FORUM GERMAN-ARMENIAN JOURNALIST EXCHANGE: about the project

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“Forum German-Armenian Journalist Exchange” Project is a fruit of cooperation between Deutsche Gesellschaft e.V. and the Secretariat of Armenian National Platform of the EaP Civil Society Forum. Interested in the promotion of the European Neighbourhood Policy, both partners aim to support a civic and lasting exchange between the countries.

Young journalists from Germany and Armenia participated in study trips to Berlin (October 14-19, 2018) and Yerevan (November 18-24, 2018) respectively, during which they got acquainted with the working conditions of journalists in Armenia and Germany and had fruitful and comprehensive talks with political decision-makers, representatives of media and civil society.

The result of this German-Armenian collaboration and the individual researches and interviews of the participants in the frames of the Project is the articles published on the Armenian National Platform webpage, which touch upon a wide range of issues within the context of the European Neighbourhood Policy.

The Project is implemented with the assistance of the German Federal Foreign Office. The contents of the publications are the sole responsibility of the implementing partners and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the Federal Foreign Office. 

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Posted in English, Forum German-Armenian Journalist Exchange

GERMAN-ARMENIAN RELATIONS AFTER THE VELVET REVOLUTION: Germany will continue its support to Armenia

by Marine Meliksetyan

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Raffi Kantian

To attract more foreign investors Armenia first needs stable judiciary. The Chairman of German-Armenian Society NGO Dr. Raffi Kantian believes that if a country doesn’t have a stable judicial system, it will have certain problems. “You don’t want to engage with a country, be it Armenia, Georgia or any other state, if you don’t have a chance to get your rights protected in court,” Dr. Kantian says. Being the head of an association, which is active in the promotion of mutual understanding between Germans and Armenians, Raffi Kantian says that German entrepreneurs are waiting for what will happen after the snap parliamentary elections in Armenia scheduled for December 9,  2018, in particular whether the reform process will continue, and whether the judiciary will be able to eliminate bribes from the system. The Chairman of German-Armenian Society notes that one may argue that there is no proper judicial system in Azerbaijan, but entrepreneurs still invest there. According to Dr. Kantian, this is because of the amount of money one can earn in Azerbaijan: it is indeed a lot due to gas and petrol, etc. “Armenia is a very small market. So, doing business in these proportions is not very realistic, but if you still do business, you must be sure that there is appropriate judicial system. If you, for example, do not make judiciary reforms, then the chances of getting investments from outside are very low,” Dr. Kantian underlines.

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Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan at “Investment and Trade” Forum

The new government of Armenia understands this well enough. Acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, while attending the “Investment and Trade” Forum in Yerevan on October 26, 2018, pointed out that today’s environment is conducive to investment in Armenia, for everyone is equal before the law in the country. In his speech at the Forum, which brought together ministers, parliamentarians, entrepreneurs, representatives of major companies from 20 countries, Nikol Pashinyan stated that after the Velvet Revolution of April-May 2018, the government set a goal to reinstate the rule of law in the country and turn Armenia into a country of labor and high technologies. “Entrepreneurs and investors are considered to be our greatest allies on this path. This is why we urge them to invest in the Republic of Armenia. We want to encourage labor and success in our country, and we tell investors to come to Armenia, get richer and enrich others,” the acting Prime Minister said.

Hans-Jochen Schmidt, former German Ambassador to the Republic of Armenia, informed that a delegation of small-sized business owners was going to visit Armenia in November to study the opportunities.

It must be noted that Germany is Armenia’s number one partner among the EU member states, having provided hundreds of millions of Euros in aid and low-interest loans to the country since the 1990s. Germany is also one of the most active donor countries supporting the socio-economic reforms in Armenia: it is, in fact, the second after the United States. Germany has provided hundreds of millions of dollars to Armenia as technical assistance.

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Hans-Jochen Schmidt, former German Ambassador to the Republic of Armenia

“The IT field is of course quite known. There is surely certain interest in good talents; TUMO Center for Creative Technologies is a good example. I think the largest investments in the mining field at the moment will continue as long as the government supports the activities of this investor, but I hope that there will be other sectors as well. And, of course, we are interested in contributing to improve your infrastructure,” Hans-Jochen Schmidt says. He notes that Germany followed Armenia’s present acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s fight against the former government in spring with great interest and empathy. He claims that Germany will continue its support to Armenia in order to make sure that the processes started after the Velvet Revolution (for instance, the fight against corruption) continue. “We wish Armenia the best in overcoming the economic, social problems, and to live up to this challenge. It will not be easy for your government, because they need sufficient budget in order to realize some of the promises Pashinyan made. And this is not so easy within a short term. I don’t want to discourage you, but you have to have a lot of courage and unfortunately patience as well. At the moment you have a primary task of making sure the people at least feel supported by the government, and the living standards improve for large part of the population,” former German Ambassador to the Republic of Armenia says.

The Chairman of German-Armenian Society Dr. Raffi Kantian thinks that the developments in German-Armenian relations are very healthy, very positive, and the visit of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in August 2018 was a clear sign of it, since she is the first German Chancellor who visited Armenia.

Diplomatic relations between the Republic of Armenia and the Federal Republic of Germany were established in January 1992. It is remarkable that during this period there were more than 20 official visits from Armenia to Germany at the level of President, Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs. From 1995 there were a few official visits to Armenia by German politicians only at the level of Vice-Chancellor, Federal Minister of Foreign Affairs, and President of the German Bundestag. So, in this context Merkel’s visit was unprecedented.

While in Yerevan, Chancellor Merkel visited the Armenian Genocide Memorial, and confessed that the first place she thought she should visit in Armenia must be Tsitsernakaberd Memorial.

