Monthly Archives: August 2012

Picking Sides in Syria

As a quick update to my last post, allegedly the Supreme Council of the Syrian Revolution has declared that “disaster and ravages” will beset the local Armenian community for their support of Assad.

As background, the Supreme Council of the Syrian Revolution is a national opposition group fighting against Assad. While it is not a member of the Syrian National Council, it has sent representatives to their meetings.

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Filed under Regional Politics, Syria

Armenians in Syria, What is Going on?

War is never good for civilians. The Syrian civil war is no exception for the approximately 100,000 Syrian-Armenians (Syria-Hay) living predominantly in and around Aleppo. As mentioned earlier, Armenians have generally sided with the government, which has made the FSA less than cordial to them. But, part of the deal with siding with the government was that the government would keep them safe. With the heavy artillery falling into the urban environment of Aleppo, all bets are off.

For the Syria-Hay, what was an easy choice to stay has become a hard challenge of figuring out how to get out. In a dirty war zone, remaining neutral simply means you have no allies. Whether the Syria-Hay community wants to leave might be moot as logistically it’s next to impossible to mobilize such a large population. Before the recent onslaught on Aleppo, many Armenians were calling for “media caution” to not upset either fighting force to continue the fragile security of the Syria-Hay community as long as possible. As of two weeks ago, the Syrian government was still telling the Syria-Hay community to stay home.

A big issue has been how should Armenia help. Syria-Hay have been petitioning the government for help, specifically asking for lower air fares for Syrians. A Syrian friend told me that around the beginning of August, plane tickets from Aleppo to Yerevan (~650 mi) were going for $600 dollars. In comparison, my one-way ticket from Yerevan to San Francisco (~9000 mi) was $700. Armavia, the primary carrier of Armenia and only carrier flying between Aleppo and Armenia, was demanding the Armenian government subsidize each ticket by $250. As of the end of July, calls of Armavia’s price-gouging were frequent, including criticism with how the company would only sell round-trip tickets between Aleppo and Yerevan. Recently, two Armenian charities paid Armavia $43,000 to bring over 149 Syrian children.

Fortunately for the government and the Syrians, the Armenian General Benevolence Union stepped in with a $1 million humanitarian assistance emergency fund for Syria-Hay. The Hayastan All-Armenian Fund has also contributed by opening banking accounts to accept donations.

Worsening communication between Armenia and Syria, the Syrian consul to Armenia defected at the end of July. He openly voiced his support for the opposition, adding yet another complication between the countries. As of today, there have only been nine diplomatic defections.

Straining relations further, the Armenian government was silent during a recent UN General Assembly Resolution that reprimanded Syria. While the Resolution facially calls for a neutral immediate and visible end to violence in Syria, its drafting is primarily focused against the Syrian government rather than against the FSA. Armenia has generally had favorable relations with Syria, especially with the significant leeway Bashir has given Armenians and other Christians. But, when it’s 133 in favor and 12 against, with half of the ‘against’ category full of the least democratic states in the world, it’s hard to vote no even if you want to. At least one Armenian talking head was in favor of Armenia’s tactical silence calling it “justified.”

Shortly after the no-vote, Armenia attended a conference on the Syria situation held in Tehran. Take a guess who didn’t show up. If you said Western Europe, the US, and Turkey, congratulations, you win a cookie. The conference called for peace, ending military assistance to armed groups and non-intervention and was largely ignored in the west.

In the first half of the year, 3,248 Syria-Hay applied for Armenian citizenship. The Armenian Consulate in Aleppo has had to move for safety reasons, limiting their capacity. In part because of that, the Foreign Ministry stopped accepting passport applications for Armenian citizenship, but Syria-Hay can still receive free entrance visas and passports at the border, making this one limitation not too restrictive.

The Ministry of Diaspora has been working on providing services to the Syria-Hay, albeit not necessarily the most useful services. The Ministry has a Syria-Hay working group, but it sounds like the group is composed of Armenians who lived in Syria and returned a while ago. While the Ministry may be criticized for not engaging in any long-term planning, teaching the Syria-Hay Eastern Armenian rather than their native Western Armenian doesn’t seem like the highest priority long-term issue. Another program involved bringing Damascan Syria-Hay children to Armenia to relax for two weeks, get a tour of Yerevan, and return to Syria tomorrow. Syria-Hay with Syrian driver’s licenses won’t have to take a driving test before they can drive in Armenia, but of course that assumes that they can get a car here (the very rough data puts car ownership here at one-fifth that of the United States).

