Antranig Boghosian was a member of the Justice Commandoes of the Armenian Genocide. Alec Yenikomshian was with the other camp — the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia. In October 1980 in Geneva, a bomb accidentally exploded during assembly, and Alec Yenikomshian lost his left hand, and was left visually impaired. In March 1983, Boghosian was shot and left paralyzed during the assassination of the Turkish ambassador to Yugoslavia. Now, a decade and a half later, they live in Yerevan, and have become friends. They spoke with AIM in March.
How is it that you came to Armenia?
AY: I was in ASALA until the end of 1982. Then, I left, for many reasons. It was quite a complicated period. I lived underground for almost 10 years, away from everyone, from family, everyone, because of internal ASALA problems. My life was in danger. By 1993, those issues no longer existed, so I was able to come out into the open. I came to Armenia for the first time in 1995. I came back for a few months in 1996, and then, moved permanently.
When did you come out, and begin to use your real name?
AB: From the time I was arrested until I was released, I used the name Harutiun Levonian. I became Antranig again after I returned to Beirut.
Does the fact that you two former activists, are here now, together, mean that you have somehow rejected or regretted the ideals which moved you to do what you did as former ASALA and JCAG members, and which defined you as opponents? That you’ve changed your minds?
AY: Anto’s being a member of the ARF and my being a former ASALA member has not given rise to any ideological problems. I don’t believe that our earlier beliefs (and not just earlier, they are still valid) have been put aside in order for us to have a relationship today. But of course, individual character has a great role to play here. The character of Anto, the man, could have been something else.
AB: I agree that it is those same human characteristics which have caused our relationship to grow and develop. I do have a particular problem or reservation with those members of the ASALA who still maintain their support of that fratricidal period when people lost their lives due to political differences. Some very close personal friends of mine were victims of that violence. But, Alec is not among those who advocated such actions or believed that that bloody path was the correct one. He was not a participant in those acts.
As for the ASALA, I am of two minds. I feel positively about that wing of ASALA which carried out certain political acts, and negatively about the other faction which carried out acts which I don’t believe served the Armenian Cause. Alec, too, is of the opinion that such acts did not benefit the Cause. And so, in both cases, there is no obstacle to Alec’s and my relationship.
You asked about regret? I have never had occasion to experience feelings of regret regarding our past activities. Perhaps because of the nature of the acts, the specificity of the targets involved, never over the years have we had cause to reflect and regret.
You have had certain political reservations about how your close relationship today may be perceived.
AB: Yes, I have had such reservations. In Soviet Armenia, there seemed to have been a deliberate propaganda effort to ascribe all political military acts to ASALA. In some people’s mind, there is also the perception that perhaps that old opposition of views and approaches between the two camps was a facade, a set-up, that these two militant groups really were governed from one center. My concern is that here in Armenia, and in the Diaspora, our coming together this way, publicly, will raise all sorts of new questions. People may think that perhaps this is the new expression of an old cozy relationship, or that this is the expression of discontent with our individual pasts. That’s why perhaps it is worth repeating that the past is past. It is a fact that disagreement existed, but it is also a fact that after Armenia’s independence, after we settled here, our views regarding today’s realities are not in contradiction with our past. Today’s problems are new, the approaches are new.
AY: It’s really pretty silly if people suspect that these acts in the past were directed from one center. Without analyzing and judging the past, I just want to say I had very serious reservations about the path chosen and certain acts carried out by the organization [ASALA] of which I was a part in the past. I also had my reservations about the strategy of the other organization [JCAG]. I think that the fact that the two of us are here together today, without any complexes, and not just for the first time, is predicated more by individual values. Our past actions, of course, are a part of who we are. Although we respect the past, that doesn’t mean that our friendship means 100 percent endorsement of the past. By the same token, complete disdain of the past would probably preclude the possibility of our getting together today. I respect Anto as an individual. I respect his opinions, and agree with many of them. Others I disagree with and I think that is quite natural.
I think many people will wonder not simply whether you regret espousing the ideologies which you supported in the past, but generally, whether you regret having personally participated in those events. After all, they have so fundamentally affected your lives in every way, physically and psychologically.
AY: We have never even spoken about such regret, because neither of us has felt that regret. Of course, not regretting is one thing. It is another thing to think about the past, wonder about those events. And people do that even if they do not find themselves in our physical situation. It is also possible that our coming together is somewhat subconsciously also influenced by the fact that we have both been permanently physically affected. Nevertheless, I don’t believe that’s the main basis of our friendship.
