Risks Worth Taking: An Interview with Armenian Activist Georgi Vanyan

by  translated by Katie Sykes  /  November 7, 2016  / No comments

Activist and director Georgi Vanyan. Photo credit: Hamburg Foundation for Politically Persecuted People.

Activist and director Georgi Vanyan. Photo credit: Hamburg Foundation for Politically Persecuted People.

In 2012, Georgi Vanyan, an actor and director turned peace activist, had a radical idea: to organize an Azerbaijani film festival inside Armenia. The two countries have been in sporadic conflict since the fall of the Soviet Union. Vanyan hoped that the film festival could lead to reconciliation. However, he was met with threatening phone calls and death threats from radical opponents, and eventually, physical attacks. The film festival was canceled. The following year, after being admitted to the Bundestag’s “Parliamentarians Support Parliamentarians” program, he continued to be targeted by the public and defamed on television as a traitor. After enduring repeated attacks on his home, he had to leave the country.

Georgi Vanyan’s work as a peace activist began long before the film festival. His NGO, the Caucus Centre for Peace Making Initiatives, facilitated open and transparent dialogues between Armenia and surrounding regions. Through his work, the Georgian village of Tekali became a place where Armenian and Azerbaijani representatives from civil society and peace movement activists could meet and talk freely. Although now living in exile, he is hoping to continue the work of the Tekali Process in initiating peaceful dialogue that can lead to resolution.

Georgi Vanyan’s work as a peace activist began long before the film festival. His NGO which organized the festival, the Caucus Centre for Peace Making Initiatives, facilitated open and transparent dialogues between Armenia and surrounding regions. Through his work, the Georgian village of Tekali became a place where Armenian and Azerbaijani representatives from civil society and peace movement activists could meet and talk freely. Although now living in exile, he is hoping to continue the work of the Tekali Process in initiating peaceful dialogue that can lead to resolution.

Georgi Vanyan is currently a guest of the Hamburg Foundation for Politically Persecuted People.


Art & Activism

Could you describe your experience witnessing the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict? How did your observations influence your work as an actor and director?

The Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict completely changed my life. I left the world of theater and cinema. When I was leaving, I thought I was just taking a break for a little while, but it turned out to be permanent; I’d closed the doors to the world of art behind me forever. I never got to the stage where I could externalize and embody my impressions of war and conflict through art. I’ve never tried to describe everything that’s happened, or render it in images, because I’ve played such an active part in it myself; I act in spite of, and against, that conflict.

How does your past as an artist influence your work in advocacy?

Advocacy isn’t work, in my case. It’s a system of values, an ideology, a political position. My career as a director helped me in my educational work: it improved my teamwork and project management.

Besides that, public activity is in essence theatrical, and so it’s obviously useful if you know how to determine the logic behind people’s actions–your own and other people’s–in a given set of circumstances. I’m not sure, but it’s possible that my experience in theater and cinema did have some sort of effect on something, although as I just said, I closed the doors to cinema and theater very firmly behind me twenty years ago.

You said that Soviet culture shifted Armenian art. How did this impact your artistic practice?

My artistic work and career came to an end with the beginning of the conflict and the disintegration of the USSR. Since then I’ve been able to talk about art not from within, as a professional, but as an ordinary viewer and reader. The formation and current state of Armenian culture is an extremely broad topic. If we’re talking about art specifically, then I don’t think that ethnicity or nationality are generally very important categories. I think that in modern art, not only ethnicity but also geography, the site of a work’s creation, are only of secondary importance.

What people call Armenian art is a historical legacy, and like everything historical, it’s a very artificial thing: just a collection of stereotypes created and propagated by the authorities. And modern Armenian culture–art and everything else–continues to exist nowadays through sheer inertia. It’s not a culture, it’s the inertia of a Kremlin-sponsored state project.

One of the things your work focuses on is the dualism in humans and the inherent nature of trying to escape our own reality. How have you experienced this type of dualism in your own life?

I was born, I went to school, then joined the army, entered a profession, found work; then the USSR collapsed and I became politically active. I’m dual in the same way that any Soviet person is. Perhaps what’s different about me is that, at some point, I didn’t just change, but also became aware of that change. I began to notice my own duality and the duality of others. At the same time, I managed to find a way of relating to people that could lead them out of this duality. I myself, and all the people I live among, regardless of their age, are Soviet people who have adapted to living without rights and freedoms, although these rights and freedoms are guaranteed to them by official papers, by the process of historical development, by international law.

But now, unlike in the Soviet period, people also have to live in constant fear for their physical existence. There are security problems and threats to life which people without rights or freedom have to cope with on their own. This might look like a civilized society, where there are state institutions, banks, the Internet, customs checks, cars and even a functioning nuclear power plant, but there’s no safety, nor even the illusion of safety. On the contrary, the norm is a constant, everlasting, insuperable threat to our existence, a threat which we have no influence over. This threat doesn’t just exist, it’s encouraged, cultivated, promulgated as something inevitable; we’re presented with the right to live under the threat of the outbreak of war, of the bombing of towns and villages, and of an even crueler blurring of the boundary between the army and the rest of the country.