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Chancellor Merkel at Tsitsernakaberd Memorial

Dr. Raffi Kantian describes this as a very symbolic gesture. However, Merkel avoided the use of the term ‘genocide’ in Yerevan. But anyway, according to Kantian, Merkel’s visit to Tsitsernakaberd Memorial was a strong message, since she was harshly criticized for not attending the sitting of the Parliament and missing the Bundestag voting on Armenian Genocide Resolution in 2016. It is noteworthy that during the press conference in Yerevan asked about visiting the Genocide Memorial, Angela Merkel stated that she had visited Tsitsernakaberd “in the spirit of the Bundestag 2016 Resolution.”

The Resolution titled “Remembrance and Commemoration of the Genocide of Armenians and Other Christian Minorities 101 Years Ago” was adopted almost unanimously, and was met with anger by Turkey. The Resolution not only recognizes the actions carried out by the Ottoman Empire towards the Armenian population as genocide, but also points out Germany’s historical responsibility in this crime.

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Bundestag building

Along with its huge importance, the Bundestag Resolution is not legally binding. The Chairman of German-Armenian Society Dr. Raffi Kantian says that currently he doesn’t see any chance of having a second, more comprehensive resolution on the Armenian Genocide. “I don’t think that parliamentarians will try pushing forward another comprehensive Armenian resolution. I know that some had initiatives regarding the punishment of the denial of the Armenian Genocide, but those are just initiatives,” Dr. Kantian notices.

And it is not surprising. Berlin’s diplomatic row with Ankara escalated after the Bundestag Resolution 2 years ago. Before its adoption and right now there are still many problems between these two NATO allies on very different issues. A proof to that could be considered the October 2018 travel advice by the German Foreign Ministry. It warned citizens visiting Turkey to be extra cautious about their social media posts in response to a number of cases of Germans arrested for online criticism of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government. Thus, a new, more comprehensive resolution on the Armenian Genocide in Bundestag would be inappropriate, at least in the near future.

mmeliksetyanMarine Meliksetyan studied international journalism and linguistics at Yerevan State Linguistic University after V. Brusov. Currently she works at “Yerkir Media” TV as a journalist. She is also anchor of a TV program that airs once a week. She reports top stories from around the world.

 

 

Posted in English, Forum German-Armenian Journalist Exchange, Uncategorized

CHESS VALLEY

by Marie Illner

Armenia is located in the Caucasus in a geopolitically tense region. Closed borders, few export products. This is why the country strives to occupy a niche with full force: the IT-Sector. The country does not only want to reconquer its role as the Silicon Valley of the former Soviet Union but surpass it by far.

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More than 10.000 pupils are learning how to program and webdesign in the Tumo Center after school. Foto: Tumo.org

Only two more clicks until Hakob is satisfied. He adjusts the body of his racing car just a tiny bit, then it looks as sporty as he has imagined it to be. “Ready”, he says, claps his hands and saves his 3D-model. Hakob is 12 years old. The car is part of his second computer game – programmed on his own. “Playing soccer at Banants Yerevan or learning keyboard might be cool as well”, he says and stands up behind the Mac. “But nothing is as cool as programming.” When Hakob is grown up, he does not want to become a soccer player but a programmer.

At “Tumo” he is on the right path: The digital media learning center free of charge in the capital Yerevan allows more than 14.000 young Armenians to acquire all the tools necessary for becoming an IT-specialist – for free and voluntarily. Among the subjects offered the kids find programming, robotics, web-design, game development or machine learning.

“At Tumo the kids do what they are up to and learn with fun” says Vahag Bshtikian, who once was a Tumo student as well. The family background of the pupils did not play any role, everybody would start at zero. Bshtikian is convinced: “In ten years Armenia will be a world leader in the IT-Sector.”

A good reason to stay

Since its opening in 2011 boys and girls aged 12 to 18 visit Tumo once or twice a week. Kayne West has already visited the center in Yerevan.

The modern architecture, flooded with light, offers hundreds of co-working spaces with Macbooks and lends Tumo an utopian touch. Inside Tumo it is easy to forget the social situation in front of the doors: Armenia was shaken severely by the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is the poorest country in the Caucasus region, characterized by the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and corruption. Applicable for many people: those who can afford, leave the country.

Tumo is a good reason to stay. For those who own an Armenian passport and are aged between 12 and 18 there is only a short registration necessary until they can start and immediately put together their study plan consisting of workshops, autodidactic exercises and projects.

“We offer three sessions daily,“ says Bshtikian  and points to a screen behind him. Today kids can choose between visualizing google maps, translation tools and music composition. The speakers: International experts, amongst them Google engineer Alen Zamanyan, Uber-Executive Raffi Krikorian or Pixar-producer Katherine Sarafian.

Nation of mathematicians and chess players

The center, which has already branches in three other Armenian cities, is financed by the “Simonian Educational Foundation” of Sam and Sylva Simonian.

Sam Simonian is the founder of the globally leading telecommunications company “Inet”, the couple live in the United States. Armenian organizations had substantially contributed to their success, with Tumo they want to return something to the Armenian community, they say. “Tumo provides access to equipment that normally would be unavailable”, says Sylva Simonian.

Hrayr Shahbazyan has managed, what Hakob is still dreaming about. One year ago he founded his own start-up: A platform for virtual chess lessons. “WooChess” brings together chess coaches and students from all over the world. One hour of teaching by the chess grand master easily costs 100 US-Dollars. Shahbazyan sees a connection between Armenia’s success in the field of chess and the rapidly growing IT-sector – 25 to 30 percent a year: analytical thinking and math skills would be necessary for both fields.

