Musician and activist Serj Tankian speaks with TRNN’s Ben Norton about the protest movement in Armenia, which ushered in a new government. He also criticizes the US government for refusing to recognize the Armenian Genocide.
BEN NORTON: It’s The Real News, I’m Ben Norton. Today, we are joined by the activist and musician, Serj Tankian, to discuss the powerful social movement that has arisen in Armenia, and the major political changes it has precipitated.
In April, huge crowds of Armenians took to the streets to protest the third term of the previous leader, Serzh Sargsyan of the right-wing Republican Party. In response to the massive social movement, Sargsyan was forced to resign. Then in May, Armenia’s new prime minister, the liberal politician Nikol Pashinyan, was elected the new prime minister.
Serj Tankian has been an outspoken supporter of these protests in Armenia. He is also very politically active here in the U.S.
Serj is an award-winning musician and composer. He is the vocalist of the band System of a Down, and has released several albums as a solo artist. Thanks for joining us, Serj.
SERJ TANKIAN: Thanks for having me, Ben.
BEN NORTON: So, can you explain some of the major political changes that have been going on in Armenia in these past few weeks, and can you also explain, who is Serzh Sargsyan? He was attempting to solidify his control over the political system in a third term, restocking power into the role of prime minister after serving two terms as president. So, how did Sargsyan rule Armenia for these past several decades, and how has the protest movement changed this?
SERJ TANKIAN: I tend to stay away from symbols and personalities, very, kind of, because sometimes that’s not what’s really happening. It’s not about a person or a symbol. Neither Sargsyan nor Pashinyan. We have to talk about the Armenian political situation, the domestic political situation. Post-Soviet times have ushered in a era of oligarchic, kind of free enterprise, which has created a large diversity in income and social stature, resulting in lack of employment. One-third of the population are below the line of poverty, and depopulation has been the kind of final, horrible result of all of these policies.
You know, there’s been corruption, which has been rampant in the country, from the law enforcement to judicial system, to all levels of government, including medical and education, and all of that. And the people just got tired of it. It was a matter of time that this was going to happen. We all knew that. And we were all waiting to see when the youth of Armenia would stand up and change the course of their own history. And I am very thankful that it got done without a single bullet being fired, which is actually a case for the history books, now, in terms of how this evolved.
But to further answer your question, Serzh Sargsyan used to be one of the guys from the Defense Committee, who turned into Defense Minister of Armenia years ago, and then became president ten years ago, president of Armenia. As you mentioned, he tried to continue his- after saying that he wouldn’t take the new post of Prime Minister, where the majority of the power is concentrated in the new parliamentary system of government, he did exactly that, and decided to do so. And I think that act, alone, was enough to precipitate. It was the little flame in the lighter fluid container, or whatever you want to call it.
And people just stood up. And it started with the youth, and they were basically doing naughty things, nothing majorly illegal, but just kind of creating this decentralized form of chaos. And that precipitated into a movement by Nikol Pashinyan and twelve other people that were from student organizers, to political organizers, to tech people, that all got together and said, “enough is enough,” and have changed the face of the country.
BEN NORTON: You raised a few important points. One is that media outlets and governments tend to frame these larger social movements as if they’re simply led by one person, as if they’re all just following orders. But of course, this protest movement in Armenia had a lot of different tendencies within it. Different political parties, different political movements.
The primary political figure that a lot of media outlets have elevated as the voice of the opposition is Nikol Pashinyan, the new prime minister. He is a little more left-wing, to an extent, and he did help lead the charge against corruption. Do you think that there will be changes? You acknowledged that, according to official statistics, around 30 percent of the population lives in poverty, and unemployment is between 17 and 18 percent. Do you anticipate any changes to that?
SERJ TANKIAN: It’s interesting when the fabric of social strata affects the citizenry to such a level that they stand up for themselves and empower themselves. The changes organically start to trickle down and up. In other words, I’ve heard of school principals that would take bribes from teachers to give them jobs, have been, basically, the teachers came and protested, and those school principals are now basically resigning, being forced to resign. And this is, there’s no government policy on this right now. It’s already becoming more egalitarian by the day.
And Nilol Pashinyan, who is the new prime minister and the leader of the protest movement, is more of a liberal figure. He’s more of a humanitarian figure, let’s say. He’s more of “the people’s candidate” because he was- he didn’t have that detachment that previous governmental figures had, away from the people. He was more with them. He’s an ex-journalist and activist, spent time in jail being blamed for the shootings ten thousand years ago — sorry, ten thousand years ago, geez — 10 years ago, in 2008, when Serzh Sargsyan was coming to power, there were shootings. Ten people had died in demonstrations, and he was blamed for it, as if he had started a riot. But he hadn’t, of course, but he spent a year and a half in jail for it.