What are your ties to other former activists? For example, did either of you know Monte?
AB: I met Monte for the first time in Lebanon. Circumstances took us in different directions. Then, we met again here. We didn’t have the opportunity to develop a relationship.
AY: I met Monte when he came to Lebanon in 1978. By 1979 we had become close friends. We shared, to a very large extent, a common assessment of the armed struggle of the 70s and 80s. Our personal direct contact was cut off in the mid 1980s when we both had to go underground. We managed to reestablish indirect contact in the early 90s. One of my regrets has been not having had the chance to personally witness the most fruitful and, by all means, most powerful period of his life — in Karabakh.
You have each “come out” during this last 10 years. Yet, I haven’t read any detailed reports anywhere about your lives today, or your past experiences — the months before your military actions, the actions themselves, the time you spent imprisoned. Yet, your lives are, for lack of a better word, perhaps the most “interesting” period of our contemporary pre-independence history. Has no one asked? There simply has not been the opportunity? Or, you don’t feel the need to tell?
AY: Personally, I don’t see this as a major issue.
Didn’t people say you’re crazy to move here?
AB: Family and friends, even if they don’t use those words, they think so at some level. If someone doesn’t understand or share our inner world, then it’s obvious that such a move seems hard to understand. But I know that I must listen to my inner self. I can only live here. I don’t need to announce this out loud. This is a natural continuation of living a life based on your beliefs. Your land must be under your feet.
Please talk about the mental and physical accommodations and adaptations you have had to make to live in this society.
AB: First we try not to pay attention to the difficulties, to minimize the biggest issues, so that it doesn’t mentally affect us. And I think we largely succeed. That doesn’t mean there are no difficulties, but you accept what you must, and change what you can. What society does in that regard? Not much, and it can’t. It has other concerns. I don’t have many expectations of society.
There is also the perception from the outside about us and others like us who have come here to live, that we would be unable to “make it” elsewhere — financially and in other ways. We would have been able to work and live outside Armenia, just fine, but emotionally, we would be unable to live elsewhere. Many don’t want to see this. They think, “He wouldn’t have been able to live here, he wouldn’t have been able to physically, and that’s why it’s easier to live in Armenia.” They think Armenia is all green pastures.
Who thinks so, people in Armenia or in the Diaspora?
AB: No, the Armenian population knows better.
AY: The people here are surprised, and ask why we’ve come.
AB: But I think they more quickly acknowledge that “if you love your country, this is where you must live.” We are speaking about the majority, of course, who know the value and taste of this land.
What about adapting — not just due to physical disability, but cultural adaptation, too?
AY: If you come with the understanding that this is a different place, a different country, with different realities, then adapting should not be difficult. We should not idealize this country, and transform it to a dreamland. If we do that, of course, adaptation will be hard. But if we know about the soviet period, the earthquake and its effects, the Karabakh conflict and its effects, and the seemingly unsolvable complicated situations they have created, then it is easier to accommodate to these surroundings. I know also that there are differences between the generations born and raised here, and we, western Armenians. But I don’t find that to be an irreconcilable difference. I know that I am different and it will take perhaps a lifetime to blend in, but I don’t find that to be a problem.
As to physical accommodations, I can’t answer because it’s hard to compare how someone else in my condition here would deal with problems. I lived for a long time in isolation, so I can’t really give you objective assessment. I don’t find it to be a great problem. Unlike Anto, I must rely on others to get from place to place, but that hasn’t been a problem.
What can you say about the process of developing a civil polity during these last several years? This was after all the highly politicized mass that created the democratic movement.
AB: In 1988, this people demonstrated certain political savvy. Yet, recently, there has been occasion to wonder whether our people, by nature, demands quick solutions and is not open to long-term struggle. It’s as if, if we have to take to the streets, then the problem must find a solution in five days. If five becomes fifteen, they are not with you. That’s my impression. But in 1988, that process lasted longer. Perhaps the explanation is that only once in each century is it possible to generate such a reaction. Or, perhaps, the solutions did come quickly. There were so many issues to resolve and so many opportunities to register successes. Nayirit must be shut down. It was shut down. That was a shot in the arm to carry on another 15 days, to shut down the nuclear plant, or have some other success. Today, there is only one issue to resolve: the issue of political power in Armenia. And the people’s nature is such that they cannot enter into a long-term struggle. As a result, no political force is capable of carrying the people.
