Below is part 1 of a two-part personal journal on my experience covering so-called free and democratic elections in Armenia this past May. Please take a look -- I think it raises a lot of questions not only about the veractiy of the elections process itself, but how the U.S. goes along with it as long as it fits bigger foreign policy objectives. Not a big surprise, I know. Just details.
Besides that, you can read about Armenia's own "Lion King" (to your right in the photo). Ah, good times.
ROAD BETWEEN YEREVAN AND GYUMRI, Armenia – It's the yellow tape on the road that makes us stop.
Men in trench coats and dark sunglasses are everywhere, screaming at the driver of the car I'm riding in to pull over to the other side, to keep moving, go on, don't ask questions. As we zip past the scene, the four of us in the car try to puzzle out what happened.
“Someone has gotten killed,” theorizes Tatevik, a fresh-faced twentysomething recent college grad who is managing logistics for my trip (she studied education and Italian in Connecticut for a year, and speaks a comforting American-accented English sprinkled with a lot of “likes” and “you knows”). Tatevik works for IREX, a U.S.-government funded agency which has hired me many times in the past five years to come to Armenia as a journalist trainer.
And she is right. A few miles down the road, I get a call from John Hughes, a veteran American journalist who lives in Yerevan and started the Armenian-English language online news magazine, ArmeniaNow.com, four year ago.
“Looks like the mayor of Gyumri was shot last night,” he says. “He was driving home from a meeting when a car drove up next to his and three guys in machine guns shot up the car. He is in the hospital, three of his guys have been killed.”
He sounds not one bit surprised. Parliamentary elections are one month away, on May 12. Welcome to Armenia, where the start of the political season is nearly always marked by a hail of bullets and a body count.
Armenia's most prominent political aspirant keeps lions in his basement. That's right. Real lions.
We know this is true because Tony Halpin, a British journalist, co-founder of ArmeniaNow.com and the current London Times bureau chief for Moscow, has seen them. He also locked wrists with the political newcomer and former world champion arm-wrestler who might well become Armenia's next prime minister.
“Ouch,” says Tony, laughing and shaking his arm in mock pain. “That was tough.”
The leader of Armenia's new Prosperous Armenia party is Gagik Tsarukyan, one of Armenia's richest and toughest men. The origin of his wealth is mysterious, though during the Soviet era, he was known as a “black entrepeneur,” buying and selling hard-to-get goods. He has a substantial number of well-equipped computer campaign offices and giant campaign posters in every town, showing his large smiling head perched atop a preternaturally thick neck. His nickname is Dodi, but only his friends are allowed to use it: there is a rumor that one man was nearly beaten to death by Tsarukyan's bodyguards for referring to him by that name.
He is also closely aligned with president Robert Kocharian, and it's widely known that his year-old party will be part of the pro-government faction led by Kocharian's Republican Party, which now holds the majority of seats in parliament. Voters might consider Prospereous Armenia to be a more palatable choice, possibly, than the Republicans because of Tsarukyan's robust strength and his newness to politics. But even the simplest person understands that a vote for Prosperous Armenia is a vote for a friend of the president – a very good friend.
Still, the Prosperous Armenia Party is taking no chances. Party officers have been trading cash for passport numbers to use on voting day and giving away free wheat seeds and other goodies in the more traditional form of vote-buying so prevalent in new democracies like Armenia.
Certainly, Tsarukyan's party isn't the only one buying votes. ArmeniaNow reporters amassed what we jokingly call in the office “How much is your vote worth?” On it virtually every political party can be found trading votes for such items as a new clothes shopping spree, a free trip to the local bathhouse, a hair dryer, or a fixed leaky roof. But Prosperous Armenia is the only one with the unlimited cash needed to make the most impact.
Two days before the election, Halpin and ArmeniaNow reporter Suren Mouselyan followed Tsarukyan to the poor town of Abovian, where he grew up. They watched him vow before the crowd to run a free and fair election, and promised not to buy votes.
“But out of the goodness of my heart, here are two ambulances for the town,” Tsarukyan announced one minute later. The crowd cheered loudly. After all, they aren't stupid. Every Armenian knows the most effective way to get public services in the country is through a private person's wallet.
Suren, a serious young man with a British journalism education, says that after the speech, he and Tony muscled their way to Tsarukyan through a crowd of people, trying to press written letters into his pocket, begging favors or simply singing his praises.
Leaning against his chauffeur-driven SUV, Tsarukyan agreeably answered a few of Tony's questions before extending the invitation to visit him at home on election day.
“Tony asked something like “Are you afraid of election fraud?”” Suren recalled. “Tsarukyan looked at me, after I translated it, and said: “I am not afraid of anything.” As if saying to me: Explain to this Brit, who doesn't know the extent of my power, that I'm not afraid of anything in this country.”
Gyumri, when we arrive an hour past the scene of the shooting, looks like it always does: devastated.
In 1988, the city was hit by a 6.9-scale earthquake that leveled most of what was once Armenia's cultural capital, killing 25,000 and leaving more than 500,000 homeless. Nineteen years and billions of dollars in international aid later (American public aid and private donations alone numbered $34.5 million), the city has seen only marginal improvement. Wonder what happened to all that money?
A gangland style shot-up mayor on the side of the road would indicate it might not all have gone through the legal channels.
Gyumri is an extreme representation of the cross that Armenians living in this rocky, landlocked Caucasian country must bear. “Politician” in Armenia can be an euphemism for “criminal”, just another way for the local “chiefs” to get their hands on money intended for public use. It's so obvious, no one really bothers to hide it. I mean, how can one hide a city full of cracked-up buildings and split sidewalks, anyway? Or the massive, ostentatious mansions where the leaders live?
