Risks Worth Taking: An Interview with Armenian Activist Georgi Vanyan

by  translated by Katie Sykes  /  November 7, 2016  / No comments

Facebook was an instrumental part during this event, both in promoting it and in the attack of it. How do you think these social media platforms affect not just your work and activism, but how people respond to it?

The repressive function of Facebook was more effective than its function as a means of bringing people together to support the festival. Facebook works better as a punitive and destructive instrument than as an instrument of support and defense. I’m only qualified to talk about the societies which I know well. I can certainly talk about the so-called “Armenian Facebook group.” We use that term a lot, as well as the term “Armenian bloggers”–they’re just a closed group of people who all think the same. In closed societies like ours, it’s hard to figure out how they manage to win over their audience–with advertisements, or with buying “likes”? Or maybe people genuinely go for their idiotic populism?

I’m qualified to talk about what’s going on in Armenia and the conflict zone, and in the post-Soviet area, because I have a good understanding of what’s happening and can have an opinion on it. So, my opinion is that, in our case, Facebook is obviously an instrument of repression, and one that’s very effective for silencing and bullying others as well as carrying out smear campaigns. But at the same time, there probably is a positive side to all that, because Facebook also reflects and documents all these processes. And what’s more, for dialogue with the outside world and information exchange, Facebook and the internet in general are very useful and important instruments.

If someone in Armenia assures you that they managed to mobilize people and rouse them to real-life action using Facebook, don’t believe them. But if someone says that they were able to significantly decrease the number of people who took action using Facebook, that, you can believe. For me, the word “activism” in an Armenian context has a negative ring to it. In our society, activism and pressure groups are the same thing.

What was it like to see the press of your country turn against you and call you a “traitor” after your attempts at peace-keeping?

I’ve been a “traitor” ever since I began to speak publicly. And ever since the large-scale press campaign, I’ve personally been receiving threats and violent abuse. Psychologically and emotionally, that’s become the norm for me. I made the choice to become a public figure, and I’ve never had a single opponent, even though people abuse me and accuse me of corruption and treachery. Opposing me would mean admitting that there can be different opinions about the resolution of the Karabakh conflict, different opinions about recognition of the Armenian genocide, different opinions about what we Armenians should and shouldn’t do in our relationships with our neighbors.

In 2010, a member of the authorities advised me to “take your grants and work quietly, like the other NGOs do.” I didn’t take that advice, and began to hire public spaces, first for the festival of Azerbaijani films and then for the second festival of Turkish films. Representatives of the Armenian special forces started to intimidate our landlords and subject their properties to surveillance. Anyone who tried to collaborate with me became the target of threats, depending on their line of work and even their family’s line of work. It was then that I started to feel that the entire apparatus of the state was working against me, and I tried to do everything I could to make sure that people heard about that and knew it was happening. I wrote, I gave interviews, I went to the ombudsman. I didn’t get anywhere. It was only two years later, when it was advocates themselves who were being targeted, that this pressure finally began to be the subject of reports and monitoring. Obviously there’s no point in even talking about defending the rights of businesspeople, my colleagues, who were trying to hire out their private cinemas to a traitor to the nation.

So my only reaction is a sense of powerlessness and of the impossibility of protecting people.

Viewing the Armenian-Azerbaijani Conflict from Exile

When did you decide to leave the country for Germany?

For a while, almost a year, I couldn’t come to a decision. All my projects had closed down, and my day-to-day existence was being made very difficult. I really had no idea what I should do. My friends helped keep me alive, literally, with money and moral support. It was my friends who decided that I had to put in an application to the Hamburg Foundation for Politically Persecuted People. And I received a year’s grant from the Foundation, as well as the opportunity to live in the EU for a year, in the noble city of Hamburg. I feel terribly lucky that I got that year of freedom.

What has your work been like since leaving Armenia?

I’m trying to get myself together again, I’m trying to tear myself away from Armenia and get some distance from everything, and I’m trying to work out how to get myself and the Tekali Process out of this deadlock.

What projects are you working on right now?

I sat down one day and wrote them all down. Turns out I have fourteen projects. But right now I’m working on myself.

My friends are expecting a lot from me, most of all the continuation of the Tekali Process. It’s not just my friends, either, it’s other people who’ve been to Tekali or just know about Tekali. A lot depends on external circumstances, but there are also resources which we just have to use. First of all, we have to start a PR campaign, both within Europe and globally. I’m sure there are lots of people who could support us – we just need to find them.

In a 2011 interview with News.Az you said that the “Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict is now self-deception by both parties.” What did you mean by that? Is this a message that your work is trying to deliver?

All local conflicts, including the Karabakh conflict, begin without narratives, without a plot; they have no protagonists or opposing sides. All that is thought up as events unfold, when people are incited to start killing each other. It’s only then that the deception begins. People invent reasons why people have started killing each other. And I probably don’t even need to explain just how profitable this war and its consequences can be for the new elite. These new elites initially tried to make their lies relatively true to life, and even tried to give the conflict a legal basis and attempt some other maneuvers. I was saying that in 2011, but I hope that today it’s even clearer that all of this was just incitement on the part of the USSR’s special services, and that after the fall of the empire, the conflict has been directed and managed by the Russian authorities. The idea that the conflict is self-deception isn’t just a message; it’s the context in which we live and work.

Another thing you’ve said about this conflict is that it’s not so much political as it is ideological. You’re not fighting any specific government or politics as much as you’re fighting Armenian nationalism. How does that affect your actions and the initiatives you bring forth?

It’s a conflict between a Soviet form of nationalism and European values. The ideology of modern-day Armenia is ethnic nationalism of the Soviet, fascist type. The reaction of our former brother, Azerbaijan, is the mirror-image of this ideology. There’s an ideological conflict between the deceptive concept of collective rights, and the rights and freedom of the individual. All my actions and initiatives are part of an ideological struggle, of course, but unfortunately this struggle can’t be political, because a single-party political system is still de facto in operation in both Armenia and Azerbaijan.

What does Armenia have to gain from ostracizing Azerbaijan and Armenia and allowing this conflict to continue?

If the conflict continues as it is now, we’ll end up not with a result as such, but with consequences. As a consequence of this conflict, Armenia lost its chance to become a sovereign state. After the fall of the USSR, because of the Karabakh conflict, Armenia fell under Russian control. Today, Russia controls the Republic of Armenia, and exercises its power through the collaborationist regime. The continuing conflict threatens to lead to the loss of sovereignty in Azerbaijan: Azerbaijan might be occupied by Russia in the same way that Armenia was. And this will open Russia’s way to Georgia and the complete restoration of Russian control in the region.

What are your hopes for a future reconciliation between Armenia and Azerbaijan?

In just two or three years, the Tekali Process has begun to be perceived as an alternative to the OSCE Minsk group. The activities of the Minsk group are for elites and recognized by presidents, but the Tekali Process is a grassroots process, directed at the people who are suffering from the conflict and caught in the crossfire. The Tekali Process demonstrates the falsity of the Minsk group’s activities, in which the Co-Chairs instruct the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan to prepare their societies for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. The Tekali Process demonstrates that people and society don’t need preparing. Our societies are in real need of a peaceful and rapid resolution of the conflict; it’s just that under the conditions of a covert military regime the people’s voice, the citizens’ voice, is silenced. Tekali is an alternative to the undeclared war the state is fighting against its own citizens. Tekali is a place where citizens’ voices, once silenced, can be heard. All my hopes are pinned on the Tekali Process.

Georgi Vanyan by SampsoniaWay.org on Scribd

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