Perceptions of Democracy: Youth Participation Outside the Ballot Box, Yerevan, Armenia, 2014

by Kerli Kirsimaa

From November 5th to 12th  2014 a group of international young people from countries such as Ukraine, Georgia, Romania, the Neherlands, Denmark, Germany, France, Bosnia, Estonia and Moldova, took part in a training course called ‘Youth Participation Outside the Ballot Box’, A project organized by Danish organization of Support Initiative for Liberty and Democracy (SILBA), in Yerevan, Armenia. The aim of the course was to bring together young people from different NGOs which they were presenting in their home countries, as to exchange ideas around the topic of democracy and as to promote youth activism and participation.

The overall atmosphere throughout the course was very social, open-minded and relaxed. Everyone had to, express their opinions, discuss, present their ideas and defend their point of view, which I enjoyed the most. We were debating, considering different tools on how to involve public, presenting the activities of different NGO’s, exchanging ideas for future projects. Throughout the course the ’Living Library’ gave participants the opportunity to introduce the main political struggles in their home countries, and via ’Urban Game’ we got our first 3-hour impressions of the city of Yerevan by fulfilling different democracy related tasks at the same time.

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Yerevan – image by Kerli Kirsimaa

One night at Yerevan Art Cafe ’Van Gogh’ we happened to meet Mr. Sevada Petrossian, an architect from from Yerevan UrbanLab. Established in 2011, this is a unique institution which focuses on the democratization of urban planning in Armenia. Having set an agenda, we met Mr. Petrossian again to properly discuss around Yerevan UrbanLab’s activities in and around Yerevan. As the role of civic society in urban planning in Armenia is still rather weak, Mr. Petrossian expressed the amount of work which is still required in order to ensure and advocate community involvement in the decision making processes of urban planning, combined with an inalienable right for people to live in a healthy and sustainable environment.

A particular interesting case to share are the events around Mashtots park, in February 11, 2012, which gave birth to genuine civic activism in Armenia. The protest, which was initiated by ’The City Belongs to Us’ civic activists, who aimed to save the park, one of Yerevan’s last public parks from being turned into a trade zone with kiosks. (When Armenia became independent  in 1991 many parks privatized.) That particular event is now remembered as Mastots Park Movement, mainly highlighting the destruction of green zones and trees, as well as the issue of citizens’ self-determination, the prevalence of public interests over private, the fight against oligarchy and corruption.

Outside

Youth Participation Outside the Ballot Box 2014 – image by Kerli Kirsimaa

Democracy tends sometimes to be too flexible as to allow power abuse, to some extent in almost every country, but it seems to be more wide-spread and transparent in Eastern Europe. It is only 23 years that most of the Eastern European countries have been independent from Russia. Communism collapsed since it was an unsustainable system based on terror and repression, yet it may be concluded, repression can continue for a very long time. The democracy building, with some assistance from Western Europe and the United States, is still taking place in the Western Balkans (Bosnia, Albania, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia) and the new EU’s Eastern Neighborhood countries (Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine). For most of them it is quite unlikely to join EU in the near future, due to weak democractic institutions and economies, as well as in some cases due to serious problems with ethno-religious divisions.

Having visited Yerevan Regional Study Centre where I very much enjoyed their presentation and the subject (East partnership and foreign affeirs), this organisation deals with it made me realise even more how varying the meaning of democracy in different ‘democratic’ countries can be. The issue of public participation is of concern everywhere, but the topic needs more serious attention in the former Eastern block and the Caucasus region. And yet, even if people have the freedom to vote, at the end of the day the decision is made by someone who has more power. This relates to the ongoing issue of corruption and how to fight it. I personally believe that corruption exists in every country and that it is almost impossible to eliminate it completely, the question is just how visible it is. Again, in post-soviet countries further East, the level of corruption tends to be higher than in the Western countries such as in the Netherlands, Denmark or Germany, where democracy is simply more established. So whilst the overall ideal of democracy exists, it largely depends how each country is responding to it or how ready one country is for its proper adaption. The participants of the course would know what I am talking about if I now sum it up as such: ‘Like a monster who is not a ‘domestic animal’, so is democracy not always ‘fully adaptable’.’*

Overall, I truly encourage young people to take part of such programmes in the future. Originally from Estonia, I was present as a participant represeting both my homeland as well as the Netherlands where I had spent the last 3 years of my lifetime. I had no closer contact with some of the countries, particularly Ukraine, Armenia, Moldova and Georgia before. Now I have bunch of friends in each of them, from whom I already learnt a lot from regarding the political situation in their homelands, but also many other interesting facts about their countries, Moreover, I gained contacts and potential partners for any up-coming future projects.

* During a ‘court role play’, different groups of the training course had to protect a different character (princess,husband, boat man, monster, friends) of a ‘princess story’, in order to find out who caused the death of a princess. The ‘monster group’ protected their character with an argument, that since a monster is not a domestic animal, the boat man could not train the monster, which is however what he said he did, as to ‘order the murder of the princess’ from a monster.

Kerli Kirsimaa (25) is a young urban planning professional with MSc degree from Wageningen Universiy, the Netherlands. Originally from Estonia, Kerli has participated in numerous workshops and projects in several countries all over Europe. 

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