Tag Archives: armenian society

Reflections on Armenian independence unchanged

Armenian TricolorI am reposting this article about Armenian independence that I wrote exactly one year ago since I can’t emphase this message enough. I couldn’t find the words to say the same things again a bit differently. although I tried. Indeed, everything expressed herein is still relevant, and sadly, nothing has really changed to address the issues that I identify.

Twenty years ago when Armenia declared itself independent from Soviet rule it was not only claiming statehood, it was calling for a restoration of values.  The Armenian people would be able to think and create freely in a fledgling democracy that was both naïve yet highly optimistic. Many people believed that prosperity was on the horizon, jobs would be created, and a bright future awaited them. Little did they know that both war and unchecked entrepreneurship would set them back several years.  Some have never seen any kind of prosperity after independence, whether financial or spiritual.

Armenia today is ruled by a handful of wealthy families competing for prominence, similar to what you would find in a Hollywood film about the mafia, but without all the gory violence. The common people are subjects to the nepotistic society these leaders, or oligarchs, have created. Citizens who speak out against government decisions are cruelly suppressed by this system. Others are victims to bad policies and lose their livelihoods in the process. Civil society is weak, and initiatives to bring about change in the form of grassroots movements are often supported by outside special interest groups, mainly from the US or Europe. Narcissism has long become a virtue of the nepotists, with general disregard for law and order and respect for neighborhood peace violated day and night. Society is increasingly polarized with the dividing line between the haves and have nots all the more obvious. The social equality of Armenia’s soviet past is long gone.

Although the president is quite aware of the dire economic and societal issues that most Armenians face day to day, he either plays them down or fails to address them. For instance, he recently discounted the somber fact that entire villages have been relocating to remote parts of Russia as part of a controversial resettlement program promoted by the Russian government. Judging from the headlines in the Armenian press, it is clear that the president is often out of sync with what is transpiring in the country he supposedly rules.

Below is a list of problems that the president needs to contend with to ensure Armenia’s democratic and economic progress in the years to come:

Create jobs. In the wake of independence countless factories that were prosperous during the soviet era closed either overnight or during the course of several years. Although some like chemical plants and sugar processing facilities have reopened in recent years, Armenia’s industrial output is nowhere near what it was just before the Soviet Union began to crumble. The permanent closure of key factories in rural areas, like Sisian in the southern Syunik region and Charentsavan to the north of the capital, not to mention scores of other towns throughout the country, have resulted in a depopulation, with many people once living in small towns and villages flocking to Yerevan or leaving the country, most of them for Russia, in search of work. The president needs to create an environment whereby new factories can be built by wealthy Armenian citizens or foreign businessmen weary of doing business in Armenia. Eradicating corruption in the tax and customs departments and simplifying the business registration process would be an excellent start.

Promote small business. Yerevan mayor Karen Karapetyan made himself public enemy by sweeping traders off the streets (oddly only florists are allowed to sell roses from sidewalk stands) and destroying inconspicuous kiosks where cobblers, tailors, and cigarette sellers set up shop. Shopkeepers are harassed by taxmen and some are even forced to close for days on end while they scramble to clear up minute discrepancies found as a result of loopholes purposely left open by the tax authorities to extort bribes.  Although Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian has often talked about encouraging the growth of small businesses, he has been reluctant to disclose the details of policies his government plans to implement. Tax breaks coupled with guaranteed interest-free government loans would encourage small businesses to open and help nurture an environment of trust.

Encourage civil society. In flourishing, deep-rooted democracies dissent and opposition to government policy are tolerated, and public advocacy is allowed to function. Initiatives to promote civil society need to be implemented, mainly by immediately stopping police confrontations or crackdowns on peaceful demonstrators. Society cannot be built while oppression and fear looms overhead Armenian citizens.

Tax the wealthy and give tax breaks to the lower classes. Hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue can be generated if only oligarchs were taxed, the sums of which could be funneled to important social programs. By 2006 estimates 26.5 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Free housing could be provided to impoverished citizens still living in shacks, temporary housing, or on the street. Also, pensioners could finally receive monthly stipends that are in line with the current standard of living, which is continually on the rise with food prices often skyrocketing, especially in the period leading up to the holiday season. The government should aim to eradicate poverty nationwide, and it can easily do so if and when taxes are properly collected.

Prevent emigration and promote immigration. President Sarkisian desperately needs to draft a plan for slowing down the exodus from Armenia. That should include job creation through promoting foreign investment in the manufacturing and IT sectors, an increase in the minimum wage, and equal opportunity, particularly in government agencies. He also needs to address the relatively low birthrate, with 12 children born for every 1,000 people and on average one child born per household, according to 2011 figures. He also needs to ensure that infrastructure is modernized even in the most remote villages of the republic.  Several areas of Artsakh along with the Armenian controlled territories surrounding it must be populated, and that again can only come about with increased investment and the vital infrastructure in place.  When Armenians worldwide feel confident that the Armenian government is able to provide the means and conditions for promoting growth throughout the regions, they will begin to immigrate.

