December 7, 2018

by Hakob Karapetyan

The profile picture of the official Facebook page of German-Armenian Society depicts a portrait of a bearded crowned man. This is Leo II (in Armenian Levon II), the ruler of medieval Armenia. At the end of the 12th century, located among the Byzantine Empire, the Crusader states and the Mohammedan sultanates, the Armenian principality of Cilicia was on the rise. Prince Levon Rubinyan negotiated for royal crown with the powers of that time, including the Holy Roman Emperor, King of Germany Frederick Barbarossa, supporting the latter on his territory during the Third Crusade.

After the sudden death of Frederick I, the Armenian prince continued good relations with Frederick’s son, Kaiser Heinrich VI. These contacts are, in fact, evidence of at least eight hundred year Armenian-German relations at the state level.

On August 24, 2018, German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived in Yerevan on an official visit, thus becoming the second leader of Germany to visit Armenia. The bilateral political agenda of the two countries is not so intense, economic relations can also hardly be considered as developed, despite the fact that Germany regularly turns out to be among Armenia’s top five trade partner countries with a turnover of about 130 million Euros.

The Chairman of German-Armenian Society Raffi Kantian says that the two countries have more cultural ties. In the second half of the 19th and at the beginning of the 20th centuries many Armenians received education in Germany, later playing a tangible role in science and art of Armenia. At the same time, many Germans lived in Armenia exploring history and ethnography. Scientific, educational and cultural ties are still ongoing.

The German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), operating in Armenia since 1990, has provided scholarships to about 2,200 Armenian citizens. Many Armenian young people are looking for other opportunities to study at German universities.

Lala Mkrtchyan left for Germany in 2011: she studies at the University of Cologne. Studying in Germany is easy for Lala, because free education schedule allows her to combine it with work. “Although I am integrated into the country’s life, I accept the rules and morals, I feel comfortable and safe, sometimes I start having thoughts of returning to Armenia. In short, I feel in the middle of two countries,” says Lala.

Lala Mkrtchyan

Lala Mkrtchyan

Cologne is not only the actual center of about 50,000 Armenian community in Germany (here the German Diocese of Armenian Apostolic Church is situated), but also a unique symbol of religious, racial, gender and other freedoms in Germany. That is just what attracts Lala in the city, which became native for her.

“The purpose of my coming to Germany is “education”. Yes, in inverted commas, because my real purpose was to change the place of residence for personal, financial and some other reasons. I am a very tolerant person and I feel good in a tolerant society. In Germany, although there are small problems with nationality, ethnicity, however in terms of attitude towards LGBT people or people with disabilities, I can see all of my dream morals here. Here a person is accepted the way he/she is. Just an example, which, I think, characterizes the difference very well: in the Armenian reality a divorced woman is condemned to be alone in her further life, she is not accepted by her friends, neighbors, and even family members. There is no such problem in the German society: a divorced woman can marry a few times or stay alone and be happy,” Lala adds.

She considers important that in Germany the state contributes to the promotion of tolerance in the society.

In Armenia the overwhelming majority of population is Christian, and their conservative approach in personal and family relationships is highly predominant here. After the Velvet Revolution of April 2018, whose targets were the fight against corruption and democratic reforms, the revolutionary leader Nikol Pashinyan was the first among the leaders of independent Armenia, who touched upon the problems of LGBT community in Armenia. Acting Prime Minister Pashinyan quite cautiously tried to send a message to Armenia’s strictly traditional public to face the problems of minorities and, above all, to refuse any aggressive behavior. “Our government may in some way avoid this question, but … in 10, 20 or 30 years there will inevitably be a government that will face this issue,” said Pashinyan during his speech at the RA National Assembly, referring to the LGBT community issues, in response to a question of one of the deputies. This position of Pashinyan was criticized from all sides: neither the minority supporters nor the conservative opposition liked his balanced approach.

“I wonder how the people [in Armenia] who became victims of a genocide, whose ancestors suffered from xenophobia, cannot but be intolerant towards their fellow citizens whose identity is different from theirs,” says Lala.

Democracy at Local Government Level

But many in Armenia, even fairly liberal-minded people, hardly believe that the rights of minorities can be protected at a proper level even under a democratically elected government. So far, the society is preparing to clean the Augean stables left by the previous government.

It is believed that democracy begins in the community. In the modern world, the state delegates its sovereignty to supranational connections on the one hand and to the local authorities on the other. It is not accidental that in Armenia the departure from democracy (which started in the second half of the 1990s) was accompanied by decrease in the level of autonomy of local governments. More than 900 urban and rural communities had only formal status of local self-government. Either in a rural community with a population of several thousand people or in the city of Gyumri with 150 thousand residents, or the million-plus capital Yerevan it was impossible to get a seat without having the “OK” from the central government and from Serzh Sargsyan himself. The authoritarian essence of government was also reflected in the relations between communal bodies and civil society organizations, including the media. The noose around the freedom of coverage of the work of social structures was getting tighter. In early 2018 the RA National Assembly adopted a law that prohibited the presence of journalists at the meetings of Yerevan Council of Elders, and added to that complicated media representatives’ work in the city hall. Lawmakers attributed this to security concerns. Meanwhile, dozens of human rights organizations stated that the real purpose of the change was to silence journalists.

Levon Barseghyan, Chairman of the Asparez Journalists’ Club, believes that the urban community, unlike the state structures, should be more transparent in its relations with society. “[The former] government attempted to limit the rights of people by the law, rejecting the philosophy of local government. Not only journalists, but also all those, who are willing, have the right to attend the meetings of the council of elders,” Barseghyan says.

In Berlin City Parliament, which is also the legislature of the State of Berlin, the entrance is open every day. For a journalist from Armenia, who in his own country is forced to call several people in order to enter the city parliament, it is an unusual situation: on showing the press card, he is allowed into the parliament building without any additional question. After a brief inspection, he enters the building and moves freely. In the meeting room, in addition to the seats for parliamentarians, there are also special seats for media representatives and civil society. Danny Freymark, a 35-year-old member of parliament, was elected to parliament in 2011. All these years, he was considered the youngest parliamentarian in Berlin. He says that the security check point has appeared in the building relatively recently, following terrorist attacks in Europe. But this does not prevent journalists from communicating with members of Parliament whenever they want: “This is normal, very normal. After all, we work for people, we do not work for us”, says Freymark.

In September 2018, due to early elections, the Yerevaners chose a new, revolutionary city government. The old regulations, however, still formally remain in force. The newly elected mayor of the city Hayk Marutyan stated his team’s commitment to work openly with the media.

The journalistic community of Armenia is cautiously optimistic with regard to this statement. “I hope that these people (the new city-government) will work more transparently with journalists than the previous government,” says journalist Lilit Hovhannisyan, proposing to use the European experience.

HakobHakob Karapetyan studied International Relations (Bachelor) and International Law (Master) at Yerevan State University. He is a freelance journalist since 2010. He has been working for A1+ online TV, and in parallel he has been writing articles for information-analytical websites. He is interested in the topics of peaceful settlement of conflicts in the South Caucasus, as well as problems of corruption and electoral crimes in Armenia. Since 2016 he has been cooperating with the Public Television of Armenia as journalist, screenwriter and editor of various projects. Since October 2018 he has been appointed as Spokesperson of Yerevan Mayor.