Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Young Armenians Turned Off by Politics

Many believe NGOs are the real area where lobbying for policy changes is effective.
By Arpi Makhsudyan, Sara Khojoyan
  • Protests in Yerevan against proposed changes to maternity pay, December 2010. (Photo: Nazik Armenakyan)
    Protests in Yerevan against proposed changes to maternity pay, December 2010. (Photo: Nazik Armenakyan)

Young people in Armenia are joining pressure groups campaigning on issues ranging from the language used in schools to the rights of pregnant women. Experts say the obvious alternative – the world of politics – does not attract the young because they see it as discredited, exclusive and corrupt.

Nvard Margaryan, now a 22-year-old student, has been active in non-government groups since she was 17, campaigning for the rights of children, disabled people, and sexual minorities.

“Social organisations are based on human and moral values like humanism, human rights, democracy and tolerance, which I think must be massively important to everyone,” she said. “Joining one of them allows us to stimulate debate, bring these values to life, and be responsible for our own actions.”

In other countries, energetic young people like Margaryan might be drawn into political activity, but in Armenia it is NGOs that are seen as the way to make a difference.

Vahagn Khachatryan of the opposition Armenian National Congress party says NGOs began becoming much more influential during the build-up to elections in 2007-08, and the violent crackdown on protests that followed.

Khachatryan believes NGOs can be more successful than political parties in some areas.

“Those that are created with a strong desire to change something, and which focus on particular issues, do better than parties,” he said.

Analysts say some NGOs have learned how to make an impact on policymakers, and have thus become part of the country’s political landscape.

“Civil society is only just developing here,” Manvel Sargsyan, head of the Armenian Centre for National and International Studies, said. “NGOs… become particularly active when young people join them; they are able to voice their concerns to the authorities and offer encouragement to a wider section of society.”

Sargsyan pointed to single-issue groups, such as one that campaigned strongly against the opening of foreign-language schools in Armenia. As a result, the government agreed to impose an upper limit on the number of schools allowed to teach in languages other than Armenian, and to permit them only for older children.

Another campaign protested against a government plan to impose a 162,500 dram, 450 US dollar, cap on monthly maternity pay. High-earning women whose maternity pay would have been cut by the measure raised a storm of protest, including via the social networking site Facebook and a demonstration near the Armenian president's residence. The final version of the law represented a concession to almost all the protesters’ demands.

“It was a victory. We were able to start negotiating and we achieved most of our demands, if not 100 per cent of them,” activist Magda Markosyan said.

Margaryan is currently working for the PINK group on sexual minority issues, and believes NGOs have already influenced the government in ways that opposition politicians have not been able to.

“These changes include, for example, the introduction of inclusive education in Armenia, and the provision of housing for people when they leave children’s homes. I could cite a lot of examples,” she said. “Working in civil society and volunteering, you sense your own worth and strength so that you can help make social changes and become part of them.”

By contrast, NGOs working on broader issues, like the Vanadzor branch of the Helsinki Civil Assembly, a respected human rights group, say officials are reluctant to engage with them. Arthur Sakunts, a veteran of the movement, says the government prefers to stage a dialogue with regime-friendly groups.

“The government cooperates with genuine civil society only when the format includes international organisations, or is backed by international structures. The rest of the time, cooperation doesn’t work out,” he said.

Arpi Makhsudyan is a correspondent for Capital Daily in Yerevan. Sara Khojoyan is IWPR’s country director in Armenia.

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