THE GRANDMASTER AND HIS CHILDREN

by Laurenz Schreiner

Chess is the national sport in the small country of Armenia. Children are learning it at school, the government supports the young talents. But this could change after the so called “Velvet Revolution”.

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Children practicing at the Chess Academy of Armenia. Photo: Laurenz Schreiner

Oleg places the pawns on the board like it is shown in his book. Bishop on C4, queen on E2, the knights are already out. A new situation appears on the board. Now the seven-year-old has to show that he can still win the game. It is a common exercise: He plays against an imaginary player. Oleg stares at the black-white board. He grabs the bishop on C4 and wants to place him on E6 in order to capture the black queen. “Don’t touch! Think first!” his teacher yells. Immediately, Oleg pulls back his hand. “You have to know what your opponent will do next”, his teacher whispers, “otherwise you will lose.” Instead, Oleg places his white queen three squares to the right. The teacher comes to Oleg’s table. His big hand flutters above the board, one figure after the other has to leave the game. “Checkmate”, the teacher says. He captures the white king and wanders back to his desk. Oleg places the pawns back to the start formation.

Oleg’s teacher is Smbat Lputian. He leads the chess academy of Armenia which he founded fifteen years ago. In the south Caucasian country chess is a national sport – and since 2011, it is an obligatory subject at schools. Armenia was the first country worldwide which established chess in primary schools. Every child knows how to capture the king. Whereas the Armenian football-team did never qualify for a world cup and lost 0:1 against Gibraltar in October, the Armenians are part of the elite of chess. Thereby, it is not only about international honor for the country which used to be part of the Soviet Union: the Armenian children should become wiser humans through chess.

“Chess is a gift for children”

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GM Smbat Lputian. Photo: Laurenz Schreiner

Lputian is convinced of the purpose of chess for the society. He used to be a successful player and has won the Chess Olympiad. He is a proud owner of the title “Grandmaster”, which the world chess federation confers as its highest honor. It is mostly Lputian’s merit that nowadays every child knows how to play chess. For many years, he promoted the idea of establishing chess as a school subject. In order to support the best talents, he founded the academy in 2003. Today, the academy has fifty other venues all over the country. Lputian is still the boss.

The main venue of the academy is located on the outskirts of the capital Yerevan. Parents are bringing their children three times a week. From the age of five, children can join the trainings for free. Small stone pawns are looking from the wall around the academy. More than hundred kids are playing a tournament in a huge hall on the second level. No one is speaking. Sometimes the crackling of a plastic bottle is breaking the silence.

One level below Smbat Lputian is sitting in his office. On the left, one can see a fine chess table, on the right a high bookcase with literature about chess tactics. “Chess is a gift for children”, Lputian says, “it helps to learn how to think.” Lputian is a serious man. It seems like he has thought about his words carefully. He lists the reasons why chess is so important for children. It is a fair game which could never lead to injustice, Lputian says. Besides, children would learn how to decide independently. Their parents have to wait in the corridors. “Chess is strengthening the power of concentration”, Lputian explains. Children could exercise to react to unexpected situations. Moreover, chess would help children in other school subjects or their further life.

Serzh Sargsyan is still president of the Armenian Chess Federation

Nevertheless, it didn’t need chess in schools to enshrine chess in the Armenian identity. Again and again, one can see younger and older people playing chess in the streets of Yerevan. This has to do with Tigran Petrosian, a national hero. The Soviet Grandmaster was born to Armenian parents and was world champion from 1963 to 1969. Therefore, he popularized chess for many Armenians. Since 2018, he graces from a banknote, a big memorial reminds of him in Yerevan.

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Photo: Laurenz Schreiner

But in order to receive support from the government it needed political help: The former president of Armenia Serzh Sargsyan (Republican Party) himself likes to play chess. Since 2004, he is the head of the Armenian Chess Federation. He is still in this position although he resigned as a political actor as a consequence of the so called “Velvet Revolution” in April 2018. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians walked through the streets in order to protest against Sargsyan.

Especially young people participated in the demonstrations. Their perspectives are quite bad: last year, the unemployment rate of young people reached nearly 40 percent. This is not the only problem of Armenia where three million people are living: the country has a military conflict with Azerbaijan because of the region Nagorno-Karabakh, the boarders to Turkey are closed. Furthermore, the corruption rate in the country is very high. A student in Yerevan is telling that she needs to bring cash to a job interview in order to have a small chance. Consequently, many young people are leaving the country. They are moving to Russia or the European Union.

It is unknown if the next government will support chess as much as the former one

During the protests, the people accused Sargsyan of fostering corruption in Armenia. Moreover, they protested against an intended change of the constitution. In their opinion, this change would have made Sargsyan to a life-long-ruler. “The government has always supported chess”, Lputian says. He avoids a clear statement regarding the political events in his country. Except: “Even the wisest chess players fail sometimes, even they are doing mistakes.” It is unknown if the following government with the designated new prime minister Nikol Pashinyan (“My Step” alliance) will support the sport as the one before. Lputian does not want to make a prognosis. For now, the vice-minister for education and science Hovhannes Hovhannisyan mentions: “We want to change a lot, but chess will be supported in the future, too.”