Surprisingly, the Ministry’s actions have earned it the trust of some in the Syria-Hay community where they are very willing to attack Armenian reporters who ignorantly talk about their situation while defending the Ministry for its actions. Another reporter also bashes Armenian reporters for not willing to go to the situation but also bashes everyone else, including the Ministry for its indifference, Armavia for its price-gouging and local politicians.

Unfortunately, time is getting short. Instead of focusing on media caution, “No Armenian Casualties” is newsworthy as of yesterday. Claims for asylum are also on the rise. With telephone and internet connections cut and shots in the streets, it’s unclear how reliable any information is right now, but it’s clear the situation is becoming more and more grim.

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Filed under Current Events, Regional Politics

Calling the Police

Yesterday was stressful, partially because I’m a spurkahay (Diasporan) that’s not willing to conform to Armenian standards, partially because Armenian men think they can do whatever they want, and definitely because of the language barrier.

I went by the Birthright Armenia office after work and was there until 8pm. I walked toward Hraparak metro as I typically do, going through the park that’s just north of Vernissage. Unlike all the previous times, this time I saw a young-ish guy push a young-ish girl into a wall and place his leg next to her in an intimidating way to stop her from leaving.

Some people would have kept walking, some people would have confronted him. I did all I knew to do: I stayed and watched and called a Hayastanci (local Armenian) friend to figure out what I should do.

The guy proceeded to smack her around a bit. I could see that she was bawling her eyes out. He continued to be in her face, say some things to her and hit her. He also had two friends about 3 meters away (~10 feet) doing nothing. One time he hit her so hard that there was a loud smacking noise. The two guys said the equivalent of “hey;” that was the limit of their involvement.

I call the police, who thankfully have an English speaker available. Unfortunately, that English speaker doesn’t understand words like “hit,” “beat,” “smack,” or “punch.”

“What happened?”

“This guy is hitting this girl.”


“This boy is hitting/punching/attacking/etc this girl”

“Who attacked you?”

“No one attacked me, the boy hit the girl.”

“When did they hit you?”

“No, he is hitting her now, hima!”

Eventually she understands and says the police will come in five minutes.

By the time the police arrive—which amazingly was in roughly five minutes—the guy had stopped hitting her and was now holding her “softly.” She had also stopped crying. In fact, everything seemed normal. Normal enough that the cops didn’t think there was any problem whatsoever. “Boyfriend and Girlfriend” and “no problem” they said to me. This was even after I had my Hayastanci friend explain the situation to them. Apparently, the girl wasn’t willing to discuss what happened to her to four male cops with her boyfriend beside her (assuming she thought there was even a problem to begin with).

Fine. I leave, not particularly surprised that absolutely nothing was done. At least I could hope that I made an impact on the guy that people are willing to report his abuse. I start moving on thinking about what else I need to do until the calls begin.

Only a few minutes after walking away the cops call me. With my very limited Armenian and ample usage of “chhaskatsa” and “inch?” I understand that they want to know where I am. As a general rule, I only like to speak to police if I’m reporting a crime or I have a lawyer present. When the police are constantly asking you your location, I’m not inclined to answer. With my limited Armenian, I simply cannot understand why they want to speak to me or know where I am as they said there was no issue. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that they don’t keep calling and calling and calling and calling… I’m starting to get worried enough that I start calling people for advice. They agree that I should figure out why they want my location, but as I can’t setup a three-way call on my phone, they can’t give me any better advice. At this point, there are a few theories of what is going on.

  • The cops aren’t coordinating with each other and the cops calling me aren’t the same cops I saw.
  • The cops just need me to sign some statement that they came or something equally bureaucratic or trivial.
  • The cops are going to turn this around and accuse me of a false police report.
  • The cops gave my number to the abuser, and the calls are actually from the abuser who wants to get revenge. (Definitely not something I would have thought of as an American)
  • The cops know I’m America-Hay and thus care about their image and want to make it seem like they’re doing a good job. This could include getting my statement (a.k.a. driving me to the station where there will be an English speaker) and promising to “investigate.”

Chances are, the last possibility is the most likely. Regardless, the lack of understanding of the situation and whether I was potentially in legal or physical jeopardy was particularly frustrating. Fortunately, after 25 missed calls the cops stop calling. I try to relax.