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The founders of WooChess turned their hobby into a career. The market-orientation was internationally from day zero. Foto: Marie Illner

“Silicon Valley got its name from silicium – the basic material for the production of electronic semiconductors”, says Shahbazayan. “We could call ourselves Chess Valley” he says as laughs. In his eyes Tumo is a revolution in the field of digital education. “Our competitive advantage: high quality for a low salary”, says Shahbazyan. In 2017 the gross monthly salary in Armenia amounted 358 Euros.

Angela Merkel was elated

Back at the Tumo Center: concentrated kids are sitting behind more than 400 working stations, some bustle around the snackbar. Maria is studying the programming language JavaScript, Arthur is watching a short video about sound design and Gevorg is taking a quiz on the topic of HTML.

Tumo wants to be more than a learning center: Several sport fields are located behind a self-programmed fountain with light effects, even kids with autism have already successfully passed the “Tumo path”.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, who also visited Tumo in the course of her journey to the Caucasus, was elated, everybody says. The German ambassador in Armenia, Bernhard Kiesler, also speaks enthusiastically about Tumo: The center was a “blueprint”, even an “export hit”.

There are concrete plans for Tumo centers in Paris, Tirana and Moscow, Merkel wants to explore the possibilities for a German Tumo center with state minister Dorothee Bär as well. People are proud in the Armenian ministry for education: “We pay a lot of attention to the IT-sector”, says Hovhannes Hovhannisyan, Deputy Minister for Education.

IT-Start-Up scene is growing rapidly

The efforts are successful: More than 600 companies are active in the IT-sector, a third of them is foreign-owned. Among the well-known IT-giants of Armenian origin you find the foto-editor “PicsArt”, the self-learning platform for programming languages “SoloLearn” and the online-video-maker “Renderforest”.

However, Hovhannisyan still sees need for action: There was a lack of specialists and the cross-linking between companies and universities had to be promoted, he says.

Liana Hakobyan sees the same problems: “The start-up scene in the IT-sector is rapidly growing”, says the 20-year old. Last year she also founded her own company: “Breedge” – a service company that matches students and employers via an algorithm that does not only take into account language skills, internships and studies, but also aligns personality profile and business culture.

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Liana Hakobyan, aged 20, is leading her own start-up. More than 30 percent in the Armenian IT-sector are female. Foto: Marie Illner

Ever more attractive for investors

Hakobyan feels like being at the right place at the right time. “We are the generation that needs to give Armenia the crucial push”, she says. The political situation would play an important role: “The trend of young people leaving the country has been stopped by the revolution, more than that Armenia is becoming ever more attractive for investors because of the change of government”. In April thousands of people went on the streets to protest against the former government. Shortly after, opposition leader Pashinyan became the new prime minister.

The atmosphere for start-ups is characterized by an optimistic mood. For many, especially those who have been socialized in the socialistic system of the Soviet Union, all this sounds like real freedom. “The revolution shows that the future is coming even faster than we have expected”, says Bshtikian .

A lot of young Armenians do not want to hear the question “Europe or Russia?” anymore. Indeed, the EU gives impulses for modernization and Russia guarantees security, but role models can already be found somewhere else. “Steve Jobs has an Armenian adoptive mother, he is my role model”, says Hakob in the Tumo Center. Hakobyan says: “We want to concentrate on our own country.”

Estonia as a role model

It is not that easy: located between Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Iran, Armenia has always been exposed to many different geopolitical interests, 4.1 percent of the GDP is spent on military expenses. Due to closed borders many products can only be imported and exported via huge detours through Georgia and Iran.

Estonia could be a role model – The former Soviet country is birthplace of Skype and ascended as a leading high-tech-nation.

Hakobyan and Bshtikian  do not fear a braindrain. “I am Armenian, so the problems of the country are also made for me”, says Bshtikian . Hakobyan wants to stay as well – because of the familiar community and the liberal IT-sector.

Be so good they can’t ignore you

You can also sense the optimistic mood in the Hero House – an innovation hub supported by the EU that helps start-ups in the field of Internet of Things, Blockchain, cyber security and machine learning. One enters the building with a digital fingerprint, at the walls you find pictures of super-heroes, the toilets are “all gender bathrooms”. The office of the director Ashot Arzumanyan seems creatively messy, books about artificial intelligence are dispersed on his desk.

Adam Bittlingmayer is sitting behind his computer and feeds it with data for his machine translation project. At the wall next to him you can read the slogans “Be so good they can’t ignore you” and “Less meetings, more doing”. The 33-year old speaks seven national languages and three programming languages, he studies informatics in the US and signed his contract with Google translate at 21.

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Signed his contract with Google at 21: Adam Bittlingmayer was disappointed of Berlin as an IT-location. Foto: Marie Illner

Next world language?

“I own a video-streaming company and made my choice for Armenia on purpose”, says Bittlingmayer. Five years of “tax holidays” for IT-Start-Ups were among the motives. “I was disappointed of Berlin as an IT-location”, he says. Just this morning he had problems with his server because of a locked website in Germany – closed by GEMA. “The EU commits suicide in the fields of IT”, he thinks. Too little autonomy, too little competition between the countries, no top universities in the IT-sector and too many equalizing official requirements.

“No wonder that no big cloud operator is based in the EU”, he says.

Not least because of this reason Arzumanyan believes in the potential of his home country. “Armenia is a small country, entrepreneurs are oriented to the international market from the beginning”, he says. Judged per capita, Armenia would soon become a leading IT-nation. English? Russian? Chinese? “Those who can program and understand deep science like physics speak the next world languages”, he is convinced. The Armenians do speak them.

marieMarie Illner works as a freelance journalist for several newspapers, among them “Westdeutsche-Allgemeine Zeitung”, “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” and “Spiegel Online”. She mainly covers politics and society, with an emphasis on interviews and reportages. Marie Illner has a Bachelor’s degree in English and Media Science and currently studies Media Science as a Master’s-program at Ruhr-University in Bochum.

