Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Whiskey Robber and the Daredevils

In the 1990s in Hungary, there was a young man by the name of Attila Ambrus who came to be known as the Whiskey Robber. He came of age in a time of sweeping changes. An ethnic Hungarian born in Romania, he moved to Hungary in 1988 and committed about 29 robberies in Budapest over the course of seven years always outsmarting authorities. His first foray into the murky criminal world began with robbing a post office and later moving to banks.

Ambrus was elevated to national folk hero status in Hungary. He came to be known as the Gentlemen or Whiskey Robber because he was always polite and charming with his unsuspecting victims and would often drink a glass of whiskey ahead of one of his robberies. There was humor in his actions as he would give flowers to female tellers before robbing them and was also known to send bottles of wine to police.

In 2004, author and adjunct professor at Columbia University Julian Rubenstein wrote a book, "Ballad of the Whiskey Robber" based on Ambrus' life story. The Whiskey Robber garnered public sympathy and became a larger-than-life hero who risked everything to achieve his aims.

A New York Times articles sums it up best: "Sometimes sad, often hilarious and always absurd, Ambrus' tale microcosmically condenses the politico-historic oddities of his place and era into one entertaining and fairly tidy is set amid the flash and contradiction of Budapest in the 1990s, when Russian mobsters and American entrepreneurs were moving in on the ruins of the state-controlled economy with equal voraciousness."

The Daredevils

For the past 12 days, Armenia has been held hostage. Despite the exceptional tension, all of us have been struggling to go on with the daily ritual of our lives. There have been moments of relative peace, mostly when we're sleeping. But even then, some or all of us wake up intermittently in the dark of night, check social media and news sites to see if anything has transpired.

When 30 armed men stormed the Armenian Police Yerevan City Patrol Regiment Building in the suburb of Erebuni on July 17, no one could have foreseen that the standoff would last 12 days (with no end in sight) and in its wake, leave a nation divided and confused.

In the process of this developing calamity, for it is as such, a police officer was killed, several others held hostage and then released, there have been periodic shootings, injuries on both sides, demonstrations, marches, wildly contradictory posturing, a polarized public, fear, detentions and arrests.

It's difficult to make sense of the unfolding events. There is a contradictory narrative developing that is both fascinating and frightening.

The armed men have called themselves the Daredevils of Sassoun after an epic Armenian poem that tells the tale of four generations of heroes who fight valiantly against despotic rulers. The symbolism isn't lost on anyone. The actions of the modern-day Daredevils can be the stuff of folk legends.

The question that has been torturing me is how can a segment (or most) of our people support the actions of these men? How can we go into the streets to demand a legitimate form of governance via an illegal and criminal action? How is it that people are holding up photos of these men and chanting "Sasna Dzrer?" How did it come to this?

Putting the symbolism aside, their operation has sparked both a wave of sympathy and outrage. There is no doubt that their actions were dangerous and obviously criminal. By resorting to the gun, they have created a precedent which will have far-reaching implications. It can set the stage for future violent initiatives and create a culture of militancy and radicalism that this fragile country cannot afford to address nor may it be able to.

It's almost impossible to predict how this standoff will end as it seems authorities in Armenia are content to let it drag on. On the flipside, if they storm the building and if one or any number of the Sasna Dzrers are killed, it might lead to their elevation in our national consciousness of the heroes of the past, who were trying to fight valiantly against despotic rulers.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Test of Leadership

Armenia is in crisis. It has been in crisis for more than two decades. All the pillars of democracy have been compromised - from flawed elections to an absence of justice. Widespread discontent, rampant poverty, a dysfunctional economy and a broken social contract between the people and ruling authority have worn down an entire people.

I don't want to fall into the trap of condemning the actions of a group of armed men who stormed a police station in Erebuni (in the process killing a police officer and injuring three others) while trying to justify their motivation. However, it's a trap that one cannot avoid in this situation. The fact that most or all of them are Karabakh war veterans did not give them the right in "peacetime" to resort to armed resistance. 

Once again, the word "however" is pivotal here.

When you take up arms in "peacetime" on your native soil you do so only in extreme and untenable conditions. This statement begs the question - are we living in extreme and untenable conditions?

For the percentage of those who live in relative privilege and comfort in the homeland, who earn a living wage, the conditions of their lives might not justify such extreme measures. For the rest of the population, whose dignity has been hijacked and who have lost hope, such extreme measures have garnered a quotient of sympathy.

Putting aside all the probable arguments for or against the actions of the group calling themselves the Daredevils of Sassoon, we have an explosive situation on our hands. The outcome is going to be tragic. It is not far-fetched to assume that security forces will at one point storm the building to rescue the hostages and apprehend the armed men. This is not Electric Yerevan where the leadership of the country played a waiting game and their gamble paid off. This cannot go on indefinitely. Something will have to give.

What are the likely scenarios and ensuing results? 

The armed men will surrender peacefully and spend the rest (or most) of their lives in jail. For now, this scenario seems unlikely. Security forces will initiate an operation to storm the building and either all or some of the hostages will be rescued or killed. Either all or some of the armed men during that operation will be killed. If they survive, they will be tried and sentenced according to the law. So they will either die or spend the rest of their lives behind bars. I don't care which side of the debate you are on, all possible scenarios are going to be tragic.

This is a critical juncture for Armenia's leadership. It is a juncture which can test the ability and acumen of the best of leaders (of which we have none or very few). The full responsibility of this current atmosphere of injustice, impunity, political and economic monopolies, in the concentration of real power (police, military, internal forces, etc.), lies with the leadership. Therefore the onus is on them to initiate a real, genuine discourse in the country. Accounts need to be settled. 

If President Serzh Sargsyan and his ruling Republican Party want to survive (in a political sense) then they have no other choice other than to start TALKING to the people. Talking to the people does not mean indiscriminately apprehending people who want to have a real discussion about the issues that effect each and every one of us.

We need to come out from our homes, from behind our keyboards and our perceived existence of well being and begin a real dialogue. The leadership must not only allow it, they are obligated to be part of that process, otherwise conditions will escalate out of control and it is in no one's interest for that to happen.

We don't need an armed revolution, we need a revolution of mindsets and beliefs and vision. Yes, we don't have the luxury of time as migration continues unabated, but we also don't have the luxury of bloodshed on our hands, yes, our hands, for we are all in some measure responsible.

One final thought...mostly everyone has been referring to the armed men as տղաները or 'the boys.' There is a sense that these men are a part of us, of our identity and narrative. And that is why this is all the more tragic.