How is the situation in other countries? Lputian tells that colleagues from Poland, Turkey and Uzbekistan already asked him how they could promote chess in their countries. Even in Germany, more schools are offering voluntary chess lessons. For example, Bremen started a pilot project: 1500 primary school pupils will participate. Oleg has probably never heard of Bremen yet. But this is no problem at all: For now, it is more important to learn how to capture the black king.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALaurenz Schreiner, 24, based in Berlin, studied media management, political science and communication in Hannover, Istanbul, Berlin and Chicago. Chief editor of MAVIBLAU, an online magazine for German-Turkish culture. Freelance journalist (e. g. 11Freunde, Tagesspiegel, ze.tt). Interested in foreign politics, the effects of political decisions on everyday life, football and contemporary literature. Twitter: @LaurenzPM 

 

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

EDUCATION IN GERMANY: Interview with Armenian Ambassador to Germany Ashot Smbatyan

by Ami Chichakyan

Armenian Ambassador to Germany: Armenian students in Germany very active and successful.

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Photo: tert.am

– Mr. Ambassador, how would you evaluate German-Armenian relations from educational standpoint?

Armenian-German relations are dynamically advancing in all sectors – political, economic, interparliamentary, cultural. This dynamically advancing agenda also includes the educational sector.

I have to mention that this sector is on high level: Germany is in the third place among the states Armenia collaborates with on education, following the USA and Russia.

The education field was an especially important part of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to Armenia in August. During her visit several agreements were concluded, which will further support Armenian-German educational collaboration. On October 17-19, 2018 Acting Education and Science Minister Arayik Harutyunyan led a delegation to Germany, where productive meetings were held. During the meetings, Germany emphasized its support for changes in the Armenian educational system, cooperation among natural science institutes, training of Armenian experts in Germany, Armenian experts to be included in German institutes’ initiatives, research in Germany’s rich history in the education sector, and other mutual projects.

– What is the importance of participation of Armenian students in such projects?

– The German education system is the most advanced in the world, especially in such sectors as medicine, information technology, law, and economics. It is one of the most developed systems in terms of quality. I must also note quality and price balance in Germany. We all know how expensive it is to study in Europe or the US. Germany, however, is very cheap, especially taking into consideration the quality of education its students receive. Therefore, I attach great importance to the fact that Armenian students are educated in Germany so that they can obtain lots of knowledge for the future of Armenia.

It is worth mentioning that the Armenian side also needs to make an effort to attract German students to get engaged in projects taking place in Armenia. That is why studying international systems is important for Armenia.

– Are German educational and scholarship projects active in Armenia?

As I already mentioned, Germany is one of Armenia’s most important partners in the field of education, and one of the leading countries in terms of the number of scholarships provided to our country.

The German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) provides scholarships to Armenian students and experts to study in Germany. The scholarships are for training sessions, professional projects, research projects, doctorate studies, as well as summer classes to learn the German language.

Since 1990, 2,200 Armenians received scholarships from DAAD. The information center in Yerevan provides free consultations on any issue related to education in Germany.

Approximately 200 Armenian students have received scholarships to study in Germany through other German organizations. Therefore, we can say that the scholarships and plans provided to Armenia by Germany are very active and advance yearly.

– Could you mention some achievements Armenian students made in Germany?

I can proudly say that Armenian students are very active and successful in the field of natural sciences. I can say the same for the fields of humanities, art, music and culture. We have lots of successful musicians – violinists, cellists, saxophonists, as well as painters and art experts.

I can also proudly state that my meetings with the leadership of German foundations and institutes are always positive, and I always hear a lot of praise for our Armenian students.

ami.chAmi Chichakyan is a journalist based in Yerevan, Armenia. A graduate of Yerevan State Linguistic University, she started her career in Aravot Daily as a journalist in 2013. Currently, she is the editor of the English version of Aravot Daily. She has cooperated with the international media, such as Euronews, Voice of America.

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

‘I BELIEVE IN THE POWER OF EDUCATION’

by Raphael Rauch

Lilit Martirosyan (25) graduated in Genocide Studies at Yerevan State University. She gives training courses to schools and prepares her PhD. In this interview, she explains her motivation and talks about a controversy in Armenian historiography.

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Why are you interested in Genocide Studies?

Lilit Martirosyan: The answer is quite simple: I am an Armenian, whose ancestors survived the Armenian Genocide. My grandfather, who was a historian, took us every week to the historical sites of Yerevan and told us the history of that structure. For me, this was a very educational and interesting method. A place, which I visited when I was only three years old, will remain in my memory forever. That place was the Armenian Genocide Museum.

What exactly do you remember from your first visit there?

L. M.: This was a long time ago in 1997. I remember the photos and cross windows. I will never forget that this was so touching for me. And I do agree with what the French President Emmanuel Macron said this year, during the 103rd remembrance anniversary of the Armenian Genocide: “The memory of Genocide and the importance of its lessons concern each of us.” Bearing that great responsibility as an Armenian, I decided to become a genocide expert and to study not only the Armenian Genocide, but also the genocides that took place in other countries.

