A tale of two parks: a conversation between activists in Armenia and Turkey

... Nor Zartonk [New Awakening] the recently emerged leftwing Armenian youth association was there in Gezi Park. And they were one of the main actors in Gezi. They had a tent and when you entered the commune the first thing you saw was Nor Zartonk... From the Squares and Beyond partnership.

Buket Türkmen Babken Der Grigorian Alex Sakalis
29 July 2015
beyond squares

Alex Sakalis (AS): When the Gezi Park protests started in Istanbul a lot of solidarity movements sprung up in Greece – in Athens, Thessaloniki etc. It was unusual to see such a thing in Greece - there were these banners that said, “Let’s not divide based on meaningless ethnic and religious characteristics, let’s unite based on class solidarity” and people saying “I stand with Turkey”. Were there any similar Gezi solidarity movements in Armenia?

Babken Der-Grigorian (Babken): There were few, if any, solidarity actions but there was solidarity among the activists. When Gezi Park happened in 2013 it reflected something that had happened in Armenia a year prior. In 2011 and 2012 there was a much smaller park in Armenia they had wanted to turn it into shopping or boutiques. And activists had spent 96 days sitting in, blocking trucks, and resisting police in the snow.

Buket Turkmen (Buket): This was limited to one city?

Babken: Yes. The struggle in Mashtots Park was one of the first victories of our social movements in Yerevan, and to this day holds a very important, symbolic meaning among activists. So when Gezi Park happened, there was that sort of understanding. Everyone was like, "Oh, it’s just like Mashtots Park." And there's that sort of understanding that, "Well of course they would do what they’re doing because we did what we did and we won."

Buket: Maybe the difference of Gezi Park was that it spread to a national scale. We didn’t expect this. It began with an occupation of a park, but afterwards it became something else. Activists from different ideologies united in Gezi Park and it became a movement against the government. And when it spread to other cities and regions of Turkey, it changed its character in these cities; in some cities it became a very nationalist resistence for instance. So there was a risk in Gezi Park - and I don’t know whether you had this risk in Yerevan – there was this risk of it becoming this nationalist, Kemalist resistance. That’s why there were lots of people with flags and Ataturk posters. And Kurdish people were reacting against this.

Babken: Well this is the dichotomy that always already exists in society. The risk exists that it’ll just fall into the polarisation of, ‘well if you’re against the government you must be a Kemalist.’

And that did exist in Armenia in that, when something anti-government happens there are attempts by the old, now-discredited opposition or the ultra-nationalist elements, of trying to co-opt it. What was really beautiful in the Electric Yerevan movement was that people took on this symbolism of traditional Armenian music and heritage in a non-ultra-nationalistic way. The national anthem was sung in the mornings, where the line “I did not sleep at nights” was sung extra loud, in a way emphasizing the commonality of activists on the street and the struggles from a romantic past. Traditional patriotic songs were sung at night with people passing around photocopies of lyrics to songs like “Sardarabad”. And this was done without turning ultra-nationalist. In a way it took that away from them so that those elements were no longer ultra nationalist. 

Buket: Do you think it can still be transformed into an ultra-nationalist movement? Could an ultra-nationalist group arise from this movement? Because what happened in our experience in Gezi Park was that there are still some forums meeting in parks in Istanbul and they are ultra-nationalist groups. In some forums, people are Kemalist and bourgeois and they are supporting the army. They want the army to intervene and to block Islamism.

Babken: In Armenia I think there is a similar tendency but it manifests itself differently. There is a pro-army element but it’s also pro-government. So in Armenia it’s not so much about not wanting democracy because we’ll get something else. It’s more about not questioning the government because we are at war with Azerbaijan. Calls for greater democracy are framed as somehow undermining national security by these voices, which is just absurd.

Buket: In Turkey these new nationalist-kemalists divide the leftists. They created their own party, which has a heritage in left wing nationalist, Kemalist tradition. They then participated in the elections and right now they have 3% of the votes in Turkey. If this 3% per cent were going to the Republican Party or the pro-Kurdish Party the parliament would be something else. 

Babken: I think in Armenia it’s actually a good development that you’re seeing more traditional patriotic music being dispersed in the protests because the government and the ultra-nationalist elements try to keep that as their domain. So if you identify as Armenian and you feel proud of these symbols, then in the past the only structures that would be accepting of you would be the pro-government or the nationalist elements. In the past, activism was very much a rejection of that and there was a more cosmopolitan understanding. And there is still plenty of that in activist circles, but I think it’s important to meet society where it’s at. Unfortunately Armenian society is very conservative, but by dispersing these nationalist and traditional elements throughout the movement, it only serves to strengthen the movement and remove the monopoly on symbolism that pro-government and nationalist elements would have. As soon as they no longer hold that monopoly on Armenian identity, half the battle is lost for them.