AY: I don’t think it’s enough to say that a people are politicized. Discontent and complaints are quite visible, but the movement to do something about that discontent has been absent. A civil society assumes two things: demands of the authorities, and at the same time, willingness to participate. In other words a citizen understands that he has rights and responsibilities. These two aspects have not sufficiently developed yet in people’s thinking to be able to say that a civil society exists. There are expressions of discontent, but that is not enough. The political engagement which the people demonstrated in the late 1980s assumed a certain awareness of responsibility, which was demonstrated again during the September presidential elections. But, then, that died down. According to the official results of the elections, 46 percent expressed their disapproval of the authorities (42 voted for Vazgen Manukian and six for Sergei Badalian). That was nevertheless a good shock to many, myself included. Yet the expression stopped there. Responsibility doesn’t necessarily mean taking to the streets. It’s an understanding of civic duty, which is still absent. This isn’t just the authorities’ problem. It’s also society’s problem, the problem of a missing political culture and political thinking and understanding.
AB: We must be realistic enough to realize that a society or an individual, anywhere on earth, living within a system that is not healthy, will naturally not perform his duties. The problem is with those in power.
AY: There is of course the problem of power. But the problem is not only power. One cannot speak of power without speaking of society — a society of which it is a reflection. I agree that there is a problem of power in Armenia, as in many other countries. My point about civic responsibility is that responsibility is not simply toward the government. Civic responsibility includes of course responsibility toward the government, but it also means responsibility toward oneself and toward society. Not being indifferent regarding small, local issues, neighborhood issues that citizens can resolve themselves. These small, local successes can be transformed into political responsibility, and become the beginning of pressure on the authorities. I haven’t seen this yet. There are lots of complaints, but no participation. Even when there is participation, there is an intermediary. Sometimes that’s natural, a political party, for example. But at the same time, it’s possible, and in my opinion, it’s preferable, that the simplest, most “grass-roots” level pressure groups be organized.
Also, some of the political issues are so complex and replete with implications, that sometimes it is hard to take a stand, knowing that a people’s fate is at stake, such as, for example the issue of Karabakh. That is why, if people took an interest in immediate issues which hold no fatal significance — neither Karabakh, nor the country’s future — and came together, got organized, formed a “democracies de bas” the simplest, most basic form of democracy, if society tried to become organized at that level, both the awareness would increase, and the active participation would take on political significance.
Isn’t there a lack of awareness that one has the power to make changes — whether in one’s building, or in the political process. It’s that cycle of lack of confidence and perception of powerlessness that must be broken.
AB: What Alec says is an ideal political state.
AY: No, forgive me. But that’s not so. I am not saying that there should not be demands of the government, or expressions of discontent. But I am saying at the same time, there needs to be this other kind of participation and involvement and responsibility, resulting in successes which bring about empowerment and further, more sophisticated political involvement.
AB: I would love to develop to a point when my neighbor also takes responsibility for this building. But I am afraid we don’t have the time to reach all the population layers and make them stand up. On the other hand, the authorities, those in power, only number several hundred, and if they demonstrate understanding and awareness, there is a greater chance that such attitudes and work styles can trickle down.
AY: Yes, of course, the two are not exclusive. The example from above will filter down.
AB: No, there is no contradiction. It’s simply a matter of which can happen sooner.
What concrete steps can the authorities take — and the opposition, as well — to open the channels of dialogue and participation?
AB: The country is in dire economic straits; the war is still brewing, the blockade is still on. We know all that. But there is a factor which doesn’t help the process of rapprochement between people and authorities. And that is, that at a time when the people have no other source of financial survival but business and trade (since the factories and other sources of standard employment are out), there is a layer of the powerful who are endowed with monopolies, and there is the poor, miserable man on the street, who has no access or opportunity. Those in or near positions of power have amazing powers and opportunities, yet the people have no access. On the contrary, the regular person faces awful, forbidding taxes and regulations and other obstacles to running a successful business. Maybe we shouldn’t even expect this government to be so generous and selfless.
AY: I believe that the population would be more understanding of these same difficult economic and social circumstances, if it could see that the governing elite, those in positions of power, are not living in significantly different conditions. If the ordinary citizen could see that there are people who are concerned about the conditions of “everyman”, then they would be much more tolerant. There is a polarization which exists in society, and which nobody denies. The problems will never completely disappear. Corruption will always exist everywhere, those on top are always everywhere better off. But the polarization, the plainly demonstrated extreme differences must be done away with.
Where is the opposition in all this? Why hasn’t it succeeded in constructively channeling the frustration, the helplessness, the complaints and dissatisfaction? What caused the political violence which followed the September elections?