So, he’s paid his price of fighting the system, and so, he became very educated in understanding how the movement works and how revolutions in other countries work, and was able to learn through the process, not just himself, but all of Armenia has been on almost yearly protests for the last ten years. It has been. And those are, basically have created a learning curve as to how everyone should react, including the police, the government, and the population itself. And that is the reason why, I think, and some luck, I guess, that we ended up with a peaceful revolution. It takes, I’ve been saying, it takes a, it takes a cultural evolution to create a peaceful revolution. I think that’s very important to note, because this can’t just happen anywhere, in any country, right now.
BEN NORTON: Yeah, and then let’s take a step back. I want to talk about the geopolitics, briefly, here. What’s interesting about these protests is they were supported by a variety of countries that actually don’t agree on anything. So, the U.S., Europe, and Georgia all supported the protests, but then also, so did Russia. Russia is, of course, a close ally of Armenia.
Can you talk about how this has been received internationally, and the different responses? Also, of course, Turkey and Azerbaijan, which have threatened Armenia for for many years. Can you talk about the geopolitics?
SERJ TANKIAN: Sure. So, from day one, I think the movement was very smart, and I was also kind of posting and blogging, saying that this is not about East or West. This is not- this shouldn’t be a fight over a country between other geopolitical interests in the world. This should be a purely Armenian revolution. It should be a purely Armenian, you know, fight for justice. And that’s what it was. So Nikol Pashinyan was very careful in saying that our goal here is not to reverse geopolitics, our goal is not to displace one ally versus another, or any of that.
Our goal is basically to take down corruption, to take down the ruling government that everyone is unhappy with, and to replace it with more egalitarian type of system, not of governance, but rule of law, executing the rule of law. Armenia has a great constitution and it’s got great laws on the books, just like any other country, but those laws were not executed properly. So, it was it was time for that. I forgot the second part of your question.
BEN NORTON: Well, yeah. I think you answered it pretty well. And then, I’m interested, you have worked on several films about the Armenian genocide, and unfortunately, many countries in the world, including the U.S. federal government, have refused to acknowledge the Armenian genocide. President Obama, right before he entered office, in fact, two days before, he pledged to recognize the Armenian Genocide as president, and he never did. And of course, the Trump administration is clearly not going to. Can you respond to this controversy of the U.S. federal government, for decades, refusing to acknowledge a genocide that happened 102 years ago?
SERJ TANKIAN: One thing I want to clear up before I answer that question is, I remembered what I forgot regarding the previous question, if I may. You said the word “support.” There were no countries “supporting” the revolution in Armenia, to be exact. Definitely not Russia. They were careful. The movement itself was very careful. And even the U.S. didn’t really chime in until later. European Union, they said positive stuff about both sides, you know, keeping the peace, that kind of stuff. But no one was really supporting the revolution, I want to clarify that.
And Russia, you know, we’re kind of lucky that Russia didn’t react, because we know of the insecurity that they have, based on the last hundred years, on their borders, with World War I and World War II, and how they are about their sphere of influence, how insecure they are about their sphere of influence. And so, it’s not something that happened which is very lucky. And it’s not just lucky but it’s also, kind of, that’s how it worked out.
Now, on to the genocide question. That’s a very good question. It is the most horrible thing in the world when countries use a genocide as political capital. In other words, the United States and Israel, and a few countries — because there are a lot of countries that have recognized the genocide, including The Vatican and most European nations. But it’s a horrible thing when, because Turkey is a NATO ally, and because we have Incirlik Air Base, that has been used on numerous bombings in the past, in the Middle East and Afghanistan, in Ira[q] and Syria — well, maybe not Syria, because the last bombing, they didn’t use the Incirlik Air Base, which is actually a trend, that the U.S. can no longer depend on Turkey actually. That is happening right now as well.
But you know, the fact that numerous administrations, presidents, Congress, has declined to use the word genocide, which is the correct term agreed upon by genocide scholars around the world and historians around the world, is just playing politics, basically. And it’s horrible to use a genocide as that kind of negotiating politics.
Right now, Israel is angry at Turkey because of what Erdogan said about Gaza. So, Israel is contemplating passing a genocide resolution for the Armenian Genocide through the Knesset. Now, you might think that that’s a good thing, but it’s really, the reasoning, the intention behind it is not good, because they’re playing politics with it.
You know, we’d like people to be honest with their own histories and ours and stop playing politics with one-and-a-half million of our ancestors being massacred. But I do have to say that in 1974 and 1983, if those dates aren’t wrong, Congress has recognized the Armenian Genocide as such. The United States Congress has twice recognized the Armenian genocide, and so has President Reagan, in his speech on April 24, while he was president, used the word genocide. So, it’s not that the United States has never recognized the Armenian Genocide. It’s that, due to currying favor toward Turkey, selling them Apache Helicopters, defense industry contracts NATO alliances, successive administrations and congressional parliamentarians, whatever you want to call them, have been not wanting to use that word.
BEN NORTON: All right. Well, unfortunately we’re going to have to end part one of our discussion at The Real News, here with Serj Tankian. Serj Tankian is an award-winning musician and composer. In this part, we discussed the protests in Armenia and the political movement. In the next part, we’ll be discussing Serj’s views on music, and the role of the arts in politics.