Posted in English, Forum German-Armenian Journalist Exchange, Uncategorized

ARMENIANS IN GERMANY: SEEKING NEW LIFE AND OPPORTUNITIES

by Ani Grigoryan

At the Gesundbrunnen station in Berlin, a young man in sportswear is walking in front of us. We are Armenian journalists talking in our native language at the station. The man suddenly turns around, looks at us and says “Hay eq?” (“Are you Armenian?”). Yes, we are, and so he is. We start to talk. His name is Artur. “When I heard you speak Armenian, I felt my heartbeat in my throat”, he tells us,

Artur is 19 years old, he is an athlete dedicating his time to wrestling and kickboxing. He was born in the village of Artashar, Armavir region in Armenia. It has been already six years that he lives in Germany with his family.

“It was fine, we used to live a normal life in Armenia. In my village we were doing farming and cattle-breeding. We had relatives in Germany and decided to move in with them,” says the young man.

“Here, you go to the Government, and they ask you about your problems. We said we wished to stay here, and described what Armenia’s situation was: hard life in the villages, where it is very difficult to make a living. I said I wanted to dedicate my time to sports. That’s it. Afterwards, they said ‘let’s see how you behave here one or two years, whether you learn the language or not’, etc.”

Artur says they spent the first year in a center for migrants, where the conditions were “very bad”.

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Arthur surrounded by the group of Armenian journalists at the Gesundbrunnen station

“The very first year they were providing us with food. All the migrants were eating together. The bathroom and toilet were shared. We couldn’t work, because it was not allowed. One year later, we moved out to another center, where we spent a year and a half, and then finally we were granted a status and moved to an apartment. Only after that did we obtain permission to work,” Artur concludes.

The young athlete now speaks German. He notes that it was very difficult for him to learn the language, however, in order to get the rights to stay in the country one must speak German. He adds that he is happy with his life. Most importantly, the family members are now employed.

“Currently, my brother works as a mechanic, my father renovates houses, my sister studies dentistry, my mother does not work. Here we obey the Law, the rules of the German society. That is why we don’t have any problem,” says the young boxer.

Armenians in Germany

Armenian presence in Germany traces back to the late 19th century. The first inflow of Armenians happened after the 1915 genocide, and the second, after the Second World War.

Originally Germany was a place of education for many famous Armenians. Legendary composer Komitas, writers Levon Shant and Avetik Isahakyan, painter Vardges Surenyants, Bolshevik revolutionary Stepan Shahumyan and many others received their higher education in Germany.

The German-Armenian Society was founded in Berlin in 1914 by Johannes Lepsius, Paul Rohrbach and Avetik Isahakyan. A few years ago, the 100th anniversary of German-Armenian Society was celebrated.

In the last decades the Armenian community grew in number due to the influx of Armenians from the Middle East. The second wave of mass emigration from these countries took place in 1970s, after the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the civil war in Lebanon.

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The tuff cross-stone in Berlin dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Armenian Genocide

Armenians in Germany are mostly organized around two institutions. One of them is the German-Armenian Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church, located in Cologne. The church has community organizations under its umbrella. The other is the Central Council of German-Armenians, which encompasses both social and cultural associations.

According to the data of the German Prelacy of the Armenian Church, there are fourteen church communities and more than twenty Armenian non-governmental organizations and associations in Germany.

According to the Armenian Embassy to Germany, the estimated number of German-Armenian community members is about 60,000. However, this figure is likely to be different today, as the new emigration of Armenians has begun since Armenia’s independence, and the number constantly fluctuates.

 

 

Armenians want to have an “American dream” in Germany

It is not a secret that European countries, and especially Germany, are seen by many Armenians as socially and economically stable states able to provide a better life. The Armenians go to Germany to study, get medical help, work and just live. Their profiles are quite varied: intellectuals, educators, employers, unemployed and others move from Armenia to Germany.

But the way, getting an asylum in Germany is not easy, and not everyone succeeds.

For the sake of settling down in Germany and building a future, Armenians first apply for asylum and then for the refugee status.

However, according to the Refugee Convention of Geneva of 1951, a person is considered a refugee, having reasonable motives to escape persecution for the following reasons:

  1. Race
  2. Nationality
  3. Religious or political convictions
  4. Sexual orientation
  5. Membership of a particular social group or political opinion

In fact, the main reason for the migration of Armenians to Germany or other European countries is a socio-economic one, which, however, does not fall under the aforementioned grounds for refugee status. And many Armenians are forced to turn back.

An Armenian family in Dresden was forced to return to Armenia after eleven years spent in Germany. The story was reported by the media and local demonstrations took place to impeach the deportation of this family.

In November 2017, the Dresdner Neueste Nachrichten newspaper reported that the parents had come to Germany in 2006 and pretended to be Iraqis, which turned out to be untrue only in 2014. According to the regional directorate, the couple hid their identity from the authorities for years. The three children, born in Germany, also have Armenian citizenship. From the perspective of the Refugee Council, all integration requirements were met. But those integration efforts were not enough. The Hardship Commission added that even the mother and ten-year-old daughter had to return to their homeland. The chances and hopes to stay in Germany were considered low. The mother and daughter considered voluntarily going back to join the other three family members. Such stories are common in Germany. Many deported Armenians lived and are still living in the same desperate situation.

Continuous migration and free visa perspectives

According to the data of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees of Germany, 1594 Armenians applied for asylum in the period of January to September 2018. The number of Armenians seeking asylum in 2017 reaches 3852. It is noteworthy that Germany registered 9881 applications for asylum (this number also includes applicants of the previous years) in 2017, and 7048 or 70% of those applications were rejected.

The number of refugees from Armenia to Germany has risen sharply in recent years. In 2008 there were less than 300 refugee status seekers. Currently this number has reached 3000.

