Across an ocean and a continent, on a sliver of land tucked between two seas, a little republic enters its 20th year of independence. I know a man there, an American by birth, who quit his law firm in Los Angeles around this time 20 years ago and decided he had no further business in the United States.
It was a romantic time. One by one the 15 Soviet satellite republics were breaking from the Kremlin’s orbit and exiled sons were returning to their homelands to share in the creation of new states.
My father, Raffi K. Hovannisian, once a football star on the Pali High Dolphins, quit his law firm and moved with wife and children to Yerevan, the capital of Soviet Armenia. After independence was officially declared on September 21, 1991, my father was told he was the republic’s first minister of foreign affairs and handed a fax machine and a first month’s paycheck of 600 rubles — $143.
All across the Soviet plains, the seeds of democracy were being sown into soil tyrannized for generations, and no one doubted that they would grow. Certainly my father didn’t. Within a year, he had established diplomatic relations with every major democracy in the world. He had raised the red, blue and orange Armenian flag at United Nations headquarters in New York.
That was 20 years ago.
The shadow of history soon closed in on the Armenians. The capital went dark. Faucets dried up. Grain shipments stopped coming in. Suddenly, as if for the first time, the Armenians realized where they were: to the west, a history of horror with Turkey, the memory of genocide in 1915; to the east, the anticipation of war with Azerbaijan, occupant of the ancient Armenian enclave of Artsakh, or Nagorno Karabakh.
It is a dangerous thing, when survival becomes the sole ambition of a people. But that is what happened to the Armenians in the years after independence. They lost their hope, their cause, their conviction. They were not as generous as they used to be. And the old Soviet symptoms reappeared.
On the streets of Yerevan, a generation of child beggars emerged. Policemen waved batons for two-dollar bribes. Teachers worked for bribes, too. The president came to control every judge, prosecutor and public defendant who wanted to keep his job. There never was a fair trial in Armenia, and never a free election. The incumbent never lost a race. The loser never went home without first leading a mob of a hundred thousand citizens through the capital.
In 1999, during a session of Parliament, all the president’s adversaries were assassinated.
My father had long resigned from the Yerevan government, but he, at least, never gave up the dream. In 2001, he gave up his American passport once and for all. The following year, he founded Heritage, a national-liberal party, which is now the opposition in the Yerevan Parliament. To this day, my father is admired by his people — in a recent poll, Gallup pegged his popularity at 82 percent. But not for the obvious reasons.
“Achke kusht e,” the people say of him, “His eye is full.” In other words: the man has seen the world, and he’s not in politics for the money. In Armenia, that is enough.
Today the Yerevan government is linked to a group of powerful businessmen, the “oligarchs,” who control the political game. One of them has the monopoly on gas, another the monopoly on sugar and flour, and all of them have nicknames, armies of bodyguards, and fleets of luxury cars escorting them ostentatiously through the city.
The oligarchs are multimillionaires, the lot of them, though they have incurred great debts to the original power tycoons surrounding the Kremlin in Moscow, to whom they have been selling the country’s gold mines and electricity plants. And they are ready to sell much more than that.
Last month, Armenia hosted a summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a post-Soviet alliance including Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan — all republics unclaimed by the West that are now following an ancient gravity to its source in mother Russia. During the August meeting of the organization, Russia secured a 24-year extension of its lease on a key military base in Armenia. Actually, lease isn’t the word; the base is funded and sustained entirely by the Armenian state.
So you can see why today, in Yerevan, there is not much independence or democracy left to celebrate. By now my father, too, must see what his romanticism has long prevented him from seeing: Armenia is not free, not independent, not united. The Soviet soil has spit out the seeds of democracy.
Of course we hope — we know — that the tree of liberty will grow from that soil one day. But not today, not until it is refreshed by the blood of patriots and tyrants — both of which, I’m afraid, Armenia has plenty of.
Garin Hovannisian, the author of Family of Shadows: A Century of Murder, Memory, and the Armenian American Dream.