Country of Dust

Episode 5: I want to believe

August 08, 2023 Country of Dust Season 1
Episode 5: I want to believe
Country of Dust
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Country of Dust
Episode 5: I want to believe
Aug 08, 2023 Season 1
Country of Dust

Mane Gevorgyan was Nikol Pashinyan’s press secretary during the most turbulent period of his premiership. She entered as part of a rockstar government, but after the war, she had to deal with all the frustration and anger directed at the administration. Mane’s story offers a glimpse into the complexities of post-war Armenia.

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Show Notes Transcript

Mane Gevorgyan was Nikol Pashinyan’s press secretary during the most turbulent period of his premiership. She entered as part of a rockstar government, but after the war, she had to deal with all the frustration and anger directed at the administration. Mane’s story offers a glimpse into the complexities of post-war Armenia.

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HOST: When we talked with Ruben Malayan in the last episode he said he doesn’t even use the word ‘revolution’ when he talks about the protests in 2018 that brought Nikol Pashinyan to power. But Mane Gevorgyan definitely does

MANE: I believed and I still believe in the 2018 revolution

HOST: Just like Ruben, she was out in the streets. Ruben feels betrayed by Pashinyan - that he lied during the war and that nothing has fundamentally changed since he came to power. But Mane doesn’t just support Pashinyan - she worked with him during the most turbulent period of his premiership.

MANE: I mean, look at the press secretaries of different leaders of countries, right? Yeah, they're having a blast. I can never say the same thing about myself.

HOST: Her story follows all the same beats as Ruben’s story, but from her point of view on the inside of the government.

She had to deal with all the frustration and anger directed at the administration. That was literally her job. And people she knew blamed her personally 

It wasn’t easy for her. And you can hear it in her voice throughout our conversation: the words just poured out during the time we spent with her. With some people you really have to dig to get them to open up. Especially with a press secretary - you would expect a facade.

Not Mane - she had a lot to get off her chest. 

She entered as press secretary of this rockstar government, and she left… as a pariah. 

Welcome to Country of Dust - stories of a changing Armenia

This episode: “I want to believe”

I’m Gohar Khachatryan

MANE: Before the revolution, me and a lot of my friends had the sense that it is not possible to change anything in Armenia.

HOST: To understand the 2018 Velvet revolution, you have to understand what life was like before. Mane grew up during that time, here in Yerevan.

MANE: People who were doing business or people who owned something, I mean, they were all living in fear that one day, maybe one day, somebody will knock on their door and say that whatever you're owning it's mine now. 

HOST: There was little accountability. If you had money and power, you could steal or kill and get away with it. All while driving around in a Mercedes. The same political party had been in power for twenty years, and they rigged everything to make sure that they would stay in power. 

Witnessing that, year after year, was heartbreaking.

Most media organizations were aligned with the government. But Mane worked as a journalist at CivilNet, a new, independent news platform. It was an exciting place to be. Even so, her work could feel fruitless sometimes.

MANE: When you're producing all those articles, all uncovering corruption cases and then you don't see like the outcome of your work, you start like questioning whether this even this important mission has a meaning at the end of the day

HOST: In spring of 2018 Serzh Sargsyan was president. He had changed the constitution to make sure that he would stay in power. 

Nikol Pashinyan was a member of Parliament and a former journalist. He announced a protest against Sargsyan: he would march over one hundred kilometers from the city of Gyumri to Yerevan.

At first – nobody took him seriously. There were just a handful of people following him. But then, as he marched… it started to gain momentum

Mane felt it. 

MANE: And I wanted to be a part of it.

HOST: When Pashinyan got to Yerevan - he had a message for the protesters.

MANE: He had this announcement and he called people to, like, block streets and bridges. So what I did: I called my friend, I said “Look, you have this rental service, I have to rent a car. ‘cus I'm gonna do something crazy tomorrow.” But I didn't give him many details, because I was afraid that he will tell me no.

