By Nataliya Borys.
The eternal friendship of Russian and Ukrainian peoples.
When I was accepted to participate in the AYSOR session in Yerevan, Armenia, I was truly excited to meet old friends, but in the same time, I apprehended the political debates about Ukraine, Crimea, Russia, Putin and all these conversations that I faced during my last trip or exactly 3 years ago.
When in 2014 I came to Armenia for the first time, I arrived to Georgia and took a taxi to Yerevan. During the long ride from Tbilisi to Yerevan, while contemplating the beautiful scenery, I also had a long conversation, or rather the monolog by the taxi-driver, who was happy to debate the issue of Russia and Ukraine with me. I listened for long hours about the “eternal friendship of Russian and Ukrainian peoples” and about “Slavic brothers”. When I tried to sleep a bit, other passengers fueled the debates adding more to an old Soviet myth about the “eternal brothers, Russians and Ukrainians”. Another day, another taxi in Yerevan, and the same discussion about “eternal friendship of Russian and Ukrainian nations”. It seemed that nobody supported Ukraine. Even during the EYP session, the participants gladly agreed and made a resolution that Crimea is the part of Russia against the virulent protestations of Ukrainian participants.
Thus I was morally ready in 2017 to listen about “eternal friendship of Russian and Ukrainian nations” and to agree with it in order to get rid of this conversation. Half sleepy in the taxi driving from the airport, I was sincerely surprised by the taxi-driver, who uncovered my Ukrainian origins, and gladly made a passionate speech against Putin “Go ahead Ukrainians, f…Putin and all this mafia in the Kremlin”. What?! Am I in Armenia? Can’t believe it. What’s about the “eternal friendship”? Another day, another taxi, and another surprise. A taxi-driver once again gladly debated about the war in Ukraine and even admitting that we shouldn’t fight against “brothers”, concluded that the war was created by Putin and completely useless.
Am I in Armenia? The same Armenia?
Eco-friendly and smoking-free spots in Yerevan.
During my last visit to Armenia, I discovered that all public places were smoking places. There was no way to avoid the smoke in Yerevan, no difference if you‘re a pregnant woman or a child, you always in a smoke. Once I dropped into the hairdresser’s shop and discovered that everyone was in a thick fog, my smoke-stinking hair became more smoke-saturated. Only the EYP was a non-smoking area when we could breathe a bit. After few days, I started to suffocate.
I really feared the smoke and what a surprise! I discovered new non-smoking places in Yerevan. Some cafés offered non-smoking places and some of them, particularly the Green Bean coffee shop, were completely smoking-free. And do you know what? These places were full! Moreover, the hostel was also the smoke-free place. Such a nice surprise!
Few years ago, during the EYP session we debated about the ecological topic, something relating to the traffic problem and the alternative to cars in Armenia. Being in the ecological committee means to be in “loser’s” committee when you fail to accept your ideas to others. We tried to discuss the topic, but participants did not want to listen to. It seems that only the idea to have a bike was extremely hilarious for Armenians. Is it a joke? The car and only the car. It was my another surprise to discover that participants not only to listen to some ecological ideas, but they also tried to find solutions to ecological issues. Such a victory! A bike is not anymore considered to be the loser’s vehicle! Hurrah!
Moreover, the Green Bean coffee shop is Armenian-based, eco-friendly green café where you can enjoy a real good coffee without smoke, gluten-free cakes and salads. Everything is so delicious. On its walls, there are posters about green Yerevan, made in Armenia, waste-sorting and other things that seem to be alien in Yerevan just few years ago. Somehow it became a reality in Yerevan. Another small victory. It is a small victory for Yerevan to have non-smoking places and it reflects the changes in the Armenian society. It becomes acceptable not to tolerate the smoking places. I can breathe!
Women in the kitchen.
Another sensitive topic and another committee, who fails every time, it is the FEMM committee and women’s question. After bikes and dogs, women’s committee is a kind of another “losers” committee. Delegates feel often upset to be in this committee, as their resolutions seldom pass, especially if it is about sensitive topics, such as the burqa, women’s rights, Muslim women or refugees. In 2017 delegates in the committee of FEMM were excited about the topic but did not really believe in their success. If even the officials do not believe in it, so what’s about ordinary participants?