The story concludes in an uninteresting and unsatisfactory way that I’d rather not mention here. The complete dismissal by the cops followed by their barrage of harassing phone calls will definitely make me pause before calling them again. I now have, sadly, a better understanding for the fatalistic Hayastanci that have given up hope that Armenia will get better.

In the mean time, “enjoy” this excellent video (English subtitles) about the prevalent domestic violence in Armenian Soap Operas made by the Society Without Violence. (Trigger warning for visceral—if fictional—acts of domestic violence)

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Filed under Personal, Social / Culture

Pictures! Vahe Avetyan and the Blessing of the Grapes Festival

Here are two new photo albums just waiting for your anxious eyes.


Burning Candles

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Paros Foundation and Bad International Aid

The Paros Foundation, a fund focusing on providing aid to Armenia, recently donated 25,000 shoes to children in need. This will have a positive impact on the immediate living conditions of the children, a negative impact on the local economy, and potentially even a negative impact on the long-term conditions of the children.

TOMS Shoe Company was one of the first with the idea of donating shoes to impoverished areas. Like Paros, while TOMS has a noble goal their approach is ineffectual or even counter-productive. Thankfully for me, people have already criticized TOMS for their ineffective aid and those criticisms are easily available on the internet.

First, the issue isn’t that children don’t have shoes but that children live in poverty. Poverty will only be eradicated in the long-term through promoting local economy and effective resource distribution. Paros Foundation states that “some shoes will be purchased in Armenia [improving] the local economy” but they don’t mention what percent of the funds will go into the local economy or even what guidelines they’ll follow for primarily buying local. Also, there is no analysis of how much local cobblers will be hurt from a flood of shoes into the area. It’s possible that some cobblers will go out of business because of the lack of demand.

A second major issue is that Paros is creating dependency. It’s rational to not pay for something when someone will give it to you for free. When these shoes wear out in a year, it’s rational that the orphanages won’t buy new shoes in case Paros is prepared to provide thousands of new shoes again (assuming the orphanages raise enough money to do so). Paros can tell them that this is a one-time-deal and will never be repeated, but then they’re admitting that they’re just providing a band-aid to the real problem.

To not finish this post with cheap complaints, an alternative approach should be discussed. In the case of TOMS, providing cheap shoe-making material and free shoe-making classes would develop vocational skills, self-sufficiency and provide for more shoes in the area without promoting dependency. In the case of Paros, while giving kids shoes paints a lovely picture for the media and future donors, it could have used the donated money for some long-term project that produces long-term benefits.

When discussing policy choices, one often wonders about the multiplier effect: for each dollar spent, do I get more than a dollar of impact because of the multiplier effect? Green energy is often touted as having a high multiplier because of all the benefits that can derive from it. Here, Paros can look at what investments could have a large multiplier and do that (e.g. new water piping system, new community center, providing local schools with funds to hire more teachers, etc.). The problem is that these types of investments are harder to do and much less glamorous than simply giving kids shoes.

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Filed under Diaspora

Vahe Avetyan – Update #2: The 40-day Kar’asunk on August 7

This is a continuation of this post and this post.

August 7 is the 40-day anniversary of the death of Vahe Avetyan at the hands of Ruben Hayrapetyan’s bodyguards. Candlelight vigils are being planned to honor that day, and I highly suggest anyone and everyone that cares about average Armenians taking control of their country from the hands of Oligarchs to join in one. So far, the known candlelight vigils are:

I will be attending the candlelight vigil at Harsnakar. If anyone is interested in attending and needs help getting transportation, email me.

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Filed under Current Events, Oligarchs

Yes, Even More Pictures: Berd yev Chinchin Gugher (Villages)

I recently had the privilege to spend a weekend in the small village of Berd and the tiny village of Chinchin. In Berd we got to have a great lunch and learned about the Berd Bears project to provide income and training for the local women. In the tiny village of Chinchin we had a water fight with the kids for Vartavar (they have it a week later than in Yerevan) and ate and talked with local villagers as we were broken up to two people per home (simply put: it was amazing). We also got to hear Mariam Yesayan, a spokeswoman (and member) of a local organization of children with developmental disabilities, who was recently interviewed for CivilNet.

Enough talking: Check out the pictures!

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