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Civil Society, Development and Environmental Activism in Armenia

Date: Thursday 27 February 2014
Venue: SOAS, University of London
Speaker: Dr Armine Ishkanian (London School of Economics and Political Science)
Chair: Elliot Bannister (Programme of Armenian Studies)

Most of the audience members at tonight’s talk, hosted by the Programme of Armenian Studies, would have claimed an awareness of civil society, but that’s not to say they agreed on what it meant. Earlier in the day, the former Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych was reported to have entered Russia, having been ousted by the Euromaidan demonstrations that started in November. As these protests were raging, back in the UK the Prime Minister was making yet another attempt to launch his idea of Big Society, a societal framework where local bodies are encouraged to take responsibility for public services. Both of these phenomena are described by different people as civil society in action. At one end of the spectrum, neo-liberal policy makers interpret it as the antidote to centralised government; at the other, academics and activists treat it as an arena for uncoerced, collective action, where hegemonic ideas can be resisted and challenged.

The Republic of Armenia is an exciting member of the global stage with its own unique examples of active civil society. Organic collective movements can be traced as far back as the 1980s, sending cracks through the fragile Soviet government, although nothing existed yet in the recognisable form of an NGO. Perhaps contrary to expectations, civil society wasn’t given an immediate boost by independence from the USSR, for in the years of dark and cold that followed independence, citizens were more concerned with day-to-day survival than environmental or social issues.

Then, in the transition to a free market, the new government actively attempted to create civic initiatives. In just two years, the number of registered NGOs in Armenia increased from 44 to around 1500, although this was largely the result of a top-down democracy drive funded by foreign donors.

Civil society entered a third phase in about 2007 with the emergence of informal, voluntary civic initiatives without major funding or recognition from the Ministry of Justice. Their causes revolve around issues as diverse as the rights of pregnant women, the preservation of ancient forests and the protection of architectural heritage. They tend to be horizontally structured, exploit modern technologies like Facebook for organisation and take their inspiration from movements abroad such as the protestors on Kiev’s Maidan and their poetic counterparts in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere.

One such example that has embraced this international vocabulary is the Occupy Mashtots movement. They have been protesting the demise of Yerevan’s urban landscape and fighting the power of the oligarchy by camping out in the city’s central park. Another successful example was the opposition to the proposal of raising minibus fares from 100 to 150 dram. Members of the public launched a boycott of the transport system and provided each other with free car pools. More importantly, these movements nurtured a sense of self-determined citizenship in ordinary Armenians and gave them the audacity to fight for the world they imagined.

But the obstacles activists face in Armenia are plenty. Firstly, there is an overarching climate of fear that gives citizens the impression that their jobs might be at risk if they dare to challenge the status quo. On top of that, activists have had to battle with the idea that economic growth and sustainability are mutually exclusive concepts, a notion which can prevent the public from engaging with environmental issues from the outset. Thirdly, and perhaps most challenging for activists: the disease of apathy, and the desire among the younger generation to emigrate and to relegate Armenia’s social problems to distant memories.

It is this evolution of civil society that interests Dr Armine Ishkanian, Assistant Professor of Social Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Between 2011 and 2013 she was funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation to conduct extensive qualitative fieldwork in Armenia. At tonight’s talk she presented her findings, which have also been published in her 2013 report, Civil society, development and environmental activism in Armenia.

The current activity of Armenian civil society is split almost equally on architectural heritage, human rights (including labour rights) and ecology. It is this latter domain – or more specifically, the popular fight against the mining industry – that Dr Ishkanian took as a case study. She conducted some 82 interviews with activists, villagers, academics, journalists, NGOs and members of the diaspora, as well as consulting with an additional 16 focus groups. What have environmental activists achieved in Armenia? What changes have been made at policy level?

There are a total of 670 mines in Armenia and in 2007 the industry made up a massive 50% of the country’s economy. Since the 1980s mining companies have gradually been moving to poorer countries such as Armenia, a phenomenon that has been supported by the World Bank because of the opportunities it affords these countries in terms of growth – claims that spokespeople within the sector have echoed.