Neighbouring Georgia has been enjoying visa-free regime since March 2017. According to the European Asylum Support Office, the number of Georgian citizens seeking asylum in the EU countries has more than doubled, from 867 in January 2017 to 1859 the same month of 2018. Almost every second of them applied for asylum in Germany.

Germany and Sweden stated about the possibility of freezing visa-free regime with Georgia this year. But the EU decided to give Georgia some time.

How can Georgia’s experience affect possible visa-free travel regime for Armenia?

Armenia and the EU concluded the Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement last year. People in Armenia hope for visa-free travel, although the document does not stipulate visa liberalization.

An official source in the German Foreign Office told online media outlet CivilNet that “Germany recognizes Armenia’s efforts towards progress on Visa Liberalization Dialogue and Mobility Partnership. Visa facilitation and readmission agreements between the EU and Armenia have already been in force since January 1, 2014 (…).  The launch of this dialogue may be proposed by the European Commission in due course, provided that the benchmarks for well-managed and secure mobility are met. This implies an effective implementation of the visa facilitation and readmission agreements”.

Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel also touched upon visa liberalization in her first official visit to Armenia in August of 2018. “The visas related to Georgia and Ukraine have been liberalized. We will do our utmost to achieve visa liberalization with Armenia,” she said.

 

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Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan welcomes Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel in Yerevan

The visa liberalization would provide Armenian citizens with more and better chances to travel to the EU states and explore more opportunities. However, it is also a risk for a small country like Armenia, where every 3rd person or roughly 1 million people have left the country in the past 25 years in search of better economic prospects.

It remains to be seen how the new Armenian government tackles the country’s most difficult challenge – the shrinking demography.

anigrigAni Grigoryan has been working at one of the top online media in Armenia, CivilNet TV for over 5 years. She covers a variety of topics, ranging from social, political, economic issues, to human rights and civil society. She has a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations from the European Regional Educational University. She is also a freelance journalist for the Caucasus regional media Chai Khana.

Posted in English, Forum German-Armenian Journalist Exchange, Uncategorized

SYRIAN ARMENIANS: BACK IN THE “HOMELAND”, SAFE FROM WAR

by Florian Bayer

Being part of a traumatized and displaced diaspora, Syrian Armenians refuse to be labelled as “refugees” back in the home of their ancestors, Armenia. Most are here to stay, since the grueling war in Syria goes on, but also since the more than ten thousand recent settlers are best possible integrated in Yerevan.

“Aleppo Shopping Center” reads a sign at the Republic Square metro station in Central Yerevan, and what you read is exactly what you get: a small mix of spice shops, bakeries, a joint with cheap jeans and t-shirts or a hairdresser, and all praise their products and services in Arab letters: they are predominantly run by Syrians. Armenian Syrians, to be precise, since a total of around 20.000 Syrian-born members of the big and regionally widespread Armenian diaspora moved only recently, during the ongoing Syrian Civil War, to Armenia.

Finding a new home

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Dalida in the bakery

“I came 2014 with my relatives – with high unemployment, wages of only about 200€/month and expensive housing, life here is hard – but we can make it”, says Syrian-born Dalida (53), who runs a small bakery. She has no kids, and with her earning she and her husband can get by one way or another.
Her colleague Greta (name changed) from the shop next door, on the other hand, has no complaints about business: “We have products from Syria, Turkey, the UAE, Iran. Especially our spices are very popular”, says Greta.  Her husband owns the small shop in the metro passage, and indeed every minute the door to the narrow metro-passage opens again and people get in line to buy a handful of exotic spices.  All her family and friends escaped from Syria to Yerevan, where most of them stay until now. Only her kids found a new home in Sweden and Canada, at least for now.

There are essentially two groups of incoming people from Syria, says Anna Dahlaryan, who works for the Austrian Development Agency (ADA). “The first group, among them many more affluent people, came at the beginning of the war, thinking they would just be here for some weeks until the worst is over – which most unfortunately turned out to be wrong. The second one came subsequently in the years 2014 and 2015 and was strongly in need of help”, says Dahlaryan.

Traumatized by losing family and friends and often with nothing more but a small suitcase in their hands, they had to start entirely from scratch. For ADA humanitarian aid was the first step to help, before later enabling the incoming people to continue working in their former profession by providing cheap credits in order to open up their own businesses in Armenia. ADA-projects co-founded by the EU as well as UNHCR, Caritas and Red Cross enabled many refugees to open up Syrian restaurants, handicraft businesses or small shops. “The general attitude towards Syrian Armenians was very positive. There was a strong consensus in society that they should be repatriated as fast and thoroughly as possible”, says Dahlaryan.

Also 22-year old Aram (name changed), who himself came from the Syrian city of Latakia at the Mediterranean Sea, speaks about the enormous helpfulness of both the Armenian people and the state.  Aram came with 17 years to Yerevan, without having friends or families here: “I had to start from scratch. The first two or three months were very difficult for me, since I did not know anybody and life was much harder here than in Syria”, he says.  After having started his new study in business administration, however, did he do much better and quickly made friends among native Armenians. Via a study-exchange program he got into touch with the organization Caritas, for which he subsequently worked as a volunteer translator from Arab to Armenian. The commitment paid off, since he soon will start a paid full-time position there.

Easy integration

The integration here was no problem for him, as Aram explains, since traditions, culture and – to a large extent – language are the same:  “In Latakia, I have learned Western Armenian from kindergarten on. We had television from Armenian channels, so we even knew some Eastern Armenian.”

The different dialects derive from the history of much of the global Armenian diaspora, especially in this region: Starting 1915, Turkish elites committed a genocide against the Armenian minority living in the region at the turn from the Osman Empire to the Turkish republic. First by killing almost 300 Armenian intellectuals in Istanbul, only before conducting large-scale persecutions and massacres of thousands of Armenians in former Western Armenia, a territory which was subsequently and up until today was seized by Turkey.

