A rebel with a cause
Journalist and former MP Gayane Abrahamyan on fighting for a better future, judicial reform, and awareness of domestic violence in Armenia
Armenian politician, journalist, and activist Gayane Abrahamyan has long been devoted to different causes – from increasing awareness of domestic violence to advocating long-needed judicial reforms. Through her work, she has been challenging the status quo in her country and the dismissive rhetoric often coming from the strong men in power. “I’m showing that there are no limits to what a woman or anyone else can do”, she says and her work and life so far definitely serve as a case study of where one can go, despite an environment that certainly doesn’t help women in politics.
Born in 1979, she’s part of a generation which saw the country achieve independence from the USSR in 1991 but then continuously face challenges to establishing a healthy democracy. All of this while also being in a region where conflicts erupt in a way which, though they might surprise a Western reader, are painfully familiar to generations of Armenians.
Before entering politics and becoming a member of the centrist My Step Alliance, Abrahamyan was building a profile as a journalist in the press, online, and on TV. Her media experience spans two decades; she won the “Best Political Journalist” award in 2008, and she is involved with training and mentoring sessions with other journalists. In the mid-2000’s, she was one of the journalists trying to raise the topic of domestic abuse in Armenia and promote awareness of this issue.
“When in 2006 I started writing about domestic violence, sharing the numbers of cases and requesting officials to take preventative measures, their answer was that there’s simply no domestic violence happening in Armenia. But it not only existed, it was rather widespread and was perceived as a normal part of family life.”
Abrahamyan is cautiously happy that now this absolute denial has been replaced by a certain acknowledgment. In 2017 a law on the prevention of domestic violence was adopted. “It was only in the past two years that government programmes were launched to introduce protection and prevention. Still, there is an immense amount of work that has to be done and it’s hard to inform the public, which is surrounded by fake news and manipulative impressions created by the nationalistic, conservative groups.”
Through the years, she has been actively fighting to shine more light on these issues. Abrahamyan has been engaged with media campaigns and educational projects, one of which is the NGO “For Equal Rights”. “As a journalist, as a leader of a non-governmental organisation, and as an MP, I have always spoken about this problem, taken measures to protect the victims, and fought against the culture of violence through education.” Her NGO’s building was attacked several times because of her organisation’s stance. “But the protection of human rights is our priority and we won’t surrender.”
Yerevan was not built in a day
There’s a definite “before and after” effect in the way she talks about her projects and this watershed moment is Armenia’s Revolution in 2018, the large-scale protest movement against the third term of Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan, a former President and the long-time leader of the Republic Party, who eventually resigned. Because of these demonstrations’ massive attendance and peaceful nature, the protests have often been called Armenia’s “Velvet Revolution”. The movement led to the rise of the current Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan of the Civil Contract party and of the My Step Alliance.
Abrahamyan decided to become active in politics after this protest wave, seeing the move as a way to contribute in a more meaningful way to the fight against corruption and to implement a functioning judicial system. “I agreed to join since I was sure that this was a historic chance for our country to build a real democracy.” She knew the restart would not come easy. “Joining Armenian politics was a challenge per se, since the political culture is not yet mature, and its criminal-oligarchic context required steadfast efforts to foster a certain culture, thinking, and substantive debate about political issues.”
Abrahamyan’s long-time work as a journalist and her recently adopted role as a politician in a party which managed to win 2021’s snap elections are helping her to see Armenia’s issues through different perspectives. She says that the previous political status quo, now in opposition, still has a huge influence in the country’s media landscape. “The spread of fake news, manipulative information, and hate speech have all dramatically increased, which often leads to the violation of human rights. This has the potential to become a threat to national and public security. Last year, as an MP, I initiated the drafting of the law on the financial and ownership transparency of the media, but I didn’t manage to get it adopted. I hope that will happen in the near future, since the issues are extremely serious. There’s no transparency.”
She finds that the rhetoric around changing the political system is often hijacked by those in the society who want, in her words, “the re-establishment of the corrupt and authoritarian system”.
This led to Abrahamyan being targeted and threatened, mostly because of her stance that the judicial system should be upgraded. “I was ready to fight back. For three years, being one of the most active MPs in the parliament, I was the most targeted, my family was a subject of intimidation many times and I received death threats. I expected such challenges and knew that the former ruling authorities would strive for revenge through insidious means.”
A revolutionary in resignation
If Abrahamyan could imagine all of these challenges beforehand, were there any surprises later? “I didn’t expect one thing – that I would also have to fight inside the government system.” Despite the changes, she sees a lot of the state’s governing system as still unreformed in terms of members and ideas. “In terms of its values, the system still incorporates all the principles of the corrupt system we thought we had left behind and resists all potential changes. It was harder when it became obvious that our revolutionary team was also stepping back from their democratic values and principles. I confess to having failed in fighting it.”
“It made no sense for me to stay in the Parliament, since it was impossible to fulfil my major goal – judicial reform.” Her disagreements with her colleagues at the My Step Alliance prompted her resignation 25 September 2020.
She saw that the party was losing strength in implementing judicial reform while surrounded by individuals who, according to her, had only legitimised the former corrupt system for decades. She announced her resignation but decided to stay on-board when the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the long-time ethnic and territorial conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, reignited on 27 September 2020. She decided to stay and act. “It was also something demanded by the public, since I was leading the Armenian delegation at the Euronest Parliamentary Assembly, which is the key EU platform for the Eastern partnership countries. I had an extensive network and different international platforms through which I could address this problem.”
A peacemaker during war
After the fires of war were doused on 9 November 2020, she submitted her second and final resignation on November 17th, amid further frustrations over how little influence she had as an MP. “The resignation was also a consequence of the parliamentary system’s immaturity. Decisions are essentially taken by just one person, and the Parliament essentially confirms these decisions. It turns out that Parliament was mostly a platform to raise problems, rather than solve them.”
As the war has been present for much of her adult life, she’s now even more aware of the role it has in contemporary Armenia. She finds that throughout Armenia’s independence, even in moments when its democracy appeared healthy and fundamental liberties were intact, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has played an instrumental role in shaping her country’s identity, its overall political discourse, the creation of state institutions, and phases of development. Abrahamyan sees the conflict and the past 30 years of independence as a moment when her society should think about what it did wrong and what lessons were learnt. “The most important acknowledgement we need to make is our failure to create and develop democratic institutions, to establish a real balance between them and to strengthen liberal democracy as a catalyst for the country’s development.”
Being a woman in Armenian politics
“Stereotypes still prevail in Armenian society – the pressure on women is permanently present in all spheres.” For Abrahamyan, this pressure was most noticeable in politics. “The biggest challenge is the much higher milestone that women must chase in comparison to men. Female public figures are not forgiven even the slightest mistakes, they are required to be much more professional, much more active. This is, of course, not something specific to Armenia.” There’s another side of the coin, though. “While being in politics, I realized that society requires more from women, but also has more trust in them. Over the last few years, there has been growing trust in female politicians. Last year, there was a survey which suggested that 45 percent of the respondents are ready to see a woman as a potential leader of the country. This is a new tendency for Armenia, which I hope we’ll see more of.”
This tendency also reflects on how she’s perceived in the country: “After my resignation, I received multiple letters from people not only expressing regret that I’m not in parliament anymore, but also insisting that I should continue and reach the position of the country’s leader. Which they would definitely not have said years ago.”