AS: So you’re seeing lots of Armenian flags at the Electric Yerevan protests?

Babken: Yes, Armenian flags and traditional Armenian instruments and music.

Buket: This was the same in the Turkish Gezi Park movement as well.

Babken: And unlike the other movements, such as the Mashtots Park movement and the transport movement that were successful, those movements didn’t have so much of that. Whereas Electric Yerevan did incorporate the traditional elements. I actually tweeted about this saying I can’t tell if I am at a protest or an Armenian wedding. Because people were doing circle dances, with music from live traditional instruments, etc.

Buket: But all of these kinds of resistances have these repertoires of action.

Babken: Yeah, I know and I think it's a positive thing, at least in the Armenian context. It’s really important for movements to meet society where it’s at, and if that means patriotic songs and national flags, so be it. 

Buket: Yes, it's a positive part of it for sure. If we have a chance to interview each other here, I have some questions about the Armenian resistance. Frst of all I am wondering why we haven’t given support to your [Electric Yerevan] resistance as much as we could? Because there is support on Twitter, Facebook and social media and people are posting things about the resistance.

But in the streets we are concerned with something else right now. We have the risk of war on our border with Syria. Our government tries to intervene and after the elections and after the success of the pro-Kurdish party [HDP] they are rejecting the peace process with the Kurdish population. This is something that is a burning issue in Turkish society these days, so we have lost our concentration on Armenia and we don’t give as much support to this resistance as we could.

Second, I have some questions regarding the gendered character of the various resistances. For instance, in the case of Gezi, women were dominating the organisation of the park and commune, why is that? Because for women, the urban transformation and the gentrification of urban zones, is limiting their freedom.

Especially working class women, for them the centre of Istanbul, Taksim Square, is a liberal place where they can walk easily. Where they can go to bars and cafes and this is a freedom zone for women. So when you try to deconstruct this space and renovate the square by telling public transportation to go underground and making bus stops underground, people, especially women can’t take buses at night because they are afraid of going underground because of the risk of harassment.

There are other things like that. So women were intervening in the resistance and consequently, they changed the repertoires of action. They tried to transform the language used in the slogans because the slogans used in these resistances are always machoist. So they say, “Fuck off police”. But what does it mean, “fuck off police”? So the women said, “You cannot use this slogan because we are here too.” Or some of the men would shout “Faggot police!” And there was a meeting during Gezi, where the supporters of Besiktas Football team came - and they were the heroes of the Gezi movement - and they came with their slogans. They were shouting, “Faggot police!” Then a single, young man shouted, “Maybe we are faggots, but get used to it! We are everywhere!” What he meant by that was that they, LGBT people, were also in the resistance and it’s not respectful to shout those kinds of slogans. 

Babken: The same thing happened during the Mashtots Park protest too. Actually Mashtots Park in Armenia saw this change of culture. There you had nationalists and LGBT and progressive cosmopolitans.

Buket: And women? I am wondering about women? Because I know that in Armenian culture as well, the situation for women is not too good.

Babken: That’s true, and where there is a problem in society as a whole, you’ll tend to see those same problems within a movement as well. The role of women is a clear example of that. But I think these kinds of spaces, such as a movement or square occupation, become an opportunity to start challenge these things. Because in the traditional structures that exist it is harder to challenge them.

Of course, you can challenge them on an individual level, but in progressive movement spaces you can start challenging them more collectively by trying to build a movement that prefigures a new value structure. Especially in the early days of Electric Yerevan, you had women anarchists on the front lines. But then we noticed that little by little they were blending into the crowds and the gendered aspect became a real issue, especially in the organizing and decision-making. It’s a little disappointing to say, but it was sort of a regression from past movements where the role of women had been more prominent.

Buket: Do you think there will be a social transformation of gender relationships?

Babken: I think there already is. Because these are the spaces where they can emerge. At one point in Baghramian Avenue we heard of stories of morality police going around and telling people, “why is your hair this colour?” Or telling women, “Hey, you need to be home right now.” They tried to do that and people got so angry with them! So it broke that entire thing. At one point I witnessed this guy go up to one of my friends, who is one of the organisers.  

