Friday, April 06, 2007


By Onnik Krikorian

Youth in newspaper hats stand on street corners and read aloud from Armenian dailies. Masked young people march by parliament yelling "Don’t Eat Too Much!" at deputies. It’s election season in Armenia, and with the parliamentary vote just over a month away, one unconventional youth group is waging weekly war on widespread political apathy.

Formed in 2003, Sksel a (It’s Started) has an uncertain number of members, but its youth-oriented events in downtown Yerevan have been gaining growing notice. Its target is the 639,950 Armenian voters below the age of 30. Its mission is to show young people that public affairs have an affect on their lives -- the cry to deputies, for instance, was a thinly veiled allusion to allegedly high-levels of government corruption.

The group claims that its purpose is not overtly political, and, at first glance, for many passers-by, the February march through town that also aimed to "wake up society from its winter slumber" appeared to be just a celebration of the traditional Lenten holiday of Barekendan. But hidden among the color and noise which define every Sksel a event, a political message is becoming more evident as the May 12 vote approaches.

Posters calling for the release of recently detained former Karabakh commander, Zhirayr Sefilian, have been on display at recent events, for example. The group’s most recent demonstration was staged to protest the eviction of tenants from their homes in downtown Yerevan to make way for new construction, a topic with political overtones.

Some observers are already trying to make comparisons between Sksel a and Georgia’s Kmara (Enough) or Ukraine’s Pora! (It’s Time!), youth groups that played key roles in those countries’ respective 2003 and 2004 revolutions.

One of Sksel a’s organizers and founders, 24-year-old Arsen Kharatian, understands the motivation for the comparison, but says he is unhappy with it. "I don’t know if we are or not [similar]," Kharatian said. "We mean different things to different people and we will follow our own direction."

Twenty-seven-year-old Mikayel Kazarian, one of the group’s most active participants, has his own expectations of what he hopes will be achieved. "We’re part of the process that will bring change," he told EurasiaNet. "The authorities should feel that they’re being watched by the people. When society is passive, the authorities can do everything and anything they want, and we need to apply pressure to change that."

The authorities, however, have not rushed to second that intention.

Citing previously scheduled outdoor events, Yerevan’s city hall has refused permission for the group to hold an April 14 open-air rock concert, funded, like the February march, by the British Embassy.

Like other observers, Sksel a organizer Kharatian is concerned that such decisions are directly related to the election and attempts by the authorities to prevent alternative groups from holding meetings or staging rallies.

If so, Kharatian argues, the decision is misplaced. "I wouldn’t say that we’re directly concerned with the election as we’ve existed informally as a group since 2003, " he commented, "but there’s no doubt that the country is about to face a major challenge which is why we’ve become so active now."

The group has applied for an alternative date, but has yet to receive a response, he added. A fresh refusal would demonstrate whether or not blocking Sksel a events is "official policy," he continued.

Critics however, contend that many youth are attracted to Sksel a by the possibility of attending free concerts or meeting other young people with similar interests.

While supportive of the group, Eleonora Manandian, one of the leaders of Armenia’s more active student movement during the mid-1990s, comments that interest in politics among Armenian youth runs borderline to nil.

"Young people don’t care, especially when it comes to politics. They don’t think that it is possible for politics to be honest and don’t believe they can change anything even if they wanted to," Manandian said. "And if there are those who are interested in politics, it is only for their own personal careers or financial gain."

Sksel a’s Kharatian observes that "[y]outh in Armenia only become active if it directly relates to them on a personal level, and that’s sad for us, and it needs to change."

Already, some political parties are trying to put that trend to work. Prosperous Armenia Party Youth Coordinator Isabella Shirinian admits that two buses bearing the party’s logo which provide free transportation for students to and from Yerevan’s Polytechnical Institute are designed to target the youth vote. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive].

To ride the buses, students hand over their identification cards before they are returned some days later. The buses also make unscheduled stops en route at party events and meetings. The implication from party representatives is that students should vote for Prosperous Armenia at the polls, noted one student.

"Elections don’t happen every day, and it shouldn’t be surprising that students take any opportunity given to them to save several hundred drams on travel," said the student, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "This happens every election and is the main reason why most young people don’t take them seriously."

Opposition parties also indulge in handouts. One recent story on an election site run by the media assistance organization Internews reported that the Orinats Yerkir Party offered recording assistance to an aspiring young musician in exchange for attendance at party events.

Yet some civil society activists are more optimistic about the possibilities for youth to become involved in Armenia’s political life. The mixture of lighthearted fun and seriousness at Sksel a events, opined Jeffrey Tufenkian, president of the local Armenian Forests NGO and a veteran American environmental and human rights activist, provides a critical opportunity for "positive activism."

Said Tufenkian: "It is actions and initiatives like this which gives me hope for Armenia."

Editor’s Note: Onnik Krikorian is a freelance journalist and photographer from the United Kingdom based in the Republic of Armenia.

Posted April 5, 2007 © Eurasianet

Note: Above are excerpts from the article. The full article appears here. Clarifications and comments by me are contained in {}. Deletions are marked by [...]. The bold emphasis is mine.



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