A Higher Price Paid for Civil Activism

If you closely follow the political and social developments in Armenia you have surely noticed a bearded elderly man in his 60s lying on the ground with a poster in his hands or shouting out at the Police during almost all protest actions. Photo journalists definitely are fond of taking a few shots of him each time they see him in the crowd.   But the man does not attend the protest actions with an intention to get a pair of good free shots of himself.

However, he seldom misses any chance to stand for any kind of lawful demand by the citizens.

The man is Vardges Gaspari, an Iranian-born Armenian businessman who came to Armenia during Soviet times to stay here for the rest of his life.

With a dozen of administrative, 2 civil and even one criminal cases currently running against him, Vardges Gaspari has become a frequent visitor of Armenian courts. He shows the voluminous case files on the bookshelf and says he has also filed over two dozens of lawsuits against the state himself and he feels content for his civic activism, as he is sure it would pay off one day.

“I may save for buying a coke for my son, but I am ready to pay the illegal fines imposed on me for the sake of a just cause,” he says.

Vardges Gaspari thinks there is a way to change the Armenian reality for which each citizen should have his or her own contribution. He is happy to see there are a lot of like-minded people actively involved in the making of a democratic state and he believes it to be quite an achievable goal.

“It will take some time though. The only thing i do not like is that we get excited to start an action, but our enthusiasm is being dropped very easily. The NGOs seldom follow up on their initiatives; and this is very sad.”

A pacifist by nature his first protest act was back in Tehran, when he demanded his one-day wages to be paid while he was working at a factory. The country was at war in 1980s and it was announced that everyone should pay his or her one day wages for the war. When Gaspari was told that he would receive a bonus payment instead, he insisted on the payment of his wages.

“I said, I need it be mentioned there that I demand my one day salary, not a bonus! I do not want my money be spent on any war!”

Nonetheless, Iran was different, as it was ‘not his country’ despite of the fact that he was born there.

“I do not regret for the time and efforts I have spent on fighting for justice in Armenia,” says Gaspari, “I regret for every single day, every single minute I spent away, even during the period I lived in Austria.” Gaspari says he had to live there for a couple of months after he graduated from Yerevan State Polytechnic University since his family moved to Switzerland, also to take a course, “but after all, I chose to come back, since my place is here.”

And despite injustice in Armenia, he thinks his being in the motherland a good compensation for all negative experience he had here. Vardges Gaspari finds expressing one’s protests through marches and rallies an important component in the making of democracy. “If you stay home it amounts to your consent for the bad phenomenon, so, it is very important that you express your opinion.”

Gaspari says he cannot understand those who are happy for you to march in protest against something, but they never join themselves.

“I also do not understand those who shout about injustice but then put their photos taking a luxurious vacation in the Arab Emirates or elsewhere,” and then he adds lamenting, “I have not taken my son and wife out for a holiday for over ten years; it is not the time for taking vacations,” says Gaspari, who is an active businessman owning a company that imports automatic devices.

He has fought a lot with various instances insisting on a lawful way of treatment in his business. He also believes he has played his modest role in the process of improving legislation and practices in his narrow field, especially ‘non-selective application of the laws’ as he says.

”I never pay tips to the Customs or to any other public body, never! ” he says, ”I know I am a white crow, but I simply can’t help. They treat you badly at first, but then, after a while, they learn there is no other way with you; you are not going to pay them, and they give in.” He recommends other businessmen to take his path, but he finds it hard to convince them.

”The citizens should teach public officials that they are servants, not masters; the more persistent we are the more successful we will be,” he says.

Gaspari lost the count of lawsuits against him, but when asked about the greatest unfair treatment while dealing with the Armenian justice system, Gaspari mentions his political imprisonment after  March 2008 riots, during which he was put in the same cell with a criminal for quite a long period where he was subjected to torture and inhuman treatment.

“Tiko’s attacks lasted for a few hours. It was intensifying or subsiding at times. I was not only exerting efforts to defend myself, but also trying my best not to harm him. It was clear that if I was being indicted for having clashed with a policeman on the street, woe on me, if I put my hands on this doormat especially in the damn citadel of this state of gangsters,” he writes on his Facebook wall.

The prison authorities did not pay attention to his alerts secretly observing the situation. He was literally saved by the UN Committee against Torture paying a visit to the Prison; Gaspari was removed from the cell on that very day.

Nonetheless, there is even higher price he paid for his civic activism; during a visit paid by the Police at his home back in 2005 his son Levon, aged 3-4, having witnessed the Police violence against his father, suffered such an acute anxiety that he lost his speech for quite a long while. The boy still suffers from the consequences of that day’s emotional trauma.

Nonetheless, Gaspari says that even the harm caused to the dearest person in the world may not serve a reason for him ‘to stop to be a person he is’.