Even to this day, Turkish officials and many intellectuals deny any participation in taking part in these systematic murders. Most international experts however agree that this was one of the first ethnic cleansings in history, decades before the term “genocide” was even coined. Also the Armenians strive for international recognition of what happened from 1915 to the early 1920s, and for example paid thankfully attention when Germany along with other countries recognized the violent crimes that were done to Armenians, even without using the words “Turkish” or “genocide”.

History still matters

When living or just travelling through Armenia as a visitor, one cannot help but be confronted with this topic on a daily base. Be it by coming across the topic of the 3-million-strong Armenian diaspora, be it by visiting the impressively elaborate Armenian Genocide Museum “Tsitsernakaberd”, be it by talking to youths or also experts on this field such as Arsen Hakobyan, anthropologist at Yerevan State University and the Armenian Academy of Sciences. “There was already an Armenian minority in Syria in the ancient world as well as in the middle age. The most recent population, however, were the ancestors of the genocide-survivors”, Hakobyan says. He wrote numerous research papers about memory politics and identity, as well as oral interviews with people who left to Yerevan.

Arsen Hakobyan - Expert

Arsen Hakobyan

His conclusions? “It was quite obvious for Syrian Armenians to come “back” to Armenia in the course of the Syrian war – to come “home” so-to-say. It was the same culture, almost the same language and their main identity”, Hakobyan elaborates about the Armenian minority in Syria. Helpful, as he explains further, was certainly the fact that the Armenian government made immigration as easy as possible [not the least because of the fact that many young Armenians leave the country for better job chances and wages abroad, that is].

“Already for longer, it was possible to have a dual citizenship in Armenia. Additionally, the government decided to give the Armenian passport out easily, even from abroad”, says Hakobyan. Consequently, already from an early stage of the war it was possible to apply for citizenship not only in Yerevan, but also from the consulates in Aleppo [where by far the largest Armenian minority of about 60.000 people was living], Damascus and in Lebanon’s Beirut. In buses via Turkey and Georgia, but also in flights from Beirut, it was easily possible for Armenian citizens to reach Yerevan.

Preserved Armenian culture

By doing his research, several Syrian Armenians said that they always felt more Armenian than Syrian, explains Hakobyan: “Weld together by the experience of displacement and murder, the preservation of Armenian customs, religion and traditions was and is alive until today, even 100 years after the genocide.” Not only were the [Christian] Armenians the only group which had minority rights such as religious institutions and own schooling in [predominantly Muslim] Syria, they were also well respected for being good merchants and highly skilled craftsmen.

Aleppo NGO - One of many NGOs helping Syrian Armenians

Aleppo NGO – one of many NGOs helping Syrian Armenians in Yerevan

The war eventually changed everything, though, and at least 10.000, perhaps even twice as many, Syrian Armenians now build on their new future in Yerevan or other Armenian towns and cities. “We never considered ourselves as refugees though, also were not treated as such”, 22-year old Aram says resolutely. Much rather he and all others interviewed for this story, describe their going to Armenia as “coming home”- home to a safe place and to the homeland of their ancestors.

Foto Florian BayerFlorian Bayer (27) is a freelance journalist based in Vienna. He studied journalism, history and philosophy and has special interest in society, culture and politics in Eastern Europe (especially Poland) and far-right populism on the rise in Europe and elsewhere. 

 

Posted in English, Forum German-Armenian Journalist Exchange, Uncategorized

MIGRATION AS A MEANS OF SOLVING SOCIO-ECONOMIC PROBLEMS

by Anahit Baghdasaryan

Immigration

Armenians and Germany

It is already 2 years that Anna (name changed) has been living with her family in Wiesbaden, Germany. The reason they chose specifically Germany has a simple explanation: her husband had opportunity to work there after graduation. Compared to many countries, education system in Germany is on high level and comparatively accessible. Due to this, in recent years, the number of Armenians receiving higher education in Germany has increased tangibly. The Government also grants an opportunity to work in the country by providing working visa in case one manages to find relevant job within one and a half year after graduation.

According to Anna, migrants who arrive in Germany legally can merit all the rights and responsibilities enjoyed by locals. “Social security in Germany is very high. Whether you are a German citizen or a migrant, you have health insurance. If you have work permit, you pay taxes regularly and one day if you lose your job, just like locals, you can make use of unemployment benefits, too,” says Anna, adding that, although not perceived on Government level, on citizens level one can notice marked discrimination towards the migrants. “The marked discrimination can be mostly observed among the elderly. Youngsters are more tolerant and communicable. And if a migrant and a German apply for the same job position, preference is given to the German.”

Talking about citizenship, Anna mentions that the majority of their friends gained citizenship without any complications: “It is not difficult to gain citizenship. What you need is to live in Germany for 6-8 years and not to commit any illegal action during the period. There is an integration course, where one learns the history of Germany, gets familiarized with the culture and politics, passes an exam to get B1 Level. Part of the tuition fee of such course is paid by the Government,” she adds.

Shushan

Shushan Tumanyan

Regarding the Armenian community, Anna says that it is large and continues to grow. However, the community is not that consolidated, if considered that Frankfurt, where regular weekly Armenian community meetings and events are organized, is not far away. Since 2010 Shushan Tumanyan has been actively engaged in such activities. She organized courses of Armenian language, history, national dances and songs both in Frankfurt and other cities. Shushan came to Germany for educational purposes, she married there and now she is back to Armenia with the aim to deliver and raise her first baby in her homeland. “I never felt myself as Diaspora Armenian and never became one. The ties of an Armenian and Armenia were always in the first place for me, as even living outside my country I was living in and for Armenia. I can state I was a full member of German society both as an individual living there and at my workplace. Nevertheless, I introduce myself as a person of Armenian descent, I always know my “place” in foreign country, I respected the laws and expressed my gratitude towards Germany for my education opportunity through my work and devotion. During the period of living there I met a number of people of various nationalities, and never did I face discrimination, generally.”

