In Armenia, the youth community centre of Jermuk used to be the place where young people could get civil, democratic and active citizenship education, participate and be involved in the free youth services. However, the local municipality was permanently suppressing and eventually suspended the youth centre’s independent activities thinking that young people should act as decoration. They consider the community budget belongs to the authorities and should serve the different needs of the ruling party. The closure of this CNCO took the physical space from young people of Jermuk city. The only operating Community youth centre now is the youth Palace of Gyumri in all over Armenia. However, as the events showed, this youth centre is also not ensured against suffering the same fate.
The shrinking space for Jermuk Youth Centre and local youth work
I worked for Jermuk Youth Centre, a community non-commercial organisation, and I was involved in its establishment from the very beginning. Jermuk Municipality in Vayots Dzor Province became its main financing body. However, all the projects were independent. They tried to use different leverages on youth sometimes, but I wanted to avoid them if possible, as there should be no politics in youth work. It was the only organisation in our city working for youth and having more than 200 volunteers; we cooperated with other local and international organisations, had many grants. I was the only staff member who got a salary from the community budget, though many of our projects were not financed and were done on a voluntary basis.
The Community leaders were always trying to tell us what to do and interfere in our daily youth work. During the revolution of 2018, a conflict happened between the mayor of the city Jermuk and us. The main issue was that we, as young people, and me, as their leader, were actively participating in the demonstrations, as we had our public opinion as citizens. Their position was that if we had that political position and were financed by the government and supported by a political party, we couldn’t attend the demonstrations against the ruling party. And on the same day in April 2018, they told us to leave the youth centre and they closed the door. At that point, we even had a financed project for youth by the US Embassy, aimed at opening a big youth technological club, which we couldn’t implement because they suspended our Centre’s activities. The municipality completely closed the youth space at that time and forbade us to implement any project or event, and they even started political persecutions against us, as the members of the organised youth.
After that, they fired me as I was the leader who was against the work of the municipality and the mayor. They even told me that we shouldn’t talk about democracy and think so openly. In particular, on April 22, they didn’t allow me to go there to implement the already planned event. They limited my mobility, didn’t let me go out of my house. The young people went to the mayor to complain about this without a positive result though. On 23 April they fired me, then Serj Sargsyan resigned in the afternoon. On April 24 we decided to go to the peaceful march devoted to the victims of the Armenian Genocide. However, they thought we were planning another demonstration.
With all the increasing anger and political boom of those days related to the revolution, the local authorities, however, got afraid a bit. They called me back to work after a month and reopened the Centre after two months. Yet they started to control us actively and limit our activities, such as not allowing us to gather with many young people, talk, have our meetings, etc. It was a very unstable period. I knew that the situation would not enhance; however, in May I came back to my work as I wanted to do more for young people, implement the project we had won, but it turned out they would not allow me to implement the already granted projects. I even sent the money of the grant we had received on our account back to the donors. They told me to come and sit in the Municipality, not allowing me to work properly and go to the youth centre, which is situated in another building. They also were spreading bad rumours about me, doing political prosecution. I also felt a lot of personal pressure on me. In the past few years, I have experienced a very stressful period. I hoped everything would change, but now it is even worse.
After a few months, I was called by the authorities and told they were merging several organisations and increasing the size. They had no understanding of youth work, youth activities in general, even though we had been working for several years. Those who were close to authorities got the positions of managers. I was appointed as a youth field specialist there. After several months they told us that they were also moving us to another place, namely, to a chess school. They took our physical space of the youth centre from youth and gave it to others. They apparently didn’t want youth to be there. However, our mayor always says that we have a youth club. But it is not the same as it used to be, as we don’t have space first of all. Then they don’t allow us to do something independently. They basically expect from youth to do their PR, advertise the city mayor and support. However, we don’t want to do that, we don’t want to be engaged in politics. After all, we have such a sad picture now:
We don’t have independence for our free gatherings and meetings.
They took our physical space.
The position of a youth worker was shrunk into a “youth field specialist” with less salary.
One of the issues of such a story and situation is financing. They don’t understand that the community budget is for all and is formed by our taxes. They see it for the needs of the city mayor. We wanted to participate in decision making. We tried to create a council next to the city mayor; we tried to insert a participatory mechanism with SMS for the community issues. All these proposals came from young people but were not heard or implemented.
Secondly, there is a big fear from youth. They attribute supernatural power to young people and are afraid of them. Why? They don’t want healthy, critical and active youth that understands its rights, knows that the budget belongs to all, and that we have the right to participate in our community’s good governance. It is widespread to talk that young people are leaving provinces and regions now. Yet they expect us to be dependent, stay here as decoration, clap for the municipality’s work, share the posts on social media, that’s it.
Some years ago, when we were quite stronger I wanted to develop local youth policy, and I got an answer that youth shouldn’t be involved in politics (in Armenian “policy” and “politics” are expressed by the same word “qaghakakanutyun”- «քաղաքականություն»). All the time we have barriers, barriers and barriers. Only by having the physical space of the youth centre, did we manage to do youth work for years and develop youth.
The revolution didn’t happen in our city. The old authorities are still there. The only change was the understanding that youth is a power and a threat to the authorities, rather than a resource. The bright and competent youth are leaving the city and the country. We created such a contingent where everyone wanted to contribute for free or any financial income, teach something. Now we really lost this enthusiastic contingent among youth. Currently, we are working with youth aged 14-18 and above 22-23. The student youth aged 18-22 are abroad, they used to come for the weekends only. After the revolution, we lost many young people, because they don’t want to go back to Jermuk, as we don’t have anything to offer them now. They were coming, as we were suggesting diverse projects then, where they could find theirs, share and be engaged. Now we use our personal spaces, my house, for example.
We had a space which was like a family and such a warm environment. I had a feeling as if a part of my body was being cut. Now I hope the new generation will not have the same issues, as I had back then. This is not my personal story or the case of our city’s youth. These challenges are faced by all young people throughout the republic.
Based on more than ten years of experience in the youth field, in my opinion, we now need a mechanism where everyone has their contribution to the youth centres, yet the decisions are made by young people themselves, and nobody can interfere in their decisions.
Syuzanna Avetisyan – The former head of Jermuk Youth Centre; President of Community initiative for development NGO