You are applying now for PhD programmes in Genocide Studies. What is your motivation?

L. M.: Unfortunately, Genocides are still happening today. I want to fight for a world without Genocides. Therefore, we have to understand better the complex mechanism of genocides. I already give training courses to schools and students on peace building topics, but I would like to expand my academic experience. Also, there are some controversies about which I would like to do research.

Controversies – like what?

L. M.: Due to the sad history of our nation, we often focus on the aspect of Armenians as victims, but I think that historical facts and events should be viewed from different sides and from different points of view. For example, the actions of the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA): my compatriots consider these as acts of heroism, but if we put aside the nationality and study these events, these acts are terrorism.. Maybe many compatriots are not agreeing with me, but I do not have the right to propagate bad things regardless of my nationality. This type of action should never be called heroism. Eventually, in any case the murder isn’t heroism.

You have founded an NGO last September. What do you do?

L. M.: I founded the Center For Human Rights And Genocide Studies Vision. It is the first NGO in Armenia dealing with Genocide Studies. My objective is to have a better informed and legitimated youth and civil society. I believe in a society where everyone is aware of their basic rights and liberties, advocates for their protection and is more aware of the violence and crimes against humanity. But as you said the NGO was founded in September, we have just begun our work.

This year, you traveled to Dachau. What did you experience there?

L. M.: Hundreds of young people from around 25 nations came together to engage in the history of the Concentration Camp Dachau, the Holocaust in general and deal with today’s forms of exclusion, racism and discrimination. It was a very important training for me. We have discussed the Holocaust and other genocides with the youth from different nations.

At Dachau, what touched you the most?

L. M.: When we came across the eyewitness survivors who told about their experiences. Abba Naor was born in 1928 to a Jewish-Lithuanian family in Kaunas. He dreamed of becoming an actor in Hollywood. After the German invasion in 1941, the family was forced to move to the Ghetto of the city. His older brother Chaim was killed by German soldiers while he was trying to smuggle food into the Ghetto. In August 1944, his whole family was deported to the Stutthof concentration camp. There, he and his father got separated from his mother and little brother Berale. They were later murdered in Auschwitz. Abba himself was transferred to the Dachau subcamps Utting and Kaufering. At the end of the war, he was sent on a death march from Kaufering and finally got liberated in May 1945.

What does the tragic story of Abba’s family mean to you?

L. M.: Abba decided to start a new life in Palestine and engage himself actively in the making of the state of Israel.. He emigrated when he was seventeen years old. He started to talk to pupils as an eyewitness of the Nazi terror. Today, he visits Germany for several months a year. He is the representative of Israel in the International Dachau Committee. The stories of eyewitness survivors teach us to be more responsible and consistent in preventing every crime. We cannot change stories and events, but we must educate people, so that they will never commit genocide.

Today, Germany and Israel have good relationships. Is there any hope for a Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation?

L. M.: As far as there are no diplomatic relations between these countries and the border remains closed, every effort should be made to understand the existing and possible difficulties and to find ways to move forward. We have to do more than what we have done and both sides must make efforts for better results. In terms of economic development, it is very important for both countries to open the border, but there are political issues that have not yet received an adequate legal and political assessment. The closure or the opening of the border should be separated from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. I am sure that there will come a time when Turkey will officially recognize the Armenian Genocide and apologize to its ancestors for crimes committed.

What makes you so optimistic?

L. M.: I believe in the power of education. Without education, you produce hate, hostility, and even wars and genocides. Education is the best strategy as prevention – and a solid base for reconciliation.

ռաֆաRaphael Rauch works as online journalist for ZDF (Second German TV) and as radio journalist for SRF Swiss Radio. He focuses on politics, genocides, and religion. Based in Southern Germany and Zurich, he studied History, Political Science, and Catholic Theology in Tübingen, Aix-en-Provence, and at Yale University. He obtained his PhD in Munich.

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EASTERN PARTNERSHIP: PERSPECTIVES AND FURTHER DEVELOPMENTS

by Ami Chichakyan

‘You cannot do one-size-fits-all Eastern Partnership Policy’

The European Union developed its own policy, working with partners in the South and the East to cooperate in key priority areas, for instance, promotion of rule of law, democracy, human rights. The European Union and its neighboring countries work both bilaterally and regionally. There are 16 European Neighborhood Policy countries: Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Libya, Palestine, Syria, Tunisia in the South and Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine in the East.

Moldova, Ukraine, and Georgia signed Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade agreement with the European Union. Despite the fact that Armenia was among those countries, which negotiated the Agreement, on September 3, 2013 the country stepped back announcing a willingness to join another political and economic union – Eurasian Economic Union (EaEU). Armenian officials declared that the country can become a bridge between the two unions. Later Armenia was given a chance to sign a revised agreement which does not run contrary to the country’s commitments to the Eurasian Economic Union.

The new agreement – Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA) – was prepared and officially signed during the Eastern Partnership Summit in Brussels on November 24, 2017. According to the Agreement, Armenia will benefit from the opportunity to have more jobs, fairer rules, more business possibilities, better money for money, more safety and security, a cleaner environment, better education and more opportunities for research, strengthened democracy and human rights and visa liberalization.

