Armenia: A Slow Slide Into Fascism?

Armenians in the far-flung diaspora are justifiably proud that their ancestors survived the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and thrived wherever they went in the world, and that Armenia made a significant contribution in the 20th century battle against fascism, contributing over 500,000 men during WW II to fight Hitler and defeat the Nazis, losing an estimated 100,000 in the process. During the Soviet years which ended in 1991, Armenia was even a haven for Jews as some 10,000 "internal" Jewish immigrants fled Russia, the Ukraine and other Soviet Republics to settle in Yerevan, the country's capital, where they encountered an almost complete absence of anti-semitism and quickly assimilated into the Armenian nation.

But since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a far more unseemly and dangerous type of Armenia has emerged. The country has been overrun by a small circle of anti-democratic Oligarchs who have filled their pockets, essentially stealing the nation's wealth while failing to develop the economy: as a result, half the population has left the country and those that remain live in a state of shameful poverty. Elections have been mostly anti-democratic and rigged. The diaspora sends money, opens institutes and businesses and tries as best it can to counteract the frightening news that continues to emerge from Yerevan.

For all practical purposes, Armenia is a step away from dictatorship. It is the same oligarchs who run both the country's business and political worlds who have apparently supported the most recent attacks on the country's tiny and vulnerable LGBT community. Following a brain drain in the 1990s and 2000s, it seems that the Armenian government is intent on chasing out anyone who can possibly contribute to the country's culture, including its LGBT people. Aided by a growing neo-fascist party and a powerful Armenian Apostolic church that also continues to consider gay people "perverted" and "against the interests of the Armenian nation," anti-LGBT sentiment continues to increase in Armenia.

These attacks intensified on May 7th of this year when Tsomak Oganesova's bar DIY was firebombed at 5 A.M. by two Iranian-Armenians who were arrested but quickly set free by a member of the nationalist ARF Dashnaktsutiun Party (the equivalent of Armenian Zionists). DIY was one of the only bars in Yerevan open to free thinkers and where artists and LGBT people were free to gather and exchange ideas. Naturally, many of its patrons were LGBT people. The ARF and the Armenian government have yet to release official statements condemning this last, cowardly attack. In fact Eduard Sharmazanov, the deputy speaker of parliament, also spoke positively about the alleged attackers in a post on his Facebook page. On the ATV television station's "Half-Open Windows" last week one could, however, watch a nauseating alliance of self-proclaimed fascists and priests denouncing gay people in the most vile and deplorable ways.

Now of course is not the time to abandon Armenia. Armenia continues to be a strong ally of the United States. Armenians around the world, in spite of the oligarchs' best efforts to destroy their people's reputation as an educated, hard-working minority, continue to be a symbol of survival and success. But LGBT organizations, the American government and the relatively powerful Armenian diaspora must unite in putting real pressure on the Armenian government to reverse the worrying anti-democratic and fascistic developments that threaten to completely engulf the country. The Armenian government must not only fight corruption, it must publicly oppose attacks on all minorities, particularly LGBT people, and promote an atmosphere of democracy and tolerance in the country. Not to do so is to shame Armenians around the world, not to mention the memory of 1.5 million people who lost their lives during the Armenian Genocide.