HOST: She picked up the car that morning

MANE: I told my sister, “Look, if you want to get to your work, you better not take the Kievyan Bridge Road to your work, because I'm gonna block it.” And that’s what I did. I blocked the bridge.

HOST: The Kievyan Bridge is one of the most important routes into the center of Yerevan. It runs over a huge gorge that goes right through the middle of the city. If you want to cut off traffic - it’s a huge chokepoint.

MANE: I left my work, I did not go to work. Not even knowing what's gonna happen, whether I will get fired or not.

NYREE: Had you ever done anything like that before?

MANE: Nope. No,

JEREMY: Why were you like ‘It's my time now’?

MANE: I truly believed that this is maybe our last chance. And if I if I don't do my part, then maybe I will never be able to do it.

HOST: Meaning: the last chance for us to remove and replace the corrupt government. It’s how we all felt. I think we were just so sick of the current regime, we would have followed anyone who offered an alternative. But for Mane - she didn’t just dislike the old regime. She trusted Nikol Pashinyan.

MANE: I really believe in him too. I believed in him too. Because I saw a very honest person. He showed us that there are no political compromises for him.

HOST: It wasn’t just the young people out on the streets, or the papiks and tatiks. It was everyone. We were united, and everyone was being nice to each other, people who wouldn’t normally interact in everyday life. The streets were flooded with chanting, with singing and with dancing, some people were even barbecuing khorovats! 

MANE: We used to say that it looks like more of a festival than a revolution.

HOST: I was there too - initially I was skeptical - I thought it was stupid, that the movement would never work. But eventually the pull of this festival-revolution was irresistible. Like Mane, I simply stopped showing up to work.  One day, my friends and I got detained by the police but we didn’t even care. It didn’t feel scary anymore.

MANE: I think we were all fearless. I think that we were all fed up with what was happening before. And we were just ready to face anything. Everyone was fearless. 

HOST: Then just like that, on April 23rd, Prime Minister Serge Sargsyan resigned. It felt unreal. I remember the moment we heard the news. A group of us were near Republic square, when suddenly we heard a scream… and then another. Then someone said, “He resigned!!”.. and the rest is a blur. I remember I was laughing and laughing with tears running down my face. 

The revolution was a real turning point for Armenia. The positive energy was contagious. So many of us felt it, including Mane. She had a vision of what was in store for Armenia:

MANE: Years of prosperity, years of growth, of freedom, freedom, and freedom again.

HOST: For the next 2 years, things were - for the most part - going well for Armenia. Pashinyan became Prime Minister, the economy was on the rise, anti-corruption policies were enforced…. This is not to say that everything was perfect, there were a lot of things that the Pashinyan government did in its early days that raised eyebrows, but we felt free to criticize the government without fear of punishment. This was new for us. 


Mane continued working in media. And so she would occasionally arrange interviews with Pashinyan. 

MANE: And one day I was just sitting at my workplace and I received a call from a friend who just told me that Prime Minister wants to find out whether I'm interested in becoming his press secretary. And it was a huge surprise for me.

HOST: It happened really quickly - but Mane was in. There was political momentum, and there were plenty of people like her, who wanted to work hard, and push, and see how good Armenia could be. 

MANE: Why not? Why not give it a try? And trust me, this was 2020, March 2020. There was no COVID, there was no war, there was nothing! I mean, I took the office and after two weeks, everything started to happen.

HOST: She had two short international trips with Pashinyan, then, there were back-to-back crises (CRY-sees) for her entire time as press secretary. First - it was COVID.

MANE: There is no script, there is no plan, there is no plan A or plan B. So you have to be always ready. always on the run.

HOST: It was obviously uncharted territory for every country. But Mane pins the most difficult challenges not on the pandemic itself, but on the opposition trying to use it to tear down the government.

MANE: And COVID gave gave them this opportunity to be able to start this chain of criticism towards the government.

HOST: She felt they were using it as an excuse to plant seeds of dissatisfaction so that the old regime could return to power.