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Reinhard Honighaus meeting a group of Armenian journalists

Reinhard Honighaus, Spokesman for the European Commission’s Representation in Germany, during the meeting with reporters from Armenia, referred to the EU-Armenia relations, EU’s Eastern Neighborhood Policy, and its perspectives. According to him, the format of cooperation may change and turn to a more individual approach. “Eastern Partnership is a very important format, which is not static, it’s being developed further, gaining from the experience that we have had with this engagement within the last Eastern Partnership summit. It showed that the Eastern Partnership approach is also developing with a very individual approach to each of the Eastern Partnership countries. Of course, you cannot do one-size-fits-all Eastern Partnership Policy,” Honighaus said adding, “I am quite confident that by 2020 we will see considerable engagement from the European Union towards the Eastern Partnership countries whatever the name of the framework will be by then.”

With regard to the cooperation between the European Union and Eurasian Economic Union, Reinhard Honighaus said that there have been lots of engagements on technical level in the Ukrainian context. “There has been some interest from the Russian side. Again we have heard about this idea of free trade agreement from Lisbon to Vladivostok, but there is very little follow-up from the Russian side, when it comes to making things concrete. This could work. We are open to these exchanges, but there is not so much engagement from the Eurasian Union side, as I can see, to develop these two unions.”

Talking about further cooperation with Armenia, Hoinghaus said: “There is still a lot we can do in engaging these countries, for example, what the EU is doing with Armenia despite the fact that Armenia is a member of Eurasian Economic Union, which is Armenia’s choice. There is still a lot we can do on governance reforms, private sector developments, when EU is engaging with financing SMEs for economic development, as well as for people’s exchange – participation of Armenians in Erasmus program, research innovation programs. There have been about 1,300 Armenian participants in Erasmus program in recent years. We can engage these countries in many other directions even if they are not going for Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement.”

As we have already mentioned, within the framework of Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement liberalization of visa regime with Armenia is envisaged by the European Union, however Mr. Hoinghaus did not mention any dates: “It’s a policy that the European Union basically applies to all countries, visa dialogue is a very powerful incentive, since it is in the interest of citizens to have visa liberalization. There are pretty tight conditions, but we have seen countries that have managed to fulfil them,” he said underlining that the visa liberalization process also includes security issues. “There is also a mutual interest: it’s not just something for the European Union to give away. But it is in the interest of the European Union to facilitate people’s exchange, to make it easier. And there is much to be done on the security of documents and passports, as well as IT systems. So we also gain security in the European Union with the countries, which get visa liberalization, because our systems control the flows much better. Thus, it is hard for me to predict when this will be the case, but the European Union will very much be engaged towards this end.”

Asked about the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict of Nagorno-Karabakh, Reinhard Hoinghaus replied: “It is certainly a challenge for our relations with the Eastern Partnership countries. But it is not entirely in our hands to solve this. Whenever the European Union can be helpful, we and our colleagues, EU representatives, will be open to hear views on how the European Union can help with facilitating people’s contacts. But certainly those unresolved border issues, frozen conflicts are huge challenges for the countries most concerned about. Unfortunately, it is something that the EU cannot solve alone.”

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Ami Chichakyan is a journalist based in Yerevan, Armenia. A graduate of Yerevan State Linguistic University, she started her career in Aravot Daily as a journalist in 2013. Currently, she is the editor of the English version of Aravot Daily. She has cooperated with the international media, such as Euronews, Voice of America.

 

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

STATUS QUO OF MEDIA IN POST-VELVET REVOLUTIONARY ARMENIA

by Natalie Mayroth

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Democracy needs a free press. The first symptom of rising totalitarianism is influencing freedom of speech and freedom of the press. But what does it look like in a country that recently had a peaceful change of power? And was has changed so far in Armenia since the Velvet Revolution took place in April. A look at the post-revolutionary media landscape in Armenia.

In the basement of a grey, multi-storey building in a backyard in the center of the Armenian capital is the ‘Yerevan Press Club’. Founded in 1995, this was the first professional association for journalists in post-communist Armenia. Here I meet Boris Navasardian, founding member and chairman of the club.

“Improvements already took place in 2018”, says Navasardian. Currently, the South Caucasian country occupies with the status of “partly free” with the 45th out of a total of 100 places in the Freedom House press ranking. Above all, the association criticizes corruption as well as political influence over the media. However, self-censorship is an issue, too.

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The Journalists (from left to right): Heriknaz Harutyunyan, Boris Navasardian and Nouneh Sarkissian in November 2018, photo: Natalie Mayroth

Nevertheless, Navasardian is optimistic, “but for the revolution of media, we first of all have to improve our economy. Only then, when the county is more prosperous, there will be a revolution in media. In the nearest one, two years I don’t see such perspective, but at least the government has to create conditions for that”, he adds.

Since the Velvet Revolution several of Navasardian’s colleagues have changed their profession. They are now on the electoral list of “Civil Contract”, the party of the incumbent Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan or have changed in press positions. Among them is Hakob Karapetyan, who has been working in the press office of the mayor of Yerevan for some weeks now and is trying to strengthen the relationship between journalists and government.

