Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The story of our lives or the year that was...

Tomorrow I will finally put up the Christmas tree with my 1.5 year old grandson, Shahen. 

It's hard to fathom that it's that time of year again. It feels like it was just yesterday that I packed away all the Christmas decorations.

Where did the year go?

The sheer magnitude of events that shaped the story of our lives in 2015 was intense, exhilarating, tragic, beautiful, unexpected; it was a year that will be stuck in the membranes of our memories...

It seems as if a whole lifetime was squeezed into a mere 12 months. 

Just a few days after ringing in the New Year, clashes on the border with Azerbaijan erupted resulting in uncertainty and death. Just as we were recovering from the early onslaught, a horrific tragedy in Gyumri struck a blow to the entire nation. In a gruesome multiple homicide, the Avetisyan family was murdered by a Russian soldier while they slept. The family's sole surviving infant, Seryozha struggled to live but he succumbed to his injuries a week later. And when he drew his final breath and passed, a whole country mourned, our hearts were broken. Remembering him now, almost ten months later still moves me to tears...

Life went on. The Armenian people prepared for the centennial of the 1915 Genocide. The Kardashian family came to the homeland, Kanye West performed a free concert for residents of the capital, the Pope gave a Holy Mass where he called the Armenian Genocide the first genocide of the 20th Century, the European Parliament once again called on Turkey to come to terms with its past, a number of parliaments recognized the Genocide, communities across the globe honored their dead and demanded justice and recognition...

Presidents and dignitaries came to Armenia, the world focused on the issue for about a millisecond, millions of dollars were spent. April 25th came, much didn't change, but life went on.

A few months later, Electric Yerevan electrified the country for several weeks. The world's attention, once again, focused on Armenia. We were inspired, invigorated and hopeful. Tired of a system that was failing us, we hoped that a movement led by new young voices would usher in some kind of fundamental change. While it was successful in illustrating the power of the people, the people still have a long way to go before believing that that power can be the engine for real change. The movement fizzled out, people went back to their normal lives and routines. Life went on.

A referendum on constitutional reforms was held. While it's likely that the majority of the population voted against it, the regime successfully orchestrated yet another rigged vote and thus it passed. Citizen observers did their best to protect the integrity of the vote but they were too few in numbers. We reported about it, wrote about it, griped about it. Life went on.

And in between all of these events, the borders of our country were uneasy. No, they were tense. We lost so many young men, boys really, too young to have experienced all that a blessed life could have offered them. We didn't always give them names. We just simply said, Did you hear? We lost two soldiers today on the border. But they had names. They had mothers and fathers who loved them beyond measure. They had wives and children, and friends and community. Each death struck a blow to each little civilization that gave birth to them and raised them. 

While presidents meet and mediators try to mediate, the soldiers and their families are paying a price for us, for our safety and security and we don't do nearly enough to honor them.

What about the ongoing conflicts in other parts of the world? What about the crimes of humanity that are playing out in real time on our computer screens? The tens of thousands of refugees yearning for a better life, risking everything by crossing borders and seas and dying and drowning in the process? The image of the little boy's body washed up on a Turkish shore that will forever be etched in our minds...

Tomorrow as I decorate that 30-year-old Christmas tree that has been a witness to so many precious memories, I will remember the past year and I will be grateful. 

Grateful for all that we experienced. Grateful for the moments of illumination and the depths of despair because it shaped our collective existence, gave it form and texture and depth. Grateful for the youth of this country, who still believe that change is possible. Grateful to be surrounded by incredibly motivated people, for community and grateful to have the privilege of living in my homeland with my family.

Most of all grateful for Shahen, an amazing little human being in his own right and a blessed addition to our little civilization. In a few short months, Shahen will have a baby brother. They will grow up together, play together, go to school, make friends, fall in love and when the time comes, they will both serve in the army to protect the borders of our country. And while that thought terrifies me, it also increases my resolve to work harder, be better, do that they can grow up in peace.