But COVID ended up being the easy part. On the morning of September 27th 2020, she had a trip planned with the Prime Minister to Gyumri

MANE: And then I received a call from a friend of mine, who also used to work for the government. And she told me that… a war has started. And I was trying to digest what she's saying. The first thing that you think about is “It's not true, it can’t be happening.” And then I hang up the phone, and I receive a text message from the Prime Minister telling me that I have to be in the office, like in five minutes. I went to him. And I just saw his face. I saw him sitting on his chair. And then I asked him how many casualties we have. I got the answer. And I realized that…this is a war. And after that it was day and night. Day and night.

HOST: The whole time blurs together. She was setting up interviews, writing press releases, and sleeping in her office.

She had to do a balancing act with three separate audiences: Armenia, the international community, and Azerbaijan  

MANE: But you also have to understand that you cannot live and say everything is bad. That we're losing the war. Because you have to keep your people going . Yeah. It was tough. That one thing I can say. 

HOST: How do you convey the gravity of the situation in order to get the outside world to care, while trying to keep spirits up at home, while also making sure you’re not saying anything that Azerbaijan can weaponize. It’s an impossible situation. 

MANE: And because we were not united as one nation, as we were during maybe the revolution, it started to crack a little bit. 

HOST: Like with COVID, she feels that members of the old regime were trying to use those cracks as a way to get back into power. 

And the moment the war ended – those cracks broke apart

MANE: I remember the night of November nine very vividly.

HOST: She was working in the Government Building - that’s where the Prime Minister’s office is

MANE: In the beginning, I was just watching everything live, people gathering in front of the building.

HOST: Many citizens were blindsided by the terms of the ceasefire. Armenia lost a lot of land, including historic sites like Hadrut and Shushi  This made some people furious, and they took to the streets and stormed the government building.  

MANE: And I was inside the building when these people stormed. And I remember that I just… I just didn't know what to do. And I went downstairs to see what's really happening.

HOST: She saw hundreds of protesters storm into the building -  Mane was terrified.

MANE: And I was in the middle of seeing all these men I don't know screaming yelling at each other yelling at me yelling at the guards, breaking stuff. And then you just just look at it and you're like, “Okay, what's going on? Is this the end of my country? What's really happening?” You're trying to digest, you're trying to calm everyone down. 

HOST: The guards helped her escape and she went to her colleague’s apartment where she watched on tv as the mob attacked the head of parliament.

MANE: You don't even think about it, I mean you don't know what to do. You don't know whether you are safe or not. And I remember my sister called me and said “Look, our address is being circulated in social media, what we should do?” I just told them to stay inside the apartment, that nothing is gonna happen. not even knowing that nothing is gonna happen.

HOST: The next day, the protests had calmed down. She went back to her office and it was a mess.

MANE: It was this deserted area, everything broken. And you can't find your laptop, you can't find the things that you need to be able to work.

HOST: But - she had to get back to work, which changed now that the war was over.

When accepting the job, she knew that she would face criticism. But she didn’t know how personal it would get. How cold it could feel. 

MANE: Some of my good friends, some of my colleagues, they stop talking to me. I mean, I would see them in the street and they would not say hi. I mean, they were just like turn their back. And it's like, I mean, what did I do? I mean, seriously, I mean, at the end of the day, what did I do? 

HOST: Many people were upset at the Pashinyan administration specifically because of how they talked about the war. And as press secretary, Mane was a place for people to direct their outrage. 

During the 2018 protests the country had felt united - people were barbecuing for each other in the middle of the streets. Now, just a few years later, so much had changed. 

MANE: And then what was probably the most difficult period was to deal with the parents, the relatives of soldiers of those who were being kept captive in Azerbaijan, or whose bodies were not found.

HOST: Mane was spending hours talking with the families of those missing soldiers. 

MANE: Yeah, beg them for patience. Like literally beg them for patience, and for understanding.

HOST: They would yell at her, then they would apologize for yelling at her. She would take the time and listen to it all, and try to sympathize. And - she could sympathize. She had lived through her own difficulties that these families could understand. 

