Our strength is the civil society, but who should develop it?


Interview with Chairman of the Board of the Civil Society Institute Artak Kirakosyan

It is obvious that civil society became more active, starting new initiatives during recent years. In your opinion, what had fostered that and when the activism became noted?

The first wave of the civil society activism happened in 2004, after the 2003 presidential elections, the notorious decision of the Constitutional Court, followed by the people's protest and demand to call for a referendum on the trust towards the government. The rude disruption of the demonstration on Baghramyan street led to youth protest. Since the end of 1980-s this was the first spontaneous wave, in which many young activists took a real role to play.

The second movement was the movement of volunteers, which strengthened during the same time, when social conditions somewhat improved and youth, students, instead of seeking means for education fees and everyday bread, could have some contribution in the social life.

Today civic activism is based on volunteers. The strength of this movement is that it is spontaneous, flexible and can react on challenges in a fast manner. However, at the same time, it is not institutionalized and mainly acts in reaction to some events, namely it has a function of speedy reaction, such as activism around the Mashtots boulevard, Central Market, murder of Vahe Avetyan and other.

So who are reaching tangible results today and brings change, these civic groups or developed public organisations?

One can not exist without the other, they both form the atmosphere. The initiative groups are supported by organizations, intellectuals, who maybe do not participate in protest actions everyday, but they work at their place.

In general, in the public sphere, it is always difficult to talk about concrete successes, results. When somebody tells:”I have done so and so and reached great results”, it is both true and not, because it was not done by him alone, there were processes in social life which brought about these results.

What does our civil society miss?

We have a certain number of public organizations which can work with donors and do not have financial problems, and on the other side, we have active initiative groups, but we also have a sleeping society, and nobody seems to look at this issue and consider awakening the sleeping society as a major task.

In my opinion, civil society should range from the radical activists to NGOs working closely with the government, This is an ideal situation. Nevertheless, a process of polarization worked here: on one side, radicals, strongly criticising the government, and on the other side, organizations serving the government.

It was caused by the fact that many organisations have not radicalised. Then, they had to stop operation or become somebody's servants. A gap was created between the two “camps”, such polarization should not be there.

There are big issues in regions, we need to work there much more than we do now.

What are the strong sides of our civil society?

Our strong side is that NGOs and civil groups are involved in practical work, in other terms, there are only few NGOs which deal with artificially created problems.

There are organisations which can professionally deal with state bodies. On one side, street struggle, pressure became stronger, and on the other side, the work of organizations with the government, which is not often seen, also became stronger. A lot has changed in this sense.

There should be an opportunity that people, groups of people work in every area, some protesting and some- cooperating. This is civil society.

Can you say that today we have an established civil society?

Nobody in any country can say that they have an established civil society. It seems to me, that the biggest issue we have is that since independence the state of Armenia had been not thinking about strengthening civil society. One of the reasons is that in 1990s the county was in a poor condition and could not afford such a “luxury”. This problem was left on the shoulders of the West and at the beginning it was encouraged. Then a moment came, when it was no longer encouraged but nobody asked a question who in this case should develop the civil society?

In my opinion and the opinion of many of my colleagues, the main issue is that there is no political and social demand for development of civil society in Armenia.

Why there is no such a demand, maybe it is not in the interests of the powers?

Mainly, it is the question of inertia of old days, they think that this is not the issue they can grasp. Charity is more or less acceptable, popular, but in broader terms, in terms of civic participation, they think “the West is dealing with it, so that's enough”.  On one side, they are content that the West supports it, but on the other side, they do not want anybody to intervene into their affairs.

In general, in Armenia there is a problem of formulating strategic issues. Either no strategic issues are outlined, or some unrealistic, fantastic ideas are presented as strategic. We need to learn how to formulate concrete, real issues and develop strategies.

In which phase is political development in Armenia?

I always compare political development phases with football. At the beginning, when children play football at their play yard, everybody runs after the ball. Wherever is the ball, all but the goal-keepers are nearby. In professional football, the roles are divided: there are half-backs, fullbacks, attackers.  Everyone has his own functions.

In '70-s the Dutch came up with a total football, when the fullback and half back could join the attack, and attackers could take the functions of the defence, if there was such a need. This means that everybody has his own role, but it is not rigid, it should be possible to take other roles if necessary.

We still are at the level of children's football, all run after the ball, the problem. There are public organizations, which try to work methodically, but they are also at the pre-total football level, busy with their one issue, and not reacting at anything else.

Here we can conclude that our civil society is not very developed. The most fundamental question here is that the issue of civil society development is not in the agenda, it is left on its own.

Theoretically, I accept that our society is our strength, but people are not concerned with the task of its institutionalization. Or, randomly somebody raises his voice that civil society is a European project, and they start thinking how to prevent any outside intervention.

Then, when we can say that we have a sustainable, developed civil society? What is it in your opinion?

The ideal civil society is when the state and society can adequately face challenges. When an issue appears, then people try to raise it at corresponding levels, propose solutions, and issues can range from a water problem in a village or extradition of Ramil Safarov. To do this people need knowledge, resources, entry into corresponding state authorities. To me, this is the ideal civil society.

By Mary Alexanyan

19 September is the Day of Civil Society. It has been marked in Armenia since 2009.