And speaking with a lot of respect, this guy said, “Hey I am so and so, I really respect you and the movement but I want to ask you one thing? What is this?” By that I mean he used a very profane word to refer to a feminist pamphlet. And my friend the organiser got angry and started to go off on him. Then the people around the organiser, especially women, started to go off on him and they said, “Well, if you think that the pamphlet is that [the profane word] then this is not your space and you need to get out!”

Buket: So they protected the feminists?

Babken: Yes, and I think these spaces in Armenia are one of the biggest hopes for being able to challenge and to break down the conservative relationships. So even if nothing else positive comes out of these things, at least these spaces rupture the conservative mentality.

Buket: The individual experiences are very, very important in these resistances. For example, for me, the Gezi resistance is the period of my life when I felt safe in Istanbul even at 5 o’clock in the morning. I was in the streets and resisters were everywhere so of course there were harassments, but for instance when you are in the street at 5 o’clock in the morning and you are alone in an empty street and there are some men coming towards you, this is something that is frightening. But I was not afraid any more when I was seeing these men in the street with these bags coming toward me. These bags are now a symbol of all resistances globally, because you need something to carry your mask in and your helmet because you are a resister. So when I was seeing these men coming towards me carrying those bags I knew I was safe and that they would protect me against everything.

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AS: When I think of the Gezi protests the defining image for me is unfortunately the image of the girl in the red dress getting hit with the water cannon which went viral worldwide and it's a symbolic image, for better or for worse.Buket: She is very disturbed by this - she does not feel at all easy about it. When I wanted to interview her, she refused and said, "I was only one of the people and I don’t want to be famous because of a violent photo." She feels quite stigmatized by it.I think that women really emerged for the first time during these resistances. It is not like the Marxist-Leninist resistances in the 1970s because at that time they were trying to hide their femininity, but now they try to resist using their femininity. And this is probably the impact of radical feminism. That is why putting on red lipstick is a form of resistance and this is part of the new repertories of action of feminist struggle that we were talking about.Babken: One thing you did mention that I want to go back to and that is why there isn’t as much solidarity between the movements in Turkey and Armenia. But I think a beautiful story that really needs to be highlighted is that actually Gezi Park was the place of an Armenian cemetery. I was recently in Istanbul for the Armenian Genocide commemoration and we went to the Armenian cemetery. I didn’t know this but during Gezi Park they had discovered Armenian tombstones and the protestors had cleaned them, protected them and taken them to the Armenian cemetery so that they could be secure. So they are now on display in the Armenian cemetery. And when I first heard about that I thought, “How great, those tombstones could have been broken or just ignored.” It was a reflection of the values of Gezi Park.Buket: No, no. Because Nor Zartonk [New Awakening] which is the Armenian youth, left-wing association and a very recent one, they were there in Gezi Park. And they were one of the main actors in Gezi. They had a tent and when you were entering the commune the first thing you saw was Nor Zartonk.AS: Did the global media covered the protests in Yerevan in the same way – by trying to find the defining image?Babken: They have definitely covered it more than any other protest in Armenia in the past. And actually during the panel they were talking about how Twitter is slacktivism or whatever. And I’ve always been very sceptical of Twitter and online organizing, but I feel like the hashtag #ElectricYerevan worked to grab the attention of a global audience.  So this time it worked. But of course, the biggest reason, I think, for this, was the sensational photos coming from the police repression of activists with the water canons.

Now the thing with the media coverage, we had the Russian media coverage, we had the Western media coverage and the local media coverage. And all three of them had their particular political agendas which were very obvious. The Russian media, from the beginning, demonized it and called it a ‘maidan’ and ‘colour revolution’. It was really insulting to many, especially to those who consider Russia to be a friend and ally.

The local media tried to spin it and in its own way tried to confuse the protestors, discredit the movement and spread misinformation all around. It’s no secret that the mass media landscape in Armenia is controlled by government and semi-governmental interests. So for example, they were spreading a false story that the ‘protestors blocked an ambulance which caused a woman to die’ and this kind of just blatantly wrong information. And then the international media, especially some of the better international media, attempted to touch upon the nuances, but again they wanted to see what was happening in Armenia through a Russian lens.

And some see it as some sort of resistance against Russia. And it’s true there was a Russian element to it, but it wasn’t about Russia, but no one wanted to hear that story. No matter how many times I told people, ‘This isn’t a maidan, this isn’t about Russia’. Everyone wanted to see what was happening in Armenia through an imperialist or colonialist lens. Whether that was from a Western colonial lens or a Russian colonial lens. Either way no one could talk about Armenia, as Armenia, they had to talk about it in relation to Russia or in relation to Europe. 