May 2016 be full of blessings for all of us -- may we love more, play more, read more, enjoy life more, believe in our own possibilities and above all else, may we finally find peace and serenity in our lives.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Power of Us

"In many countries, elections unite people. In your country, your authorities use elections to divide people."
- Roman Udot, 
European Platform for 
Democratic Elections

Maybe we needed to experience this too. Referendum 2015. Maybe this is what had to happen for us to claw and fight our way to that other place. Maybe they had to become more brazen in their criminal actions so that we begin to see the potential power of us, the ordinary citizen. But we aren't ordinary. We are extraordinary. We just need to see it and believe.

Exactly one week ago today, the Armenian people went to the polls to vote on a package of Constitutional reforms and we witnessed yet another vote that was marred by massive violations and electoral irregularities. The subsequent disappointment was familiar. Even before polls closed at 8:00 p.m., we braced ourselves for the results as one violation after another was being reported in real time. 

In the absence of a true, honest and intelligent national dialogue about the reform, in the absence of a relevant opposition that has the ability and credibility to mobilize, and a regime that continues to leave its people unprotected and vulnerable, pushing through a referendum on Constitutional reforms simply compounded the apathy and indifference of an electorate that no longer believes in anything.

For the many beleaguered citizens of this country who did take part in the referendum, the way they voted wasn't about whether or not they live under a particular document - a Constitution - that would determine how they govern and are governed, it was a protest vote, albeit not expressed in the final results. 

But while the disappointment was familiar, it wasn't as deep. It felt different.

Thanks to digital technologies and the mobilization of citizen observers, the vulgarity and criminality of those who took part in falsifying the vote were highlighted in ways that we haven't seen before. 

Those citizen observers, who stood their ground, who knew the law and their rights, who had had enough and were ready to fight tooth and nail to protect the rights of the voters, made a difference albeit small, but a difference nonetheless. Their impact wasn't about the final results but it was about instilling a small seedling of belief in ourselves. 

While the final analysis is yet to be completed, there seems to be enough evidence to suggest that in those precincts where citizen observers were able to make their presence felt, who were able to to push back despite a concerted effort by electoral commission members and proxies of the ruling party to wear them down or get them simply to leave the precincts, the true and free expression of the people was registered - that is, the NO vote won.

Certainly, this time around their efforts did not impact the results, but take a look at how social media is exploding with eyewitness accounts of the violations and you will see how the dynamic is shifting. Online public shaming of those who were part of the fraud machine has forced many of the violators to shut down their Facebook pages because of the onslaught of comments. Information, photos and videos of those electoral commission members and proxies who were responsible for multiple voting, fiddling with the voter registration lists, for ballot stuffing, intimidation, physical violence, obstructing the work of observers and journalists is available for all to see.

The stronger we become, the weaker they become. 

We have two years ahead of us until the 2017 parliamentary elections. If for one moment, we put aside all political affiliations, and say that we, the citizens, the concerned citizens, are going to work together to form our own army of observers, to wage a war against the systematic attempts at obliterating the institutions of democracy in our country, to hold the authorities to account, to force them to comply, to make rigging elections harder for them by showing up. Showing UP. Showing up to vote, to observe, to raise our voices, to register violations, to follow through...

If we, the people, can cover all 1997 electoral stations throughout the country with well informed citizen observers; if we show up to the vote, if we show up to say that my ballot is an inalienable civic right and responsibility and I am going to utilize that right, the harder we will make it for them to rig the vote.

But our engagement as ordinary citizens is not enough. We need political parties that are credible, organized, internally democratic, who have grass roots support, a clear ideology, a platform for reform and a plan for the future and most importantly are not formed around one specific leader or oligarch. Time will tell if this new parliamentary system envisioned under the new Constitution will contribute to the development of political parties. 

And what about those who boycotted the vote on principle or who didn't show up because they believed the results would be manipulated, those who didn't care one way or the other? They are equally part of the problem. 

We need to be present, we need to show up, we need to understand that the majority of the population in Armenia can dethrone a minority regime whose only vested interest is the perpetuation of their own vested interest.