The average Armenian isn't fooled. That's the message we've gotten from a story turned into ArmeniaNow.com by a Gyumri reporter named Samvel, a thin, nervous workhorse of a man who comes to have his story edited around 10 p.m., after a full day of reporting. The story is full of comments from Gyumri residents saying the same thing: we don't trust anyone, we don't trust any politicians, it doesn't matter whom we vote for.
There are two problems with the story. One is that the text is a jumbled mess of sentences, hard to understand. The other is that the three stories we commissioned from different parts of the country all say the exact same thing.
This is where my job comes in. I've been hired to work with John and his staff at ArmeniaNow to train new potential regional recruits like Samvel. My salary is paid by the US government based on the theory that a true democracy needs a credible, informative, factually based press.
Specifically, that means I'm working with the journalists not only on how to restructure their writing, but to move beyond the obvious and defeatist. If we talk about corruption, we discuss it in concrete terms, not vague generalities that make you want to throw your hands up and cry “uncle.”
That is what I'm supposed to be doing in Gyumri on the day after the mayor has gotten shot. Though ultimately, it will be red tape that will stop my work, not the yellow crime tape littering the road.
“Long live the kingdom of the mayor,” the old woman said.
We are rewriting Samvel's story. At this stage, I draw questions out of him and type a new story in my computer. My translator, Nune, helps Samvel and I understand each other, and reads the story out as I write it for Samvel's approval. Later, she will translate it into written Armenian for ArmeniaNow's website. This is, I've found, the best way to model good writing and editing. It is, in fact, the way I learned to write, sitting with patient editors, when I was a green reporter working in such far-flung places as New Hampshire, North Carolina or Hong Kong.
“She said that?” I ask Samvel, who nods his head up and down vigorously. “Why?”
It turns out that at the end of March, just three weeks before our visit, the Gyumri mayor and the now-deceased prime minister – both supporters of President Robert Kocharian's Republican party, which runs the country – made an announcement in a big theatre in Gyumri.
(The prime minister has since died -- of a heart attack, no foul play suspected).
The mayor and prime minister gave away the keys to five new homes bought with their private money to five homeless Gyumri families, including the old lady. The “donation” was made on behalf of the president's Republican Party.
“But here is the problem,” explains Samvel, through the translator. “There are still 3000-5000 people living homeless or in marginalized housing since the earthquake, and nothing is being done to help them.”
In fact, he continues, eyes flashing with anger, the Republican-led government is actually selling off blocks of dormitories where families have been living for years, effectively evicting them from the only homes they have.
“And yet,” I say to him. “People will vote for the Republican party quite simply because the mayor gave someone a house seven weeks before the election – a house he paid for with his private money?”
Yes, Samvel nods.
“They call him the king?” I said.
Again, Samvel's head bobs assent.
“Jesus,” I tell him. “A few people here grab all the public resources for themselves, and when they dribble it back, people are grateful?”
Another nod. We sit quietly for a minute in the hotel lobby, delicate little white cups of sourj, or Armenian coffee, cooling on the table in front of us.
“That's feudalism,” I say, finally.
Samvel listens intently to the translation.
“Exactly,” he says wearily. “Exactly.”
“What if the politician is just trying to be nice and do a good thing?”
These words come from a middle-aged TV station director in a workshop on how to interview political figures during an election period.
I have asked him to play the role of a local parliamentarian cutting the ribbon in a poor village for two private roads built with privately donated money a month before an election. Furthermore, in this hypothetical scenario, I have reminded his colleagues that this parliamentarian should be asked what happened to public funds allocated by parliament to fix roads in the village two years ago. Sound familiar?
As his colleagues begin to pepper him with questions, the station director, like the best method actor, gets into his role and becomes genuinely upset.
“I'm trying to help you,” he says to them. Afterwards, he admonishes the reporters, telling them they were “too mean” to him, and cynical.
In a way, his reaction is not surprising. He runs what is officially known as an independent television station, but in reality, his station is funded directly by the government and is subject to political pressure from the powers that be in Armenia – in this case, the Republican party. After all, during the Soviet era, the news media was merely a mouthpiece for government words. Though Armenia is officially a democracy, the government is made up of the same people from communist times, and they run the country as they would during the communist era, or before it even – as their own personal fiefdom.
It is a week since my trip to Gyumri. I am teaching this workshop in a basement conference room in Yerevan's nicest hotel, the Marriott, a grand, glowing, circular building located in the capital's main square.
I don't generally like workshops. The Marriott feels far, far away from the troubles of Gyumri and people in the rest of Armenia – or even from the people living outside the four-block radius of Yerevan's posh city center. Talking theory between elegant buffet lunches isn't as effective as working in the field, editing stories that will go into Armenian-language publications. But it is important for IREX, the organization that runs the US media development program here in Armenia, to show what people in the development world call “deliverables.” So I try to give good workshop.
I am not allowed to use any actual politicians in my interviewing exercises. This is understandable. In Armenia, as well as elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, government-supported projects are assumed to be espousing the views of that government – just as it was during the soviet era. But nothing is stopping me from recreating a very familiar scenario.
The journalists bite.
“It's a bribe, isn't it?” Asks one television reporter. “It's a type of election bribe.”
“Yes,” I say. “But it's the worse kind. Because it's used to manipulate how voters will feel about a person, it's not a direct business transaction.”
“Can we call it a bribe, then?” the reporter asks.
This is not so clear. If it's technically charity, can we call it bribery? If no one is being forced to vote, just persuaded, what do you call it?
NEXT: WHO NEEDS THE SOVIET CENSORS WHEN YOU HAVE US-AID?