EVN report editors Maria Titizian and Roubina Margossian
TorontoHye editor Karin Saghdejian had a candid conversation this summer in Yerevan with the editor in chief Maria Titizian and managing editor Roubina Margossian of EVN Report, a web based media outlet that provides political analysis of events shaping the Armenian life in Armenia and Diaspora.
Here is the interview transcribed by Varak Babian.
Karin Saghdejian- You’ve lived primarily in Armenia for over 15 years now, and I’m sure you have experienced many of its changes. In what ways has Armenia changed in the time that you’ve been here- both socially, or even in a more general sense?
Maria Titizian- Well, though a lot has changed, a lot remains unchanged.
K- Well what has changed, and what hasn’t.
M- As a mother coming to Armenia- there are changes in terms of what was available and what wasn’t available. Starting from the fact that my kids stopped drinking milk because they couldn’t find milk they could stomach; or there were no supermarkets, no movie theatres, no malls that we could go to. There were no streetlights in the city for years. I remember when Amirian Street was lit up for the first time… “îûÝ ¿ñ Ù»ñ ï³Ý Ù¿ç!” Because the city would be plunged into darkness every night! Seemingly simple things like the condition of the buildings, or the schools that my children went to- a great school, but with no proper toilets, water damage everywhere. In this sense, there have been tremendous changes on the outside. Now there are restaurants and malls, and cafes, and movie theatres, sporting goods stores, everything you want today- you can find in Yerevan.
I remember I went to the post office. I had to pay my bills, and I’m standing there, and of course fresh from Canada, I’m used to standing in line for things. People were coming in, cutting in front of me, and I didn’t know what to do. The woman working there saw me standing around and said, what do you want? I said I want to pay my bills. She said “So say something!”. I realised you have to push your way. It was such a foreign culture for me, growing up in a country that was so polite, and so courteous. So it was a tough adjustment process.
K- What kept you going?
M- I burned all my bridges! (laughing) I just put my head down, and I decided to get through it. Even with my children we don’t like to talk about the first couple of years. We all went through our own transitional difficulties. Culturally, everything was so different. So when people intent to move here, it’s an easier decision now. When they express doubt, I always say, “Are you kidding me? It’s like paradise now!” So in that sense a lot has changed.
If we’re talking pre-revolution, a lot hadn’t changed in terms of governance, in terms of social justice, in terms of social cohesion; opportunities and things of that nature. The velvet revolution came and changed so much.
K-let’s look at it from this side. How is the Diaspora perceived here in Armenia compared to when you first moved here, to now?
M- I think there is more of a familiarity. But there is still such a huge divide in how the locals perceive the Diaspora.
The interactions are so important. You’ll have Diasporans that will come here with a very preachy attitude. “You guys should do this or that, we know better than you.” Yes, the Diaspora is much more affluent, and there are many talented people in the Diaspora with important initiatives, but that doesn’t mean they understand the life, the experience, the story of the people who live in this country. We don’t have that mutual respect for one another. I think the beauty of our differences is that we can bring different experiences to the conversation without being arrogant about it. My life experience can be an asset here, and their life experiences can be an asset to me in my life, in the way I work and understand.
We have a generation here in Armenia today that is better than you and me. They see the world in a different way.
Roubina- For me, it was kind of different. I was born here, my mom is hayasdantsi. That interchangeable relationship between Diasporans and Armenians- I’ve experienced it from 2 different vantage points. It wasn’t easy being a hayasdantsi in Lebanon. Especially for my mom moving there in 1980. Being a hayasdantsi aghjig, something is always perceived to be off about you; especially growing up in such a tight Armenian community like the one in Bourj Hamoud.
It was 1999 when I moved to Armenia, as a 19 year old. You were perceived as an alien because there is something in your accent that they don’t quite accept. That has changed a little bit, especially with some Syrian Armenians moving to Armenia.
K- So the Syrian Armenian presence has changed that narrative?
R- It brought acceptance, it bought a new culture. And of course, the food! They definitely played a role in the shift.
M-And plus there is so much more interaction now compared to before. Especially young people from the Diaspora who are coming here with Birthright or AVC. They are much more tolerant of Armenia, when compared to my generation. So much more accepting of everything in Armenia, even with the notion of wanting to bring good change, without the air of all knowingness. They’re much more global in their thinking, much more open than we were, much more tolerant. We grew up in sometimes very small, conservative, politically affiliated communities. There was one way of thinking and these kids have been liberated from that.
K- So you think all these organizations that work with young Diasporan Armenians have made a difference?
M- That can sometimes be a blanket statement. I think everybody does his or her part, and it’s an evolutionary process. It’s very hard to measure that kind of change. We just, from our own personal interactions, have our own opinions.
R- Also I think they were born at a time where Armenia was independent, so their relationship with the country from the get go was different.
