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CIS: Armenia Latest To Agonize Over Anthem

  • Robert Parsons --> (Public domain) Emblems, flags and national anthems. There are few things, it seems, more likely to stimulate the energies and passions of legislators in the fledgling states of the old Soviet Union. Now, it is Armenia's turn.

PRAGUE, August 24, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The mood is a little fractious in the Armenian capital this summer, and the weather isn't helping. The mercury has climbed inexorably above 40 degrees Celsius.

But not even the boiling sun can match the heat generated by the debate over whether Armenia should ditch its national anthem and adopt something more modern, more attuned to today's national aspirations.

The very idea, according to the nationalist Dashnaktsutiun Party -- which forms part of the coalition government -- is tantamount to sacrilege. The Dashnaks like things just as they are.

Listen to a portion of Armenia's national anthem (31 seconds):
Real Audio Windows Media

"Mer Hayrenik," or "Our Fatherland," was penned by Mikael Ghazavi Nalbandian, one of the most revered nationalist figures of the 19th century, and adopted as the national anthem by the short-lived Armenian state of 1918-20.

Thereafter it was banned by the Bolsheviks and became a hymn of protest before being reinstated as the national anthem when Armenia declared its independence in 1991.

So why change it now?

Take a look on Armenian blogsite and you get an idea why. The song is too wimpy, complains one visitor -- and too gloomy.

Take verse three. None of the usual chest-thumping banality of national anthems here. But perhaps not calculated, either, to fill the hearts of young schoolchildren with patriotic joy.

Death is the same everywhere;
People die only once.
Lucky are the ones that are
Sacrificed for the freedom of the nation.

Armenia is, of course, not the first post-Soviet state to go through the agonies of this debate.

Russia fretted over it through the 1990s, briefly replacing the Soviet anthem with a temporary lyric-free piece by 19th-century composer Mikhail Glinka.

Listen to a portion of Russia's national anthem (35 seconds):
Real Audio Windows Media

A 22-person commission made up of Armenia's wisest and best has been sifting through 85 candidates to come up with a new anthem.

In 2000, it once again reverted to the Soviet-era melody -- albeit with new words to replace paeans to "Lenin's ideas" and the "unbreakable union" of the Soviet state.

"Sacred Russia," the new version proclaims, "protected by God."

But divine care was not enough to persuade liberals like Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the opposition Yabloko party, who warned that the reversion to the Soviet tune was a harbinger of terrible things.

Georgia's Trials

In Georgia, too, the debate was fierce. But no nostalgia there. Two years ago, it ditched the existing post-Soviet anthem in favor of a new song.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (right) sings the national anthem with reservists and children at a military training camp near Tblisi earlier this month (epa)

Legislators said the fresh tune had more appropriate lyrics and -- so they hoped -- a catchy new melody.

But many Georgians were unimpressed -- like this man on the street speaking to RFE/RL's Georgian Service.

"They used to criticize our football and rugby international players because they didn't sing the last national anthem," the man said. "But you tell me how they're going to sing this one. Very interesting! Nobody will be able to sing it. Then everyone will ask again why they're not singing. Because they won't be able to sing it!"

Or this man, who clearly thought the old Soviet Georgian anthem couldn't be bettered.

"It needs the sort of words that will give you goose pimples," he said. "I remember how the anthem used to be. 'Eternal glory to the nation' -- what do you think of that, eh? Pretty damn good!"

Anthem Tidbits

For every republic of the former Soviet Union, there is a similar saga. Post-Soviet Moldova briefly adopted the Romanian anthem, but abandoned it in favor of a new song to reflect the individual Moldovan identity. That anthem is called "Our Language" -- which in Moldova is virtually identical to Romanian.

In Kyrgyzstan, a debate continues to simmer over its post-Soviet anthem. The source of contention is a single word, "beikut," which -- according to which Kyrgyz dialect you're speaking, can mean either "peace" or "bad luck."

Russia's Republic of Tatarstan, meanwhile, had no individual anthem during the Soviet era. But it adopted an anthem after the revival of its statehood. That song is now played at all official events, together with the Russian anthem.

But to return to Armenia, where a 22-person commission made up of the country's wisest and best has been sifting through 85 candidates to come up with a new anthem.

It's a heavy burden, as one of the judges, Culture Minister Hasmik Poghosian, makes clear in remarks to RFE/RL's Armenian Service.

"When we really are no longer 'wretched' and 'forsaken,' I'll enter the anthem competition myself." -- Felix Bakhchinian

"It's been very difficult. When you have to listen to one song after another... And clearly you can't feel the same way about all of them," Poghosian said. "And it would have been wrong to make a quick decision and immediately announce the winner."

It's hard work made harder still by some unrelenting criticism of the whole project.

Felix Bakhchinian, director of the Charents Literature and Art Museum in Yerevan, is one of many who think this is not the time for choosing a new anthem.

''I too want to get rid of references to the motherland as 'wretched and forsaken,' like we have in the existing anthem," Bakhchinian said. "But we need to solve more pressing problems before we begin talking about the anthem and other state attributes. Right now we have higher priorities to meet. And when we really are no longer 'wretched' and 'forsaken,' I'll enter the anthem competition myself."

Harsh words from a man highly respected in the world of Armenian art. But not harsh enough to stop the commission. It's narrowed the field down to five finalists -- and word is that one song is head and shoulders above the rest.

Its lyrics, based on a poem by early 20th-century poet Yeghishe Charents, drops much of the grim imagery in favor of praise for the "sun-baked taste of Armenian words."

Listen to a portion of the proposed new Armenian anthem (23 seconds):
Real Audio Windows Media

Whatever their views on the tune and its lyrics, Armenia's legislators would be wise to pay attention. If parliament adopts its planned new code of ethics, legislators will have to demonstrate that they can sing all the words.

(RFE/RL's Armenian, Georgian, Romania-Moldova, Kyrgyz, and Tatar-Bashkir services contributed to this report.)