But the mining industry inevitably brings with it a huge environmental impact. To make way for the Teghut mine in northern province of Lori, developers are tearing up the oldest forest in the region, which will not only dry out rivers but threatens the survival of a number of already endangered animal and plant species. Ground and water pollution from the mines have also had an effect on the food chain, and recently the region has witnessed a rise in the number of birth defects.

Despite these very real threats, any campaign against Teghut mine would be hard to fight on environmental principles alone. At first, volunteers for the Save Teghut Civic Initiative were treated by villagers as ‘outsiders’ (not surprising, perhaps, as 80% of Armenia’s activist groups are based in the capital) and were even being branded ‘cannibals’. What prevailed in the attitudes of local people towards mining was its economic promise.

This was a standpoint also taken by a member of the audience in this evening’s lively question and answer session. In 2012, he argued, metal prices massively dropped and therefore so did Armenia’s exports. Armenia simply relies on the opening of new mines so that it doesn’t succumb to its competitors in Africa where, he argued, environmental legislation is very lax.

The response Ishkanian gave questioned the motivation of development in the first place. Should Armenia be engaging in a race to the bottom? Should it be competing with Africa to provide the cheapest labour? Tales of caution emanate from Zambia, where the government placed all of its eggs in the copper mining basket, but is now a failed economy.

Furthermore, there is little evidence that mining has brought benefits to local communities in Armenia. Au contraire, it has fostered graft, corruption and clientelism. 45% of the country’s population still lives below the poverty line, and 18% remain out of work. Just as tragically, the dreams of the country’s youth lie abroad, leading to a brain drain that the country must work hard to deal with.

In 2012 the government made it even easier for mining companies to get their foot in the door. Governments normally charge mining companies a fee to begin exploitation in their country, but this was scrapped in Armenia, effectively gifting the country’s resources to multinational companies. On top of that, the companies were awarded tax breaks and granted permission to take their profits out of the country. In fact, the only earnings the government makes from mining are the royalties the companies pay after the product has been sold.

A further example of the corruption of mining companies was given by a member of the audience, who had worked for some time in an audit firm that provided financial services for such companies. She argued that although schemes exist to make companies’ profits available to public, such as the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, they are entirely voluntary, and offer companies a veneer of honesty without the obligation to publish anything at all.

Perhaps the most telling aspect of the 2012 changes in mining legislation was the removal of the word ‘waste’ and the rebranding of tailing dumps into something that translates as ‘rock piles’. This not only makes mining companies feel less guilty, but perhaps the government as well – for it is the latter who have to deal with mining waste, despite barely having a stake in the profitable side of the industry.

It is these economic and social impacts that the Save Teghut Civic Initiative are concentrating on when they canvas local areas. Their interpretation is that policy makers are privatising the gains of mining but socialising their costs. With the residents of Teghut they are beginning to establish alternative means of income, such as the sale of local honey. It is powerful gesture that may never replace the income that mining supposedly generates but certainly demonstrates progress in the attitude of local people towards mining.

The success of the initiative, Ishkanian suggested, relies on their ability to network with other like-minded activists. When asked about the status of LGBT+ groups in the discussion after the lecture, Ishkanian explained that generally they face many instances of oppression, but that networking with women’s groups and other liberation movements might strengthen their standing.

Despite the modest successes of these campaigns to engage local communities, change attitudes and raise awareness both nationally and internationally, the challenges they face are still huge. There remains, for example, a great power imbalance between government and civil society. When prompted by an audience member to address the government’s response to these initiatives, Ishkanian speculated a possible fourth stage in the evolution of civil society that she presented at the beginning: the co-option of popular efforts by political parties. The Occupy Mashtots movement, for example, was hijacked by a number of election candidates who claimed that the people’s struggle was also theirs. Ishkanian cited Saarkashvili’s government, where a great number of individuals who were previously involved in civil society now work for the government. Civil society in Georgia, she admitted, was more developed than in Armenia, and without a doubt better established than in Azerbaijan. She concluding the lecture in the hope that activists in Armenia can remain aware of their place on the global scene as they continue to forge for themselves a strong arena of collective action.

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