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Hakob Karapetyan at his new working place, the city hall of Yerevan, photo: Natalie Mayroth

Hakob Karapetyan sees the reason for changing the position in the fact that many journalists, who worked in poor conditions before the revolution are now taking the chance to prove their skills. “But not only journalist, also media NGO activists left to the government”, he says.

So, it’s a question of perspective, whether the new government is gaining specialized employees or journalism is losing experts, who are leaving open gaps. But Navasardian is not worried about that: “Most of them, who appeared in the party list of “My Step” alliance, are those, who were anyway covering political developments in the country, so they are quite politically educated.”

Fake news, corruption & parliamentary elections

Armenia continues to struggle with political legacies. For example, corruption, its economic dependence on Russia and the influence on the media. In addition, Armenia is in constant conflict with its neighbours Azerbaijan and Turkey. However, Nouneh Sarkissian journalist and director of the Media Initiatives Center is confident about a shift:

“The situation with the media in Armenia now, I would characterize as a transitional situation. Media has been always very politicized and very much connect with the kind of political teams, groups and parties here. I really believe, that now we have the chance to come back to the ideal of the independent media, which was not a case during many years.” Sarkissian is looking forward to April, when the head of Public TV will be replaced and new developments might open.

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Seda Muradyan presents a younger generation of journalists. Muradyan at her Ted x Talk, picture: YouTube

In particular, there are important topics, which are still remaining open. “In Armenia, investigative and serious journalism is mainly supported my international donors. It is the only way now to ensure independence from political powers or oligarchs,” says Seda Muradyan, co-founder of the NGO Public Journalism Club, who works with the investigative platform hetq.am. “The current regime is more open and we have also heard some important messages, but the time will of course help us to understand, if it’s going to be, what we expect now or not.”

Moreover, new websites repeatedly emerge from nowhere, whose initiators are unknown and often spreading disinformation or politically engaged content. They accrue before the election season, explains Muradyan.

In general, social media is also gaining influence in Armenia. About one third of the population uses Facebook. Especially during the Velvet Revolution it was the means of communication par excellence. Citizens became citizen journalists. But the platform is also the playground in which manipulated content spreads easily.

Despite the freedom gained, for several colleagues it’s still difficult to criticize the Prime Minister and his government. One reason is for sure, that the influential heads of the old regime are still in the country and even campaigning. On the street and in the election forecasts, we hear that Pashinyan could be re-elected by a large majority. On the other hand, heavy losses will be attributed to the Republicans. The mood that had brought about the political upheaval does not seem to have vanished in the population.

 

0018_Natalie_Mayroth_Portrait_by_Christoph_Neumann_qNatalie Mayroth is a German-Iranian journalist and photographer. She graduated from Ludwig-Maximilian University Munich with a Master in Cultural Studies, Iranian Studies & Sociology in 2014. In her writings, she focuses on socio-political topics –  in Europe and Asia. Her freelance work has appeared in die tageszeitung, Süddeutsche Zeitung, VICE, The Hindu, Deutschlandfunk and BuzzFeedNews, among others. 

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

SOMEWHERE A HOMELAND: ASPECTS OF ARMENIAN DIASPORA AND THE REVOLUTION

by Markus Poehlking

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Yerevan panorama

Armenia’s traditionally huge diaspora plays an important role for the country’s development. At the same time emigration is one of the biggest problems. After the so-called “Velvet Revolution” expectations are high to stop the exodus and to make Armenia an attractive place even for such members of the diaspora who never set a foot on Armenian soil. While there are various approaches to stimulate remigration the diaspora’s optimism so far isn’t running too high. Yet the revolution has to bear fruits.

Yerevan. The euphoria about the recent political change in Armenia is noticeable already in the plane to Yerevan: 33-year-old Edgar, who works in Siberia in road constructions, travels back to the Armenian capital for a a couple of days to see his wife and his children. “Things are getting better now for sure“ he explains. The reason for his optimism is the political change in his home country, where end of April hundreds of thousands protesters gathered on the streets and squares and finally forced the ruling power to resign. “Now one of us rules the country. There´s a chance to end corruption and to create growth in Armenia,” hopes Edgar.

The name of the country´s new saviour is Nikol Pashinyan, a 43-years-old former journalist who founded an opposition party a couple of years ago. After the events in this year´s spring he was elected to become Prime Minister of the interim government. On October 16th he resigned in order to make way for new elections in December that most likely will bring him to the top of power once more: even the opposition expects, that Pashinyan will gather two thirds or even more of the votes.

Armenia, a former Soviet republic in the Southern Caucasus Region is cursed with usual problems spread everywhere, where Moscow once tried to realize the Marxist-Leninist utopia. The economy is down, the corruption high, the further perspectives rather bad. Like Edgar, many Armenians work abroad, construct roads and buildings e.g. in Russia or Ukraine. Work conditions often are lousy as is the salary – not to talk even about insurances or social benefits. But yet it is more than Armenia could offer its citizens, so people like Edgar leave their families for months and years and send them any money they somehow can effort to waive. “Let´s wait two or three years,” says Edgar as the plane is about to land. “There will be jobs in our country and we will be able to live with our families.” A warm smile sparkles in his eyes. The plain hits the ground. Edgar suggests to write down his phone number. “Welcome to Armenia. If you’re ever in trouble, call me.”