M- There was this mythical falsehood. “Երկիր Հայրենի, մեղր է հոսում…”. We didn’t want to accept Armenia as a real country. We grew up with Armenia being this mythical, ethereal land. One day I woke up, and I thought that for my children, Armenia has always been independent. They don’t have expectations of this lie that’s been pushed down our throat. For them it’s a country, it’s their country. They take the good with the bad.
R- I think the generational difference is that you always, at one point, always had the expectation of being the ones building it… and the new generation is the one helping it.
K- What do you think should be the role of the Diaspora when it comes to the internal process of Armenia? How do you see the role of the Diaspora in general?
M- It’s a very complicated question, because for many years, the position of Armenian authorities, and of Armenians in general, was “Help us, support us”, but when it comes to political issues…stay away. If you have something to say, if you want to change something, come build a house, come live here. For the Diaspora that’s very difficult. On the one hand there is the good intention, to want to help the homeland. On the other hand, just as you said, they’re really not interested in the political processes- even if we try to present it to them on a silver platter. So, should they be involved in the political processes of the country? How do they do that sitting in New Jersey, or London, or Toronto, how do you do that? So, my point is, there has to be those horizontal connections. For example, you’re sitting in Vancouver, and you’re passionate about children’s rights. Find those organisations today in Armenia that are working within the field of children’s rights. Reach out to them. There are so many ways that you can reach out and try to help, right?
So in terms of the Diaspora, because it’s so multilayered, you can’t talk about it in one fell swoop. As individual Armenians, if you want to help, there are lots of ways you can help. As organizations, you need to re-examine how you engage with Armenia. AGBU has decided it’s going to be Armenocentric. They want to focus their energy in Armenia. It’s about bringing the professional mind here, let them be advisors to ministers here. Let them work within different agencies; people who are successful in their particular field. I have a friend in Toronto who has been working in social services for decades. She’s amazing at working in the social service sector. When it comes to the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs- how do we connect this woman with this ministry? That’s what needs to happen.
R- I think the Diaspora should take time and think about itself. Reorganize. If people in the Diaspora feel like the traditional organizations are not serving their needs, or their expectations to be the bridge between their community in the Diaspora and Armenia, they should recalibrate. I don’t know why there is a lack of alternatives.
K- Did you see the current Revolution coming?
M- I’d be lying if I said I did. We all knew it would happen at one point, but we didn’t think it would happen the way it did or it would happen now. In retrospect, the last 20 years of this pent up frustration that people had was growing. I think the breaking point was when the Republic Party of Armenia had become so arrogant and so indifferent. “ÆÙ ¹¿Ùë Ë³Õ ãÏ³Û ³Õµ»ñ ç³Ý”…If they had not offered Serj Sarkissian’s candidacy, this would not have happened. That was there one fatal miscalculation. And to add to this an “opposition” leader who never backed down, who was constant with his message, ready to put his life on the line. Pashinyan did not back down. It seems like everything fell into place. It was almost magical. If we had this conversation on March 1st, and if you would have told me there would be a revolution in Armenia…I would have laughed you out of the room.
R- And another possible explanation as to why we never saw it coming, is because it didn’t start with Pashinyan. It was such a long, gradual process.
M- It’s hard to pinpoint. Did it start with the 2015 Constitutional Referendum?
R- Was it March 1, 2008? The want for change was simmering for so long.
K- Both of you live in Armenia, you feel the pulse of the city. What did it change?
M-Apart from more smiles all around, there are 2 things. It set motion to a series of events that changed the status quo. It also empowered people; even if things go very badly. Even if during the elections something happens and a flawed party becomes a majority. Whatever the scenario might be, I think that empowerment and that one notch of political consciousness in the people is there. There had been this narrative of helplessness. This belief that “My vote won’t change anything”, and for a critical mass of people, the feeling of being powerless changed. That’s the most important thing. I’m sure tough days are ahead of us, we might be extremely disappointed. It’s impossible for things to only go smoothly. Bad decisions will be made, but that is where the role of the media will come into play. We have to work on that critical mass. We can’t allow for them to lose that momentum.
R- I think a lot of things will not go back to how they were. Firstly, there’s this kind of reconciliation between the police, the national security forces and the people. I’ve never seen people liking or trusting the police in Armenia
M- The National Security Service was finally allowed to do their job. It was allowed to crack down on corruption, and to arrest and detain those people who have taken advantage of this country.
R- This reconciliation is such a contrasting movement when compared to the past.
What we’ve really gained is that if Pashinyan was one of the few »½³ÏÇ politicians that persisted and stuck to his principals, spoke up for the truth. I think within 5-8 years, we’re going to have evolution of political culture. These young activists, young students- they’re going to be politicians, mirroring Pashinyan’s image. That’s very hopeful. That means we’re going to have a variety, we’re going to have a dialogue.
