As a girl, my grandmother saw many members of her family killed when Turkey tried to destroy its population of Christian Armenians around the time of WWI.
She emigrated to the US soon after, thinking she’d never see a free and independent Armenia.
So it has always seemed like a miracle to me that, despite a genocide that wiped out 1.5 million Armenians — 80 percent of the population — they still managed to carve out their own turf in 1918, a small country bordering Turkey and Iran. Although the republic fell to Soviet invasion in 1920, it sprang back after the USSR crumbled in 1991.
I experienced this little oasis for the first time when I stumbled into a summer internship at the Armenian church’s headquarters while I was in college in 2007. The priests took me in, even though I was an agnostic who spoke terrible Armenian. Between enjoying delicious meals like stuffed grape leaves and visiting the country’s sublime ancient monasteries, I also saw how much of a struggle daily life was for Armenians.
As in many former Soviet countries, a clique of oligarchs had taken over the nation’s wealth and worked with corrupt politicians to control almost every aspect of daily life. Police shamelessly demanded bribes. Entrepreneurs were subjected to extortion. Political dissidents were thrown in jail.
I could see the country was technically independent. But free? Not really.
Head of state Serzh Sargsyan perpetuated this system from the time he took office in 2008. Taking a page from Vladimir Putin’s playbook, he hopped from president to prime minister by dint of a sketchy referendum, positioning himself to extend his decade-long rule. While nearly a third of the population lived below the poverty line, Sargsyan and his cronies plundered Armenia’s scarce resources as many of the country’s best and brightest left for opportunities elsewhere.
Rulers like Putin don’t give up power easily. And neither do the heads of ex-Soviet states who emulate him.
But this year, in April, Armenians finally decided enough was enough. Led by former journalist and longtime dissident Nikol Pashinyan, tens of thousands took to the streets, demanding Sargsyan’s ouster and refusing to work, study or go about business as usual.
The last time Armenia had seen protests like this, in 2007, the government responded with a brutal crackdown resulting in at least 10 deaths.
But this spring’s uprising was peaceful and even festive. Unlike many protests around the world in which security forces are viewed — often justifiably — as the enemy, Armenian demonstrators sought to create solidarity with the police watching them. Pashinyan reportedly shouted “the police are our brothers” as he marched down the streets.
Protesters sang, line danced and prepared the local variety of barbecue, called khorovats. When I read about an Armenian boy who blocked a road with toy trucks, I could picture my mischievous 5-year-old nephew doing the same.
While there were reports of widespread arrests, the authorities didn’t open fire. Aerial views of a packed Republic Square in Armenia’s capital of Yerevan evoked Berlin in 1989 or even New York City today.
I’ve felt proud to see the country inch its way toward a democracy that respects every citizen’s rights
After 10 days of nonstop demonstrations, Sargsyan announced his resignation. “I was wrong,” he said in a statement on April 23. “The street movement is against my tenure. I am fulfilling your demand.”
The timing of that announcement — one day before the traditional commemoration of the Armenian Genocide — couldn’t have been more poignant. More than 100 years after Armenians narrowly escaped total destruction, their descendants stood up for freedom.
Armenia’s streets were filled with jubilation, and protesters pressured the parliament into making Pashinyan prime minister days after their victory. Since then, the exultant mood has mostly continued, as Pashinyan figures out how to make good on his promises of ending corruption and bolstering democratic norms. One member of Sargsyan’s old clique has been exposed for stealing food from soldiers, a hopeful first step forward.
Like many of the thousands of Armenian-Americans in New York City, I’ve felt proud to see the country inch its way toward a democracy that respects every citizen’s rights.
This little country’s peaceful revolution holds wider significance for us all.
Other ex-Soviet countries have seen grass-roots reform efforts gain traction, then flounder amid entrenched corrupt interests. The Arab Spring has for the most part backfired, leaving countries like Syria in chaos. And in the United States, many feel a sense of powerlessness as our democratic institutions face unprecedented challenges.
People in Armenia have shown us that protest can work, that individual voices matter.
So this Fourth of July, while celebrating American independence, let’s raise a glass to Armenia, too. A far-flung nation fighting for the same