AY: I honestly don’t know. To some extent, again, it’s a reflection of the people’s emotional, moral situation. Who will make the call to gather and protest? Who will go? Perhaps another reason is that the opposition has no social layers to work with. There are no social layers left. Academics? Intellectuals? Professionals? Small merchants? The categories don’t exist any longer. There are no groupings to work with, to espouse, to represent. That’s why political forces have frequently come to represent themselves and a tiny circle around them.
AB: Again, it’s a combination of the absence of a tradition of taking responsibility, the expectation of quick solutions, and the unwillingness to risk much. Therefore, the opposition has a hard time getting the millions of discontented to follow, because those same discontented people are also not willing to invest time and energy into the effort, to sacrifice to meet an objective. Perhaps this is what led to the September 25 events. Perhaps the leadership sensed that these people have to be kept constantly engaged through new developments, those same demonstrators may not come back tomorrow. That need for action is what resulted in the hasty confrontation, the rushing of the Parliament building, on September 25. Of course, there were also the intentional actions of the authorities that also contributed to that confrontation. It wasn’t the people’s will, or the mob alone which caused that day’s events. The situation was ripe with unknowable surprises, and in that situation, the authorities speeded up the advance on the parliament. The authorities accelerated the mob’s actions. Those same guards who were inside the iron fence could have more easily stopped the people, by firing into the air before the people stormed the fence. The water-spray truck could have come earlier and sprayed water on the people before the iron railings fell. Neither happened.
If the government had resorted to those actions earlier, wouldn’t it have been accused of disrupting the crowd as it exercised its right to protest?
AB: Who justified the tanks entering the city the next day? They knew that it was natural that those people, a mob if that’s what they called it, would push into the parliament. But what was the explanation the next day, when inside the parliament, the parliamentarians who were under no pressure, not in a passionate mob environment, dressed in suits and ties, began to beat each other up. What was the explanation then? Which was the bigger wrong?
If there were dual citizenship, would you apply?
AB: Of course. For us, this degree of rejection, or fear, is hard to understand. I find it pointless. If there are matters of concern, they could have been resolved. Obstacles could have been placed if necessary, and dual citizenship made hard, but still possible. Why they don’t, I don’t know. Nevertheless, even under these circumstances, I still would have applied. Why haven’t I applied — for two reasons. One, not to be rejected, and second, not to place the authorities in a difficult predicament, especially in light of the government’s position regarding the ARF. I asked unofficially and was unofficially discouraged from applying.
AY: I haven’t applied, because for me the important thing was to come here and live here. Applying for citizenship is such a long and blurry process that it would have created complications, and perhaps even prevented my living here legally. I would want to be a citizen of Armenia, but because it’s currently a complex process, I haven’t bothered to apply.
So much for a personal answer. However, citizenship is one of the issues in the Armenia-Diaspora relationship which needs to be looked at. When that relationship is better defined, the citizenship issue too will be clearer.
AB: The temporary solution is the 10-year residency, which I was given after that unofficial rejection of my citizenship inquiries. Until then, quite simply, I was in Armenia illegally.
Obviously, in spite of all these problems, you are here. What can be done to increase the numbers of people of our generation living here, in order for quantity to begin to have a qualitative effect on processes and circumstances?
AY: I don’t believe this matter has much to do with the citizenship issue. It has more to do with individual motivation, patriotism, interest in participating in Armenia’s life, in helping create a normal society. People can come here just to feel good about being here, or to start a business. Those regulations exist. The opportunities are there. Armenia has to continue to work on these opportunities and make them easier. At the same time, we have to see how real and sincere has been the 60, 70 years of patriotic talk in the Diaspora. That’s not to say that everyone will pick up and come. That’s not realistic. Nevertheless, it should have been in greater numbers. In any case, it’s not possible to blame one side and say you are not offering citizenship, or making it easy for Diasporans to come here and live and work, without seeing what the interest and commitment is on the other side.
A lot has become clear during these recent years about the Diaspora, and the propaganda of the last decades. This is when we are faced with the reality of an Armenia, a Karabakh; this is when we have to deliver. And Armenia, too, as a country, still has much to do to become the state it wants to become. To what degree the Armenian polity and government are able and prepared to take on the responsibility to think nationally, we shall see. Both Armenia and Diaspora are faced with challenges. Neither has come through completely honorably, in my opinion.
AB: Yes, both were not able to stand tall. The Diaspora, with its concerns, cut off from the realities, needed this experience against which to be judged. It was the same here, in the homeland, too. Neither was able to match its calling. That does not mean this is the final reality and that more can not be expected.