxi drivers in Yerevan, the capital city with the lowest poverty rate in the country, delivered an even more damning verdict against the reigning president: nine out of ten people I spoke with said they and their families had voted for the leading opposition candidate. Many did so even after accepting bribes to entice them to vote for the incumbent. “They were handing out five thousand dram (thirteen U.S. dollars) notes, and we really need the money,” said Gagik, another cab driver, in his runty Lada. “So I took it, my entire family did, but then we voted for Raffi. My friends did the same, but for what? This hunger strike is useless. It will not change anything. The election was a sham. It was already decided upon in Russia before it happened. Everyone knows it’s fraudulent, and here world leaders have been congratulating Serzh. It’s shameful.” 

The catalysts for change are obvious. Economic collapse is the main reason why the country has lost more than a quarter of its population since 1991. Thirty-five percent of the population is poor, 19.9 percent is very poor and 3.7 percent is extremely poor, according to the World Bank and the National Statistical Service of the Republic of Armenia. In just three years (2009-2011), some two hundred and fifty thousand people became poor. A million people have left the country in search of better economic prospects. The running joke is that soon there will be no one left to protest at Opera Square. “How am I supposed to protest when I drive sixteen hours a day? I make three thousand drams ($7.50) at the end of the day,” said Samson, another taxi driver in this landlocked country overflowing with cabs. “I don’t have time to go to the Opera House. No one has time for revolution.”

But what about barevoultion? I asked. Haven’t you heard about it? No, he confessed. Bar what? Barevolution, I said. It means “Hello, Revolution.” He shrugged. The term was coined by Raffi’s campaign manager, the twenty-eight-year old Alec Mouhibian. We met on the last night of Raffi’s hunger strike near the Opera House. Raffi’s son, the sagacious Garin Hovannisian, introduced us, happy that the hunger strike would end as planned the following morning. Mr. Mouhibian said he would soon return to his native California after months of campaign strategizing. I wanted to ask how he came up with the idea of a five-syllable campaign slogan, mostly in English, when it was so distant from the average Armenian’s sensibility; but then again, everything about Raffi’s campaign was unorthodox and of literary dimensions. He was his own antihero, billowing and shrinking with the tragic crowds. Before I faded into the night, I observed on the bench, next to a bible and a bouquet of flowers, a copy of a memoir by the Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist William Saroyan. It was appropriately titled Places Where I’ve Done Time. Like Saroyan, whose statue loomed not far from us, on Moscovyan Street, Raffi’s family hailed from Fresno, California. It seemed that politics, California, and literature were inexorably linked that evening.

Soon after, a compact priest with a beard half his height walked into Raffi’s tent with a companion who was holding a basket full of Easter eggs. Fifteen minutes later they came out without the basket. There were less than forty people around the tent, and I had to hurry back home with a box of imported organic milk I had bought from the pharmacy for our toddler. Back in our home, another rebellion beckoned. I said goodbye to the listless square and the tireless campaign staffers now disbanding from the area around the tent. As I walked past the Opera, several police officers were surveying the grounds from under their oversize Soviet-era caps. Barev tsez, I said. Hello to you. Barev, barev, they responded. Could it be that this hello was fraught with the kernel of a future revolution? It was hard to tell. I still greet strangers in the city, hoping to shake them from their apathy, goading them on toward a new, triumphant song and destiny, not just another requiem to democracy. Barevolution. Barev, barev

Viken Berberian is the author of the novels, The Cyclist (Simon & Schuster) and Das Kapital (Simon & Schuster). His short story, Le Plagiaire, appeared in the French journal Revue Décapage (Flammarion / Gallimard) earlier this year.

Photos by Sara Anjargolian

* Forty-seven cents at the current exchange rate.

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