M- We’re going to have a real opposition finally in this country. The republicans are technically an opposition, but they are not equipped to be so. Because by being apart of the establishment for 20 years, and having deep roots to different forms of governance.
Also, existing political parties may be forced to redefine their role, and hopefully there will be political and ideological discussions taking place. Quite simply, we don’t have that right now. It will force Pashinyan and his Civil Contract Party to look within, and ask what kind of party they represent. The comparison to aggressive centralism has floated around, modelled after what Macron is doing in France right now. We live in a post modern world. Do those “isms” even exist? Those big global ideologies of communism and capitalism. But at the end of the day, when you’re going to be defining your economic and social policies, it has to have an ideological framework. Is it going to be the American wildfire capitalism framework, where you pull yourself up from the bootstraps? Or is it going to be more of a European model? Or a Nordic model? These things are very much still in their adolescent stages. I hope we’ll see the development of more think tanks in Armenia, more political analysts. Maybe we will have these conversations that we felt were pointless under the old regime.
I just called the Diasporan Minister today. I introduced myself, and I received such a warm response. I had written to the Foreign Affairs Ministry in the past multiple times, never once receiving an answer. The accessibility all of a sudden that we have with these people is so encouraging. So when we do come up with alternative policy frameworks, as stake holders, we know that they’re going to listen. That’s never happened in Armenia before.
K- There’s an opinion that this new development in Armenia is perhaps just improvement strictly on the surface level with no actual substance.
M- Even if this revolution was a grand plot, orchestrated by questionable sources…You still can’t explain how all of Armenia, not only Yerevan, was ready to demonstrate for change. The resentment had been simmering, all the people needed was a spark, and they got it. If my people are on the street, I’m going to be on the street. I’m going to stand by the people. The population is not stupid, don’t let anybody try to tell you otherwise. The people are satisfied now, but in 6 months if they don’t see any changes, I’m sure they will be frustrated.
K- I heard somebody saying if the changes aren’t made, they’ll take the streets with protest again.
M- See, that’s powerful. Now there needs to be a shift of thinking, where we need to realize that the majority of change has to happen not from protesting, but from voting; a transition of thought. The hope is that the same people who wholeheartedly were protesting in the streets because they believed they were making a difference, will also wholeheartedly believe that by voting they’ll be making a difference as well. Now will they be successful in informing or advising the people that loyally hit the streets to hit the voting stations as well? The people will vote if they believe that their votes won’t be compromised. Ok, let’s say 10 percent of the votes will be compromised…but in the past 30, or 40 percent of the votes wouldn’t remain true.
That deep distrust that existed between the people and the state needs to change. And if the people believe that the voting process will be genuine, they will make their voices heard.
K- Are you an optimist when thinking about how this “transitional” period will take its course?
R- I think sometimes we display our traditional pessimism, and question the whole uprising. “It’s too good to be true” and “When are things going to go wrong?”. Even when, or if, things go wrong- things can be fixed. It’s a part of the process. I don’t think we need to skip a heartbeat when a door is closed, or if we hear negative dialogue in a taxi ride. I’m prepared for the long haul, and also, prepared to face a lot of uncomfortable situations. The most difficult part is not done now, but a big chunk is done. We went from bearing the unbearable, to hopefully bearing the uncomfortable.
M-In the process of building a state, of course there’s going to be a lot of dialogue. I think it’s important as members of the media to hold them accountable. We can’t be their cheerleaders. We haven’t been their cheerleaders; we have to also make sure to keep them on their toes. If they made a promise, we have to remind them to work towards keeping it. If we don’t do that now, we’ll have a copy of what we had before.
K- Can we say we have a free media in Armenia?
M- Free, but not necessarily independent. There’s a nuance there. Look, if you compare Armenia, the level of freedom in press or speech here, to our neighbours…! Look at Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Russia. These countries have the worst records when dealing with the freedom of the press. The problem we’ve had in Armenia, because we do live in a conflict zone, and because we’re not necessarily independent is a lot of self-censorship, which is a dangerous thing.
R- I think “independent” and “free” are two different things. I think there is a lot of self-correction that can be done that would elevate the image of the media; like the police, and the government.
M-There has to be an improvement in the media landscapes absolutely, especially the broadcast television stations. Every sector, every industry in Armenia needs a restart.
K-Do you think the Revolution has affected the way media is presenting the events in Armenia?
- I think to change that culture is very difficult. Just as it is very difficult to tell judges they should pass down a verdict based on the law, and not because they got money or somebody important whispered in their ear. This whole culture shift needs to take place for them to understand that the news directors, or the editors have the right to determine what are the important stories of the day. Not making decisions based on a phone call or self censorship.