When the delegates presented very careful resolutions (it was all about “suggesting”, “encouraging” and “trying”) I was still pessimistic about the issue. They made a quite conservative, according to the European standards, the project about housewives making the home-made food, called “Women in the kitchen”. In another place, I would probably protest, but it was already a big step and a bald project for Armenia. I made a lot of noise to encourage the committee. And guess what? Another miracle happened! The resolution and the project passed. Passed! Ok, it was not the crushing victory, some of the participants were proud to vote against it arguing that promoting women it is men’s discrimination. Another audacious idea from the committee was to promote the paternity leave. It was something that seemed to be the most alien thing for most of the participants.
Discussing women’s rights and its place in the society was another small victory in the Armenian society. The topic and the committee which fails to be discussed, got its first victory. Viva women’s rights!
Azerbaijan/Turkey: a possible discussion?
Another taboo topic is the discussion about Azerbaijan and Turkey. I didn’t really insist on the topic, but I didn’t plan to hide the fact that I was in both Turkey and Azerbaijan. During the session, we handled the topic a bit, and participants were quite open to discuss it. However, Armenian girls surprised me with their tolerance and openness to the topic. Some of the participants admitted that they had Turkish and Azerbaijani friends, some learn the Turkish language and some of them are quite supportive of Azerbaijan youth.
However, real changes to my mind happened, once more time, with taxi –drivers (taxi-drivers, an indicator of social changes in Armenia?). Asking me every time how I find Yerevan, or which are my favorite places in the Caucasus, they really insisted me to be frank. So, I decided to be frank, and told that the old Baku city is beautiful and very charming. My comment did not provoke any comments or hate speeches. Moreover, we discussed Baku and the conflict in Nagornyi –Karabakh quite peacefully.
Small but perceptible changes.
Small but perceptible changes occurred in the Armenian society among youth, and not only. Of course, I was in Yerevan, in the capital, among “progressive” youth, members of EYP, who are English-speakers, kind of new elite of the country. But there were also taxi-drivers, talks in the hostel, in the museums, in the coffee shops and all other random encounters. Somehow this situation reminds me Ukraine before Maidan, the youth, who aspires for changes and for more just, equality and peaceful society, with European values of tolerance, openness and the rule of law.
Probably these coffee shops, non-smoking places and talks about women’s rights in Yerevan can be seen anecdotic comparing to the whole country, however for me, they are the indicator of the slow, but steady changes in the Armenian society.
Russia and Putin lost it’s the most fervent supporters in Armenia. No more passionate speeches about eternal friendship among “Slavic” nations and “everything but not the war”. The Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) neither brought peace nor prosperity in the country. Prices are high comparing to neighboring countries. The society remains highly corrupted and there are no jobs for young Armenians. Many Armenians still go to Russia to work. The government overuses the pretext of the conflict with neighboring countries to blame everything on it and not to conduct reforms (as in Ukraine). The country seems to be locked in the political and economic deadlock.
The youngsters understand the deadlock of Armenia and seem to be trapped in this situation. They understand that there is no other alternative for the European Union and for the rule of law. They are quite supportive of Ukraine, who dared to challenge Putin. However it is not easy to be surrounded by highly nationalistic, aggressive and powerful neighbors, thus there is no other political choice for such a small country as Armenia.
Nobody expected the Ukrainian Maidan to happen. While Ukrainian political corrupted class arranged the political deal with both Russia and the EU, Ukrainian youth lived its own life: traveling and studying around the world, chatting on the internet, launched new projects. The ignorance of the Ukrainian youth’s aspirations and its steady Europeanization was fatal to the regime of Yanukovych.
The similar changes occur in Armenia. The political class and the youth live quite different lives. The Armenian youth aspires for changes: for a more just society, the state of law, for jobs and for having a possibility to choose for their lives. I am quite optimistic, if even the political and economic situation seems not to develop, the youth of Armenia has already affirmed its choices and voiced loudly their dissatisfaction. Viva Armenia!