Yerevan’s Zvartnots airport is a modern building though for a capital rather small. It´s not right clear whether it is rather the entrance to the country or it´s exit. Usually the number of people leaving Armenia is higher than that of those, who are arriving. Ever since independence in 1991 more Armenians left the country than entered, longing for jobs, money or a better life. There is no exact number of Armenians working abroad. Traditionally, the country has a huge and widely spread diaspora. Already in medieval times Armenians settled far from their homeland, became successful traders and often managed to maintain their cultural and religious heritage.

Killed in large scale: during the Genocide a lot of Armenians left their homeland

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Tsitsernakaberd Memorial

A second wave of emigration took place after the Genocide in 1915/16, when in the Ottoman empire Armenians were pushed from their soil and killed in large scale. Waves of refugees arrived in Europe, the Russian Empire or went to the US or the Middle East. In the end, today Armenians can be found literally everywhere on the planet. There are estimations, that some 9 million people of Armenian origin live outside the country, while inside officially 3 million Armenians are residing. For the country the diaspora is of important meaning: Even Armenians of the diaspora who never have never seen the homelands of their ancestors often feel strong ties to Armenia and try to support it.

In some ways it is the money and the knowledge of the diaspora that kept the country running in last 27 years. Successful businessmen donate money for education our found schools themselves, invest in hospitals and matters of social and economical development. An impressive flagship project of the diasporas engagement is the Tumo-centre at the edge of Yerevan´s city centre. It welcomes with hundreds of Apple screens and hundreds of children sitting in front of them. The Tumo was founded by Sam Simonian, an US-citizen with Armenian roots who was born in Lebanon. After becoming a multi-millionaire in the communication sector he decided to launch a project in order to support the education of Armenian children and therefore created Tumo.

Manifestation of the diaspora’s influence: Tumo Center in Yerevan

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Outside Tumo Center for Creative Technologies

Based on a certain kind of curricula, Tumo offers free education for schoolchildren, who after their regular lesson can come to the centre and train skills like programming, logical thinking or even their musical talents. Much of that is based on computer programs. For Armenia, the IT-sector is actually the only one where fast and notable economical success can be expected since the country strengthened the appropriate education what started to bear fruits already a couple of years ago. For politicians and educational experts Tumo must be a rather striking idea. Not only in Armenia there will be more Tumos established but other countries requested them as well. Among them France, where a centre is about to be erected in Paris. On her visit to Armenia German chancellor Angela Merkel was brought to the Tumo and must have been obviously impressed following Armenian reports.

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Frau Merkel was impressed: Inside of Tumo

Because matters of the diaspora are of high importance for Armenia, the state runs a ministry especially dealing with diaspora affairs. Babken DerGrigorian became its Deputy Minister just a couple of weeks after Pashinyan took power in spring. DerGrigogrian somehow perfectly reflects the spirit of optimism the political change has evoked. He is young and presents himself rather as a good guy from the neighbourhood than like a professional and high ranked politician. “Hi, I am Babken, take your seat,” invites the Deputy Minister to his office. Born in Paris and having lived and studied in Los Angeles and London, 33-year-old Der Grigogrian not only reflects the optimism of the new beginning but is as well a representative of the diaspora. In 2012 he finally decided to move to Armenia on a long term base where he started to work for the UN and for other organisations of international cooperation.

Deputy Minister Babken DerGrigorian himself was born in the diaspora

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Deputy Minister of Diaspora Babken DerGrigoryan

Due to his experience he knows himself that there are things separating Armenians from the diaspora and those who grew up in Armenia: “Well it’s like that. When I was a young child I was playing Nintendo and watching Nickelodeon somewhere in the US. And here people had to struggle to get by with all those difficulties that came along with the collapse of Soviet Union and our independence.” Though ever felt warmly accepted as he explains it has been a challenge to get access to this very different background of the Armenian society. “It really took me years until I fully understood how this hard period shaped the mind of the people and why the wish for security and stability and a rather conservative approach to the world is that spread here. It´s the reaction on the upheavals they have witnessed here.”

Feeling homish in Yerevan, DerGrigorian in his office could promote repatriation among the diaspora´s Armenians and actually this is part of his ministry´s strategy. “Of course we try to win people for this country.” By law, everyone who can prove his Armenian origin has the right to apply for Armenian citizenship. There are some obstacles in the bureaucratic process but as DerGrigorian confirms, “we are working on that and it is actually not a huge affair to improve things.” Armenia could benefit a lot from good educated members of the diaspora and urgently needs migration to compensate demographic developments: Since for years young people and especially young men have left the country, today´s Armenian society in average is rather old and consists of much more women than men.

