Manning the Home Front
Manning the Home Front

Making Change

Armenian Youth Start with Bus Fare

On a hot summer evening in Yerevan, swelling crowds were jubilant with chants of "Hagh-ta-nak!" (Victory), smiling broadly after the battle they had won.

But those gathered on July 25 were not celebrating the victory of the national football team in a European championship. Nor were they congratulating Armenia's chess masters for winning yet another title.

Instead, the victors were common citizens whose unified six-day campaign forced Yerevan's mayor to suspend a decree (already in effect) raising public bus fares by 50 percent. The hike, according to economists, would have had a detrimental financial impact on two-thirds of public transport riders. Its passage set the stage for a new civil movement.

Dram Disobedience

During the week following the July 20 decree, enthusiastic protesters rallied at bus stops with posters, flyers and appeals: "Do not pay 150 drams! Boycott!" "Have you paid 100 drams? Let me hug you," they cheered, encouraging riders to pay the old rate.

The actions of this bold, young generation broke with the old norm of remaining silent and passive, and the trend spread like wildfire across the city. Hundreds of residents expressed their objection by boycotting public transport in favor of walking or riding a bicycle to work. Dozens of activists and supporters offered free rides to random people at bus stops.

The dynamic movement caught the attention of the highest levels of government, leading Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan to voice his support during a Cabinet meeting. "A strong civil society is being shaped in Armenia and it is our duty to consider that reality while making state decisions," he said.

Sevak Mamyan, 21, who participated on the frontlines of the civil standoff, said that everything started in the virtual realm—on Facebook. Protest groups were initiated days before the actual price increase was imposed, and members made their demands a reality by taking their protest to the streets.

"Many participants expected rallies and marches when they joined, but in our first meeting we laid the foundations for a more organized approach. We formed four groups in the park next to City Hall, one assigned for each area of the city. By dusk, when the crowds had grown larger, it was this decentralized approach that yielded results," he explained.

As opposed to previous demonstrations, Mamyan pointed out that this one was "positive and joyful—hence, attractive."

The success of the movement was possible largely due to methods that kept infighting among activists at a minimum, according to Mamyan. Everyone was allowed their say, and dictatorial approaches were not tolerated.

"The principle right from the beginning was this: if you have a suggestion, do it. If others share your idea, make up a group and do it together. There was no such thing that everybody had to agree over one idea and only then would we start implementing it. This tangibly cut the chances for disagreement," he said.

For Mamyan, the hard-won victories are only one small step. "A few thousand people were celebrating their triumph after the Mayor’s statement on the suspension, but for my friends and I, the struggle is not over yet. The final goal is to achieve total improvement of the public transport system and strengthen civic responsibility."

A Seed Planted in Mashtots Park

During the hot July protest days, activists chose a familiar venue to hold their heated debates and make key decisions. The place was Mashtots Park, which had been saved less than two years earlier thanks to the determination and united efforts of Armenian activists.

During the cold winter of 2012, at an old and rubbish-strewn park in the heart of Yerevan, a group of young Armenians launched a new preservation movement in Armenia.

For more than three months, environmentalists and concerned citizens braved freezing temperatures, snow and rain, to spend nights in what became known as Mashtots Park. They were there to prevent what they believed was the illegal construction of trading stalls in the area.

That campaign was a success, as the municipality-approved construction of boutiques was stopped and the area was cleared of metal structures with the President's intervention.

The more significant success of the park's "liberation" was the realization that the fear and conformism that had reigned over Armenia for decades, clouding the nation's future, could be overcome. Since then, Mashtots has become synonymous with a collective effort to stand up for one's rights in Armenia.

The Mashtots protest movement—termed a "Youth Revolution" at the time—did not necessarily change the attitudes of the authorities, but it did manage to leave a lasting impact on civil society strategies, according to ethnographer Hranush Kharatian.

"At Mashtots Park it was hard to explain to people that it was more than a physical area—that their rights were at stake. But during the transport standoff, there was a clear-cut social issue—the price was being raised and it had to be prevented. So it was easier to mobilize people," said Mamyan. Underlining this point, he points out that the size of the rallies for Mashtots were in the hundreds, while the bus fare protests united people in the thousands.

Mamyan, who hails from northern Armenia's Tavush region, hopes that the activists' recent victory in the capital will inspire youth in his hometown and other rural areas become more involved in their communities. “It is mostly the youth that take part in these civil standoffs. With Mashtots Park, it was the youth, then the older people who joined. What matters most is that the older generation comes to cooperate, rather than dictate," he said.

According to Mamyan, Mashtots Park was like an open air university that educated a new generation in how to become more active in civil society. It was this generation that later played a decisive role in the protests against the fare hikes.

From Park to Politics

Among the "graduates" of the Mashtots Park movement is rising politician Eva Tovmasyan, who ran for office on Yerevan's Municipal Council at only 22 years of age.

Tovmasyan was only a high school senior in February 2008, when Armenia was plunged into political turmoil in the wake of what the opposition claimed was a fraudulent presidential vote. During those frigid days, she would finish class and head to the protest rallies in the heart of the capital, where street clashes between protesters and riot police would leave ten people killed.

Undaunted by the violence and more resolved than ever to make political change; Tovmasyan continued her activism in the months and years that followed. She joined her friends in the successful 2012 campaign to save Mashtots Park.

Last May, at the age of 22, Tovmasyan took her drive for change a step further, boldly running for office on the Yerevan Municipal Council on the ticket of the opposition Armenian National Congress (ANC).

When the election results came in, her party was not voted onto the council, but the budding politician did not lose heart. Today, Tov­masyan continues her activism by working for an opposition-leaning media outlet.

"I have been raised not as a resident of Armenia, but as a citizen of Armenia and I bear responsibility for its environment," she said.

"As soon as I was old enough to enter a polling station I was there— first as an observer, then as a journalist and later as an election committee member. By going to the polls, I am working to change the environment of bribery and lawlessness," she added.

Tovmasyan, who earned her degree from Yerevan's Brusov State Linguistic University, believes that her peers are also eager to stake their claim in their political future.

"Young people are starting to examine what is going on in the country and what role they can play in the process," said Tovmasyan.

"Young people should be able to distinguish between the state and the government. These are not an interrelated bunch of privileged people who sit somewhere and make decisions, but rather, a group of people to whom we, as citizens, have delegated our power to organize things and ensure the general rules of the game," she said.

The young activist is not naive to the problems that exist in Armenia, but she takes a tough line against those who go abroad to build their lives, equating emigration to running away.

"I have thought about studying abroad to introduce a new culture into my country, but emigration is out of the question for me," said Tovmasyan.

"If there is something that you want to change, you yourself should become this change."

Originally published in the October 2013 ​issue of AGBU Magazine. Archived content may appear distorted on your screen. end character

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