The end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries is considered the period of formation of German-Armenian community, when small groups of Armenian intellectuals and vendors were arriving in various cities of Germany. Later, the community expanded with survivors of the Armenian Genocide and war-prisoners of World War II, who preferred not to go back to Soviet Armenia for different reasons. Later there was another influx of migrants from the Middle East. The vast majority of Armenians migrated from Turkey. There is no precise information on the number of German-Armenian community members, as the number of Armenians arriving in Germany both legally and illegally has increased as a result of the independence of Armenia. According to non-official data, currently there are around 50 thousand Armenians in Germany.

Few people act as Shushan: prosperous life and social security prompt many people to leave their homeland and move to either Germany, or other European countries.

Main reasons for leaving homeland are absence of workplaces and jobs in their professional fields, as well as low salaries. According to the annual data of the RA Statistical Committee, the number of citizens is decreasing year by year: the RA population in 2015 was 3.5 million, while in 2017 it fell to 2.9 million.

Reintegration and related issues

In recent years, most of the people leaving for Germany or any other European country are asylum seekers. They sell all their properties in Armenia, and leave for the EU. They long for prosperous life and good conditions. However, they are not able to fulfil the requirements necessary for gaining refugee status, or receiving additional support from the country and, after living with no status in the country for many years, 90% of asylum seekers are deported back to Armenia. If they do not return voluntarily, they are forced to do so.

Raffi

Raffi Kantian

Whether German-Armenian Society addresses the issues of these Armenians seeking asylum, the chairman of German-Armenian Society Raffi Kantian replies that they did not deal with the issue. “We talk about emigration situation in Armenia and the reasons causing it. I am really hopeful that once positive developments take place in Armenia, in particular in the economic sector, we will have positive solutions, and people will be happy to return to their homeland.”

In Germany, where the population is more than 82 million, the issue of Armenian migrants is never a topic for discussion. “Armenian migrants are not a topic for German media, as it reminds of a drop of water in the ocean. There are hundreds of thousands of refugees in Germany, who entered the country, but the Government has no distinct information about their location, nationality, since they have no official documents,” says journalist Irina Ghulinyan-Gerz during our discussion.

In order to reduce the flow of illegal migration between the European Union and non-EU countries, EU Readmission Agreements are concluded to facilitate the return of people residing irregularly in a country to their country of origin or to a country of transit. The Agreement with Armenia was signed in 2013.

According to the data of the RA Statistical Committee, the number of readmission applications from the period between January 1, 2012 and June 1, 2018 was 1996 (in total for 3788 persons), out of which 3109 persons were granted Armenian citizenship. Large number of applications was received from Germany (for 1702 persons), and 1422 persons’ citizenship was approved. France is in the second place.

“Within recent 2 years, large number of Armenians were both voluntarily and compulsory transferred to the airplane and sent to Armenia from Germany. It is mainly conditioned by the fact that Germany sends people back to Armenia considering it a safe country. Those, who agree to return voluntarily, are granted a chance to receive some financial support, amounting to EUR 3,000. The volume and type of the support are defined in Germany, ready packages with certain amount of money are transferred to relevant people through our office,” says Tatevik Bejanyan, Monitoring and Assessment Specialist at “Armenian Caritas” benevolent NGO.

Both Armenian Caritas and a number of other organizations implement reintegration programs in Armenia, where migrants receive social and business support.

According to Tatevik, migrants have a number of issues related to accommodation, language skills and work. “The majority of them have no place to live in. There are no social houses in Armenia, where migrants can temporarily be placed. Living in camps, part of them lose professional skills, as well as ability and willingness to work. Most of them used to simply live on Government’s support, which met their living needs, and there was no necessity to work. They are not ready to work for minimum wage,” she adds.

And due to this kind of things, many of them develop severe psychological problems. Statistics prove that once it is possible they are confident to take up the same migration route.

In 2017 Mrs. Narine (name changed) returned from France to Armenia. She mentions that she regrets not having taken all possible actions to stay there. “It is true, I had indescribably hard days there, but at least, I didn’t have to think about daily food. I underwent 2 operations for free. While here in Armenia, there are days I don’t have even 100 drams to go to the city center,” says Mrs. Narine, and again contradicts herself while remembering her life in France. “For almost two months I had to sleep in the streets. When my health condition worsened, I was taken to the hospital and spent the nights there. The Government was supporting only with food. When my health condition worsened, they placed me in a shelter. Within one and a half year I moved to several shelters in different cities. The living conditions were awful. One should switch off her brain, and simply eat and sleep.”

There is no official data about the number of migrants leaving Armenia. To get any information, one should look up the data on citizens crossing RA borders or consider the analysis of the report on “Quarterly Monitoring of RA External Migration” (2015-2017).

For instance, analysis based on the data of the RA Statistical Committee on border crossing reports that in 2015 RA citizens’ departures exceed arrivals by 43,400, while in 2016 that figure was even higher – 48,200.

Thus, we have a situation when incomplete and insufficient official information on RA citizens’ migration drastically impedes the assessment of migration situation, identification of topic-related issues and development of relevant measures and programs, which would lead to the implementation of grounded and efficient state migration policy.