AS: And how was it covered in Turkey, if at all?

Buket: They speak about it in relation to Gezi Park. They try to translate it, even in the media; they try to translate it as the latest effect - in another country - of these resistances. For instance CNN Turk still uses references to Gezi Park as they try to transmit information about what is happening in Yerevan. And they say, “You see, they have the same kind of slogans, the same kind of jokes and humour”. So they argue that this is the same kind of resistance.

But as I said before, unfortunately, we have other concerns right now. We were protesting against the demolition of an Armenian camp in Istanbul a few weeks ago – Kamp Armen. It was a summer camp, which was used by Armenian children. They, the children worked as labourers to build the camp, constructed it. And after the coup d’état they evacuated the camp and they forbid it. But now, as far as I know, the Government has sold it off to a private person. So there is this big issue of Kamp Armen and the Armenian, young people are trying to get back this camp because it belonged to an Armenian foundation. So we were giving support to this occupation as non-Armenian citizens of Istanbul. I myself was giving support to this occupation. Whereas the Yerevan situation was not something we protested in support of.

Babken: That is okay. The thing we should be doing better is that there should be better connection between what is happening in Kamp Armen and what is happening in Electric Yerevan. And one idea I had is that the Nor Zartonk people have been to Yerevan and we have been to Istanbul, but if that connection could be strengthened, that would be a good avenue to strengthen ties in what is happening in Turkish civil society and what is happening in Armenian civil society. It could be a really big bridge. Maybe it’s time for a Nor Zartonk chapter in Yerevan.

AS: Just to wrap up this discussion. Buket, would you say anything to Babken about your experiences in Gezi Park and the political changes that resulted from that in the longer term, which might interest protestors in Armenia? For example, what about the success of the pro-Kurdish party, the HDP - and its relationship to Gezi Park?

Buket: Yes, one of my articles in openDemocracy is on that issue. Because I do see it as connected to the Gezi Park occupation. And afterwards the Gezi Park occupation led to greater support among ‘White Turks’ to the Kobane resistance and HDP’s success is a consequence of these two resistances. By that, I mean the interaction between the Gezi Park resistance and the Kobane resistance. White Turks voted for HDP.

As for what we learned from Gezi Park - this was the danger of the lack of organisation. I mean of course there are new types of organisations emerging after Gezi Park such as neighbourhood solidarity forums and from these forums we can create links to political parties to help change and transform them from inside. Because the forums were respected by the HDP, and the forums in turn lent their support to the HDP.

But we should be more organised. There wasn’t good communication between neighbourhood solidarity forums that were created after Gezi Park. So we should have been more organised and in better communication with each other to create something stronger than this. We could have had a greater influence on the elections. I mean it’s better than nothing, but it could have been better than this. The lack of organisation is a big problem.

AS: And Babken, any concluding thoughts?

Babken: I agree, it is a big problem. I think in Armenia there is a lack of formal organisation but there is an abundance of informal organisation. The network of activists that spearheaded Electric Yerevan are the same group of activists that have been organising all the protests that have been happening over the last 4 to 5 years and which have had tangible results. So I am not sure how it needs to be formalized, perhaps a hybrid movement-party, or multiple new formal organizations that can compliment and support each other, and change the political reality in the country.

Buket: I mean that we need a new language of organization. For instance we had this focus group discussion with the representatives of new organizations created soon after Gezi. And they all say that, “We need to find a new form of organisation and we don’t have it yet’. It doesn’t exist in the world yet and we are searching for it. A form of organization which would respect the individual freedom of its members, a non-hierarchical type of organization, avoiding leadership… All of us agree on the characteristics of the organization needed, but we don’t really know what to do with these characteristics. The resistences don’t have their organizations yet, and this fact limits their efficacy.

Babken: I think what is happening in Armenia and what is happening in Turkey have a lot of parallels. And there are a lot of issues between Armenia and Turkey that are unresolved and the people on top are not going to solve them because it’s in their interest not to solve them.

Buket: Of course.

Babken: The bridge between progressive and radical elements in Armenian and Turkish societies needs to be strengthened so that we can solve the issues between Armenia and Turkey with a progressive agenda, with an agenda based on justice. Otherwise it’s just not going to happen. I mean it really is up to us to solve these issues. And that is the way to do it, I think. 

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