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Street scene in Yerevan. Different background: the center of Yerevan doesn’t tell too much about the country’s problems

To weaken this effect immigration is highly needed and the diaspora could be its ideal source – but in the same time Armenia has to face the fact it actually needs a strong and vital diaspora. “Armenia benefits a lot by the money that comes from the diaspora.” explains DerGrigorian. “At the same time the diaspora serves an important and influential lobby for us that has kind of impact in global affairs.” Since Armenia is located in a difficult neighbourhood, has an unsolved conflict with Azerbaijan, difficult relations with Turkey and just an ally – Russia – who tends to threat his partners rather like vassal states then thinking in terms of equality, the influence the diaspora could create in their countries of residence is highly needed.

Anyway DerGrigorian hopes that the political change will make Armenia a matter of even higher interest for the diaspora. Yet there´s hardly an effect at the border. The Minister sees a lightly decreasing number of people who leave the country while that of those coming to Armenia basically not increases. “At the moment there’s a lot of positive energy among the people but actually the political process is stuck,” says DerGrigorian. The upcoming elections which are supposed to confirm the power of Pashinyan will mark a changing point he adds. “Then we will have the parliamentary support to create a new Armenia. Then it will be up to us to prove that we can make this country successful and a place to stay for it´s citizens and even for those from abroad, who would like to have a perspective here. It´s gonna be a tough job.”

Especially since the expectations are that high that it may be tough to fulfil them. “Yeah, the atmosphere in our country indeed changed.” explains Hasmik Hayrapetyan. She is the marketing-director of the Armenian NGO “Birthright“ that aims to win diaspora Armenians for a one-year-volunteer-program in Armenia. “But it may take long until we see results of a new government and it is not unlikely that they just can’t fulfil the hopes of the people.” Among the participants of the Birthright-program she notices a rising interest that came along with the political change. “But yet we can´t say that the number of applications goes up significantly.”

Birthright offers its participants – usually students or young people who finished school or professional education – to live for a year with an Armenian family while doing such things as for example teaching foreign languages, learning Armenian language or absolving various internships. At the same time, the organisation tries to create chances for exchange between native and diaspora Armenians. “We want to get them in touch and to get an understanding for each other. We want our kids to know how it is to grow up in a different society. And we want our guests to see how kids of their age here have to serve in the army for two years and how they go to the frontline in Karabakh.” After all some 1700 volunteers took part in Birthright-program after it was founded in 2003. Approximately 170 of them later remained in Armenia or came back to live there constantly, explains Hayrapetyan. “Of course we´d like to increase that number. But even those who don´t stay will have a much clearer image of Armenia and closer ties to our country.”

22-year old Tamara Maydali is one of the current volunteers in Birthright. Born and raised in Germany, she from her childhood was aware of being Armenian. Her parents, Armenians from Turkey, moved to Germany before her birth and never stopped referring on their Armenian identity. Being a German citizen and being labelled as a Turkish girl by most Germans, going to Armenia finally offered here the feeling to feel as a part of a certain kind of community. “I actually always had a good life in Germany but only here people do not ask where I am from and don´t look for possible differences. Though I hardly speak Armenian so far,” she explains.

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Tamara Maydali, volunteer from Germany / photo credits: Pierre-Alexis Firmin

Anyway her first time to Armenia some five years ago had been a huge cultural shock to her. “Especially if to go out of Yerevan  the poverty and lack of infrastructure had an significant impact on me.” After various stays in Armenia and after starting the volunteership in Birthright her feeling towards the country changes: “In the beginning I really hadn’t a feeling of homeland here. It was interesting to see but nothing where I would stay. That´s getting different now. The people are very warm and helpful and you really start to feel you´re belonging here somehow.

Maydali hasn’t been following the recent political process in Armenia too closely but is aware about the expectations that are now everywhere. According to here experience, even those members of the diaspora who never set a food on Armenian soil wish for a better change. “I know a lot of Armenians in Germany who care about the situation and hope that Pashinyan can reform the country.” Maydali says. “But I must admit the enthusiasm isn’t too big. After all it is not the first political change in Armenia and so far never a sustainable result has been seen.”

A place to stroll – a place to stay?

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Yerevan Northern Avenue

While getting familiar with the land that carries the name of her origin Maydali would not deny to extend her stay after finishing the Birthright-program. Having studied business arithmetic in Germany it could be interesting to do a master degree in Yerevan . “But yet this is just another limited thing. Well, after learning the language why not to stay for another two or three years?”, she asks. “But forever? That´s a tough question and you don´t know what to expect from this country on long term.” As many other Armenians from the diaspora Maydali knows that she always could go back. “Especially we from the western countries are in a very comfortable situation. If there´d appear any difficulties we always just could go back to a more stable and easy place. Maybe this somehow keeps us from really getting ourselves in that kind of reality native Armenians have to deal with all their life.”

Poehlking Markus

Markus Pöhlking is a journalist and editor based in German ‘Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung’ daily . Having had always a strong interest in foreign affairs, matters concerning Eastern Europe and post-Soviet countries, he has lived and worked in Ukraine and Georgia in past years.