MANE: And I've never talked about this but I think that my own personal experience helped me to sit in front of these people and have conversations with them. I, myself, I lost my parents when I was 10 years old. I, myself experienced a lot of hardships. And I was able to convince these people “Look, I understand your pain, I know your pain. But right now, you have to give us time.”

HOST: Her job was being a press secretary, but she took on almost the role of a counselor for some of these families. There’s one family she worked with, that she can’t get out of her head. There were these 2 brothers, who thought their other brother was being held captive in Azerbaijan.

MANE: And I mean, it's like them becoming members of your own family, right?

HOST: She used to speak on the phone with them 2 or 3 times a day, giving updates on what the government was doing to find out what happened to him.…

MANE: And I remember the day that I learned that his brother's body was identified.

HOST: The Prime Minister told Mane that he wanted to be the one to tell the family the news. But before Pashinyan could tell them, they called Mane. 

MANE: And I remember his brother called me and asked me if I have any news. And I just didn't know what to say. I mean, I knew at that moment, that his brother is gone. And I just texted the Prime Minister. I said “Look, I think I can't do this anymore. So please tell him because I can't. I mean, what should I tell him? He wants to know whether I have news from his brother and this is not something that you can lie about.” And I mean you cannot… And there is no day that I don't think about this.

HOST: There are so many things about this war that are hard to talk about, even for someone whose job it is to talk about it.

Because what do you say to someone who lost a son or a brother?

A year after the war, Mane left her position. In a facebook post announcing her decision, she wrote: “despite everything, I tried to stay true to the values established during the 2018 revolution.”

After the revolution, the promise was that things would be better. That people would be able to vote in fair elections, to start a business, to have prosperity. Half a decade later, after everything that Armenia has lived through, did it work? Are things better? 
Mane thinks they are - 

MANE:  Just like knowing that you can go and elect the person that you want to run your country and then just like believe, trust, that the results of those who have the vote. We did not have my generation. I mean, we didn't. We never saw this happening.

HOST: And she specifically believes in Pashinyan. 

MANE: I do. I honestly do. And I will continue to fight to have a better country. And if it's through him, then hell yeah, he has my support.

HOST: Right before she met up to talk with us, Mane was out looking to buy an apartment. But doing that felt like a leap of faith. It was September 2022, two years after the war, and Azerbaijan had just attacked Armenia days before - killing hundreds. It forced her to think about not just her own future but the future of the country. There were very. real. fears. that Azerbaijan could take over large parts of Armenia. Was buying property and setting down roots the right move?

MANE: And I was like, “Is this the right timing?” I mean, you don't know what's gonna happen tomorrow. You don't know whether this building will be here like in two weeks or not. But I want to believe that my country has a future has a bright future.

HOST: That optimism from the revolution was wiped away after the war. How much of it did Mane still have?

MANE: I mean I had many opportunities to leave Armenia and to go to live somewhere else. But then you think that you don't have that right. 

HOST: She is committed, even though some people blame her personally for Armenia’s problems. She said that it’s been hard for her to find a new job - she suspects that companies don’t want to be associated with her because she is marked by being in the Pashinyan administration. But despite the divisions, fears and uncertainties she sees the potential.

MANE: I mean, we are a small nation. We are an independent country. We have all the opportunities to be one of the best. And why not? Why I mean, why not? And if it's not you, who's gonna be there for your colleagues or your friends or your family, who else is gonna do it?

HOST: Country of Dust is created and produced by Nyree Abrahamian, Jeremy Dalmas and Gohar Khachatrian; with help from Gabrielle Kaprielian. Sound engineering and music by Jeremy Dalmas. Graphic design by Nooneh Khoo-dah-verd-yan. 

And Thanks for the support from

  • The Creative Armenia - AGBU Fellowship
  • Impact Hub Yerevan
  • The Vahé and Lucie Foundation
  • and the Nexus Center for the Arts 

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