The future is youth – meet the Armenian who wants to build a more inclusive society
On a sunny day in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, I am welcomed by Grigor Yeritsyan to the newly renovated office of Armenia’s Progressive Youth (APY). Yeritsyan, president and co-founder of one of the country’s leading youth organizations show me around the building, which except for an office has been turned into a meeting place for workshops and lectures, and a social hub for youth to hang out and work on their own projects.
I have come here to learn more about the kind of work that APY does and their vision for a more inclusive and progressive Armenia. As we sit down to chat, Yeritsyan tells me that he was just a freshman at Yerevan State University when he and a group of other students decided to start a student organization. That was fourteen years ago, and just one year after violent anti-government protests, spearheaded by Armenian youth, had seen 10 people killed in the streets of the capital for protesting falsified election results. According to Yeritsyan, this event kick-started motions that over time would move the country closer to real democracy.
A nation-wide movement
Back at university, Yeritsyan and his group of friends were witnessing how patriarchal and ageist structures, coupled with deeply entrenched corruption severely limited the voices and opportunities of the country’s younger generations. As the organization and engagement grew, they understood that if they really wanted to represent young people, the organization should not only be limited to students. Especially since education is not free in Armenia and many families can’t afford sending their children to university. Today, APY has grown into a nation-wide youth movement.
As the current president of the organization, Yeritsyan’s focus is now set on the further development ofe a national youth council that will serve as a consultative body to the government on all issues concerning youth. With over a decade of experience, they are aware of the challenges that comes with trying to make policy makers and governmental agencies listen. The youth council aim to cover the whole country by engaging youth organizations from different regions in an attempt to make it unavoidable for the government to include youth perspectives in future policy making. This, he believes, will be a steppingstone to making Armenia’s already fragile democracy more sustainable and inclusive.
A step in the right direction
When we brush upon the topic of Armenia’s current domestic and external political situation Yeritsyan recounts a sense of depression and apathy that he feels is lamenting society, dating back to the Covid pandemic and outbreak of the second war with Azerbaijan in 2020. Before that, Armenian society was still high on the aftermaths of the 2018 Velvet Revolution. Contrary to ten years earlier, the protests in 2018 transpired peacefully - and led to the ousting of a government that people deemed unfit to continue ruling.
With a new government led by Nikol Pashinyan, many former representatives of civil society were appointed to important positions in government. This move was perceived as a step in the right direction to include broader perspectives from civil society and to move closer to European values and a potential future accession into the Union. Unfortunately, according to Yeritsyan account, most of the progressive people who took up office in the new government, ended up “getting swallowed by the system” which disrupted the momentum that the protesters had gained to affect real change.
At the same time, Armenia literarily finds itself between a rock and a hard place in terms of foreign policy. When typing out this interview, barely two months have passed since Azeri military begun a 24h hour campaign to reclaim the Armenian inhabited region Nagorno-Karabakh. At this point, around 120 000 Armenians who made up 80% of the population in Nagorno-Karabakh has been more or less forced to leave their homes, causing nationwide chock, grief and chaos in Armenia, and strong condemnations of the Azeri regime by the international community.
Geographically locked between Turkey and Azerbaijan, both perceived as enemy states, Armenia has been dependent on Russia for both economic and military support over the last three decades. In 2020, amidst the global Covid pandemic, Azerbaijan launched an offensive to reclaim Nagorno-Karabakh, which is on Azerbaijan proper but controlled by Armenia since the war in 1991-1994. After 44 days of war, a ceasefire was brokered, and Armenia almost all lost all control over Nagorno-Karabakh. Making matters worse, Azeri “climate activists” started a blockade of the only passage connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenian proper in December last year, resulting in a humanitarian crisis with food, medical, and energy shortages taking a create toll on the regions inhabitants. The short campaign that was launched by Azeri military on 19 September this year, and the subsequent exodus of Armenians from the region, has greatly changed to security dynamic in the region and left the Armenian government with the overwhelming task to deal with a grieving and shocked society, while gathering strength to lead Armenia on the path to a brighter future.
Neither Russia, nor the EU or any other international organization has been able or willing to do anything to stop current developments, which has left many Armenians with a bitter feeling of being left alone. In Yeritsyan’s words, development in the last few years has turned a carefully optimistic country into an apathetic state.
Keep up the fight
Life is still ongoing. Moving away from the horrible and complicated realities of conflict and war, I want to ask Yeritsyan about some of the main challenges for Armenian civil society. Unsurprisingly, he tells me that one of the primary issues is lack of core funding, which means that a lot of CSO can’t afford to have paid staff. This in turn increases the likelihood that organizations become doner-driven, chasing money, rather than engaging with issues that they feel truly passionate or knowledgeable about. Adding on to this, he describes a relatively young civil society sector, that lack opportunities to learn from others and opportunities for capacity building. This coupled with lack of funding makes it hard for new initiatives to transform into sustainable organizations.
As we end our conversation, Yeritsyan tells me that he believes that Armenians have a responsibility to do more than protests, that despite mounting external and internal problems, it is time for his fellow countrymen be responsible and accountable citizens who beyond taking to the streets, engages, believes and fight for a brighter future. With the recent loss of Nagorno-Karabakh, this sentiment now appears both more complicated and more important than ever.
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