Our society consists entirely of people who are surviving, not thriving; of people who have made their moral choices faced with their last crust of bread and gulp of water. This is a society of people who have chosen to survive at any cost, and so continue to live. It’s hard to get a handle on their duality, even. People living under profound stress might express not only their “faith in the Party and in Communism,” but might present themselves however they like, depending on the circumstances.

A new form of duality has appeared as a result of the war with Azerbaijan. Now, when people are speaking publicly, in most cases they’ll say something like, “As a human being, I don’t want enmity and war, but as an Armenian, I consider that there can be no negotiations with the Azerbaijanis and no concessions made to them.”

How has the cultural exchange between Armenia and Azerbaijan changed since you were a practicing artist?

In the Soviet period, every individual was under orders to personally subscribe to and promote internationalism and the brotherhood of nations, and cultural exchange was an obligatory part of the life of any “cultured” person.

For around a hundred years, generations of Armenians lived according to these orders; they were told what to think, what to feel, how to react. In the post-Soviet world, what the rest of the world might consider propaganda or brainwashing continues to be understood as an order. This word “inertia” is going to keep coming up over and over again. Our contemporary culture is defined not by the disappearance of the Soviet system–which could actually result in something–but by its inertia, and by the inertia of the Soviet Union as an empire. We don’t need to keep brainwashing people. Not only are people already brainwashed, they’re also ready to interpret orders from above at any moment.

Nowadays, cultural exchange between Armenia and Azerbaijan is realized according to the current order: an insistence on hostility. This order can take various forms, from military fascism to subtle censorship. It can take the form of barbaric, inhuman acts of terrorism, the effect of which is amplified by the whole cultural apparatus: mass media, art, education and research. Which side did the killing, slaughtering or torturing becomes unimportant; both sides are affected by it.

Whether this cultural exchange takes place according to an imposed insistence on hostility or on love, in either case, it’s a fake process. Natural relations between the peoples of the Caucasus were brought to a total standstill and shut down for a hundred years. Now, gradually and with difficulty, relations between the two nations are being re-established on Georgian territory, but at the same time, even there, social changes are being held back by the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

The Caucus Centre for Peace Making Initiatives

What events led up to the formation of the Caucus Centre of Peace Making Initiatives (CCPMI)? How has it grown since its inception?

After the first four years of the rule of the Armenian National Movement, it became clear that a sort of closed regime had been created in Armenia. This regime ruled out alternative political programs for the country’s development and refused to analyze the possibility of a peaceful resolution of the conflict and a move away from isolation. In this context, to me and others who thought like me, creating an NGO as a means of influencing the situation seemed to be the only possible way forward. It was a good opportunity for our team to become part of the global struggle for human rights and peace.

What did you think you could accomplish with the CCPMI that you didn’t think you could as a politician?

Although Armenia is formally subject to international law, the country is in practice occupied by Russia, by the Russian Federation. It’s not only the monopoly markets and shadow economy which are under the Kremlin’s control, but the sociopolitical sphere too, where the main principle remains the maintenance of the conflict as well as the maintenance of tensions and of “hot spot” status, not just in Karabakh, but in Armenia, and so also in the South Caucasus region.

But despite this, there are still people living in Armenia who, just like everyone else, want to live in safety, who want development and peace. But this natural desire can’t find an outlet or become socially significant. All public institutions are working to override this simple human need to live in safety, this need to live without fear and hatred. The goal of our organization is to create the opportunity for this natural human need to be voiced openly, in public, and formulated as a social demand.

I think that through this kind of process, through public actions which are, in essence, a struggle for citizens’ right to life, the conditions for a real politics can be created. And however hopeless a region’s geopolitical situation might seem, however hopeless Armenia’s militarized domestic regime might seem–and Armenia is an outpost of Putin’s domain, not just in the military sphere but also and especially in the ideological sphere–I think that there will always remain room for action. I believe that. I believe that human societies are capable of devising alternatives in any situation. It’s been twenty years since the Caucasus Centre for Peacekeeping Initiatives began implementing projects, thanks to its western sponsors. The NGO format was the only format which would let us not only act, but also think and feel ourselves to be outside of that prison camp by the name of the “Republic of Armenia.”

I can’t fight for power in a military barracks, I can’t stand in elections for that power, and so I can’t be in politics. In the form in which they exist in Third World countries, and particularly in the post-Soviet area, NGOs are essentially a vehicle for influencing politics, not from below, but from the side, obliquely, a little like wind blowing. But the strength of this wind and its consequences haven’t yet been studied. There’s only one thing I can say for sure: the strength of the wind in no way depends on the size of the grant, and I believe its consequences are not always predictable for the provider of the grant.

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