Migration is one of the most important and pervasive issues of the 21st century. Countries like Germany, France face the problem of immigration and limiting the number of immigrants, while Armenia, whose population is less than 3 million, is facing the problem of emigration and is in need of developing relevant mechanisms.

anahit.bAnahit Baghdasaryan works as project coordinator and journalist at “Goris Press Club” civil society organization located in Goris, Armenia. She also works as freelance journalist for the Caucasus Platform and for Armenian websites. Anahit studied at V. Brusov University specializing in linguistics and French language. She is passionate about raising awareness on human rights issues and promoting cultural understanding in Armenia and does this through journalism and photography. 

 

Posted in English, Forum German-Armenian Journalist Exchange, Uncategorized

TO BEARD OR NOT TO BEARD: THE CHOICE OF EUROPE

by Tatevik Lazaryan

‘Hysteria’: this may be another answer during non-official talks in response to the question on what is happening in Europe in terms of the migrant issue. It is undeniable that the problem does exist; however, the representatives of both political circles and civil society, who I met in Berlin, consider the word ‘crisis’ an exaggeration.

The issue is not unprecedented: they say, in the past there was a huge influx of refugees and migrants, an example being the 1990s when during the Yugoslav Wars hundreds of thousands of refugees fled to the European countries, and Germany again found itself among the states, which let in the largest part of the flow.

According to Professor Hans-Jochen Schmidt, former German Ambassador to the Republic of Armenia, “If you have a lot of foreigners arriving, it has an influence on the society, and you need politicians to deal with it. You have to try to help them get integrated. But what is dangerous is when certain politicians, like in Germany, abuse that. They instigate prejudices, emotions. For example, I am sorry to put it that way, if you let in a lot of foreigners, and then one of these so-called migrants rapes a woman, it is extremely dangerous to say that all these people rape women. Yes, having so many migrants leads to certain difficulties, but it’s not the first time after the war we let in lots of migrants, and we have managed to cope with it”.

If refugee flows are not new for Europe, the information field in the Post-truth era and subsequent public reaction, its speed and consequences are.

While I was thinking on the theme of my article back in Berlin, everyone was closely following the Bavarian elections results: it turned out that the elections further strengthened the positions of right-wing populists.

The Critical Social Union in Bavaria (CSU), the sister party of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) went down by 10% losing its absolute majority as compared to 2013; instead, populist Alternative for Germany (AFD) party received those 10% of votes securing its place in the Bavarian local parliament for the first time. When I was back in Yerevan, drafting my text, similar elections results were also recorded in Hesse. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU lost 10% and the AFD party gained 12%.

This far-right, anti-immigration party that came third in the 2017 Bundestag elections will have a presence in Germany’s all 16 state parliaments for the first time. In light of these developments, Angela Merkel has already announced that she will not seek any political position after 2021.

It is worth mentioning that prior to the change in the political landscape of Europe there was a certain image change, which called for other, larger transformations.

Have you ever thought why, say, 7-8 years ago, in European cities the image of a clean-shaven gentleman wearing an elegant jacket with a tie and known under the term ‘metrosexual’ was trendy and fashionable? And then why did the image suddenly change by 180 degrees? The image of a brutal lumberjack with beard emerged, became trendy and remains such to date, and despite the absence of an axe in the urban context, he still has a very masculine look, draws on physical strength and readiness to use it.

The new image of the strongly masculine European man was already formed back in 2014: it was so popular, widespread and complete that there were articles dedicated to it, and there was even a new term coined to define the phenomenon – ‘lumbersexual’.

It was towards the end of 2014 and already in 2015 that Europe witnessed a record-breaking migrant influx for the last few decades. It turned out that the public in Europe (and beyond) was very quick to react by creating this image, to receive the signals, and to even predict the “crisis” entering their homes from TV and other screens.

Symbolically speaking, Europe, a woman from ancient Greek mythology, now chose a more brutal image – that of a man. However, it is crucial to profoundly understand why this has been the choice. I am convinced this is to protect Europe’s “children”, the liberal-democratic values without changing or eliminating them.

Paradoxical as it may sound, the urge to close borders, which now gives points to right-wing populists, is probably in essence a means of protecting the idea of open borders for the public. Populists do not come up with real and positive answers to the issue but, figuratively speaking, “scratch” the itchy question. Certain success of right-wing populists is also conditioned by the lack of unity on the migrant issue in Europe and different messages coming from different countries.

To tackle the migrant issue, an all-European solidarity is necessary, an idea highlighted by the Spokesman of the European Commission German Representation Reinhard Hönighaus:

“For the European future the way our democracies find to deal with it in solidarity is a defining issue. No European country can deal with it on its own: we have advanced pretty much on the protection of our borders, on our asylum system, but we need consensus on European solidarity. There is legitimate concern among our citizens that our states should decide who is to come in, or the government should decide, the authorities and not people smugglers. Efforts are needed to step up, but we also need internal solidarity in the EU. There will be no lasting solution with some Member States saying ‘this is not our problem’.”

Regardless of whether this is an objective or exaggerated issue, whether it is migrants who have caused it or it is mere speculation around the question, the phenomenon is already having an impact on Europe’s (and not only Europe’s) political landscape with populists strengthening their positions as a side effect.

It is now hard to determine which the bigger problem is – refugees or the subsequent cultural, social and political transformations of Europe? But one thing is obvious: these are already two different problems that need separate solutions, but also unity in the EU, especially in the Post-truth era.

lazaryanTatevik Lazaryan is a journalist and anchor at RFE/RL’s Armenian Service. After getting her degree in Armenian Language and Literature, she decided to learn journalism and started studying it at Caucasus Media Institute. She prepares Radio and TV stories about political, social and cultural issues, which are on air three days a week. Twice a week she appears in front of cameras and tells the news of that day to the people, who visit azatutyun.am. In the meantime, she is praying not to tell anything about casualties on the borderline. 

Posted in English, Forum German-Armenian Journalist Exchange, Uncategorized