 

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

THE GREATEST RESOURCE IS PEOPLE, DEMOCRACY IS THE BIGGEST THING TO OFFER

by Robert Zargaryan

2018 has been a historic year for German-Armenian relations: the visit of Angela Merkel to Yerevan was the first time Bundeskanzler arrived in Armenia. She visited the Genocide Memorial of Tsitsernakaberd following the 2016 adoption by the German Bundestag of the resolution on the Armenian Genocide. After the official meetings both sides confirmed that there is huge potential for boosting economic and cultural cooperation in German- Armenian relations. These days many economists and politicians in Armenia are sharing their vision of the future of relations between these countries.

Political scientist, Director of Yerevan-based Analytical Centre on Globalization and Regional Cooperation Stepan Grigoryan says that the development of the Armenian-German relations will be based on CEPA agreement between the European Union and Armenia. “I am sure, that the agreement will enter into force next year, there is no obstacle,” the expert says.

CEPA (Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement) with Armenia was signed in November 2017. It should be ratified by all the EU member states, and Germany still has not ratified it.

“Within the terms of the agreement Armenia could implement important programs with Germany,” says Stepan Grigoryan. He doesn’t exclude that the Agreement can bring certain progress. “But there is already a mechanism: it includes the trade field, reforms in judicial system, human rights, tourism, science, education. Germany could support all these reforms in Armenia.”

After the visit of Angela Merkel, there remains an important question to answer: what can Armenia offer to Germany? Stepan Grigoryan believes, that first of all Armenia should offer democracy. “It’s important for them: they understand that if Armenia becomes a democratic state,  illegal migration will disappear, they want Armenians to go to Germany, to work, to cooperate with them. The thing is that we are interesting for them in the context of democracy.”

The expert mentions some areas where Germans may need Armenians. “IT, agriculture, but we should work hard to match our standards with those of Germany, that’s not hard, it is a matter of willingness.”

The European Union is the second trade partner of Armenia and the largest  market for export. In September 2018 the EU Ambassador to Armenia Piotr Switalski said that during the last months export to the EU states has increased twice by GSP+ regime.

In 2013 Armenia was very close to signing the Association Agreement with the EU, but the government changed its mind, and after a few time Armenia joined the Eurasian Economic Union (Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia. Moldova was granted observer status in April 2017), which restricted the opportunities for economic cooperation with the EU. After the November 2017 signing of Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA) many politicians and experts believed it was similar to the Association Agreement without the economics-related points not contradicting the commitments made to the EaEU.

European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), and especially European Union’s Eastern Partnership initiative is a very efficient platform for participating countries (Armenia is one of them) aimed at progress in relations with the EU.

Dr. Cornelius Adebahr, political analyst from Germany, says that ENP is based on European laws, so EU enlargement prospect really exists: “For the European policy people to people contacts, transportation, visa-free regime, supporting business, providing support for education are big ticket items.”

The analyst says that EU membership of the EaP counties is not a topic for the EU’s enlargement policy, since there are frozen territorial conflicts in each of the Eastern Partnership countries: “As long as you have such conflicts, they hold you back from becoming an EU member: some countries want it that way.”

Eastern Partnership was inaugurated in Prague, Czech Republic in 2009 to govern EU’s relationship with post-Soviet union states (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine). It is an avenue to discuss trade, economic strategy, travel agreements and other issues between the EU and Eastern neighbors.

Thus, being an EaEU member is not an obstacle for Armenia to have close cooperation with the EU, and CEPA is proving that. One of the most discussed topics in Armenia is visa-free regime prospect with the EU. During her August 2018 visit to Armenia Angela Merkel touched upon it as well.

“We understand, that Ukraine and Georgia, which have agreements of association with the EU, are already in visa-free regime. We expect Armenia to have progress on this issue too, and we are going to do everything for that,” said the Chancellor.

She also reaffirmed that Armenia’s cooperation with EaEU, especially with Russia, is not a problem for Europe. “Armenia can be an example of how it is possible to cooperate with Russia and at the same time have good cooperation with the European Union. Of course, there are not many chances. The Eurasian Economic Union, in fact, is a free trade zone. There are surely very good economic opportunities that could be used.”

Chancellor Merkel mentioned that Germany wants to cooperate with Armenia in the digitalization area and highlighted the cooperation in education.

It is clear, that the signing of CEPA has opened new doors to Europe for Armenia, and after its ratification by all the EU member states the cooperation will reach a higher level. First of all, Armenia’s largest trade partner will increase commodity turnover with the country. It cannot be excluded, that in case of normalization of relations between the West and Russia someday, Armenia could become some kind of a bridge between them.

Armenia’s greatest resource is Armenian people, as mentioned many times by Nikol Pashinyan’s government. It is not a coincidence that during Merkel’s visit the Prime Minister of Armenia suggested having a walk in Yerevan so that the Chancellor meets the people. Hence, after all, people to people contacts are very important in relations. This means the negotiations on the visa-free regime should be on the agenda as soon as possible.

zargaryanRobert Zargaryan studied journalism at Yerevan State University. He is a reporter at A1+ online TV channel.  His work in journalism is mainly focused on politics and social issues in Armenia and in the Eastern Europe. Currently he is doing his Master degree in political science at Public Administration Academy of RA.

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