These are only a handful of issues that loom over Armenia’s destiny.  There are just as many if not more challenges related to Armenian foreign policy that must be addressed, the most important being the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which seems to be floating in an eternal stalemate.

In his Independence Day remarks, President Sarkisian hailed the new generation of the republic recognizing its “concerns and demands” of a better society.  He also stated that “… in the next twenty years we will be able to build a country which will come close to our ideals. I believe in that because I believe in our collective power.”

Now the pressure is on the president. He alone can muster the support of both an apathetic public and the oligarchic society backing him by making the right policy decisions that would benefit all, not just a select few. That is a difficult balancing act, but the means to accomplish such a feat simply need implementing and the vision to do so. Having said that, it is up to Armenian society as a collective whole to ensure he aspires to the same ideals to which he alludes, the same that all citizens expect to live by.

Armenia’s History Continues to be Destroyed

The Mashdots market
The Mashdots market

Yesterday I learned that the market at the end of Mashdots Street, which is a historical landmark, was slated to be demolished. But today on News.am, I saw a photo of the rear of the building completely destroyed. The photo and story were published late Monday morning (on Independence day of the First Republic). Hetq reported that Yerevan Mayor Taron Markarian said the recent work undergone was not authorized.

Two weeks ago while walking by the building I noticed that a steel fence had been erected around the entrance of the building. I thought that meant it was going to be restored since there are renovation projects of building exteriors citywide. Turns out that the building was sold to the oligarch and Republican member of parliament, Samvel Alexanyan who is infamous for controlling a monopoly on sugar and flour imports, gouging consumers, and selling inferior vodka as genuine at high prices in his City Yerevan supermarkets, which are popping up all over the place. He wants to convert the market into yet another gigantic supermarket and destroy it in the process (he says otherwise). People are already starting to protest the demolition but it will take a lot of mobilization to stop him from completely taking the market down, although the Ministry of Culture insists that somehow the architecture will be preserved. Sounds a bit empty considering that half the building is gone.

Questions begged to be asked: Who approved the sale of a historical landmark and who was consulted before the building was sold? Did the transaction occur in secret? If not, was there any movement to stop the sale in the first place? Why weren’t concerned citizens investigating the reason for the market’s closure, especially the sellers? Who else knew about what was planned for the market, and why wasn’t it discussed beforehand? Why didn’t the press break the news sooner, long before the building was damaged beyond repair?

All sorts of unique architecture across Yerevan are being dismantled without warning. Several years ago the Youth Sports complex and guest house that was situated at the top of Abovyan Street on the hill there was dismantled to construct a luxury hotel, which was never built because the developer went bust apparently. About two years ago a new hotel project was announced by the Armenian government with the backing of a Japanese investment firm on the same site. Although the area has been cleared, nothing is being built on the location. About 95 percent of Old Yerevan in the city center has already been wiped off the face of the earth and there’s no telling when the remaining buildings — all architectural masterpieces — will be raised.

In Armenia, there is no system of checks and balances, and there doesn’t seem to be anyone with any ethical standards working in government. Even when citizens do catch word about something about to go drastically wrong, they don’t talk about it until it’s too late. Then these same people complain that the country is not a country, the laws don’t work, etc. There needs to be accountability. No one, no matter how wealthy or “powerful” they are, should be allowed to touch any historical landmark without the public being informed beforehand. In this case, since the Ministry of Culture is making promises about the market’s final transformation not being as bad as it seems, Minister Hasmik Poghosyan, a Republican, is complicit in letting the sale go through (so is Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian, yet another Republican for that matter).

Petty carelessness, whimsical power wielding, and defeatism are bringing the downfall upon the Republic of Armenia. This is applicable to virtually all large-scale business projects sponsored by the government or those with close ties to it. If those in power continue to do whatever they wish without being held accountable for their actions, Armenian citizens will have no one to blame but themselves.

Nareg Free Thanks to Support

I just wanted to make yet another point that when a collective group of individuals campaigning for the same cause protest hard enough, their demands will eventually be met, sooner or later. In Nareg Hartounian’s case it only took a few days.

At last count 1,251 people signed the online petition demanding his release from jail, and the “Free Nareg” Facebook page received 1,624 “likes,” with 2,041 users discussing the issue. Although the Ministry of Diaspora declined to comment on Nareg’s arrest, Minster Hranoush Hakobyan undoubtedly received myriad complaints. We know that he and his associates were released per the order of an official in the Prosecutor General’s office, but it’s still unclear what additional pressure was placed on the authorities to free Nareg from jail, not that it matters much at this point.

Kudos to the activists tirelessly pushing for Nareg’s freedom from incarceration. Now we can only hope that the the controversial, on the surface incredulous, tax evasion case he is embroiled in will be resolved without additional drama.

Reflecting on twenty years of independence

Armenian coat of armsTwenty years ago when Armenia declared itself independent from Soviet rule it was not only claiming statehood, it was calling for a restoration of values.  The Armenian people would be able to think and create freely in a fledgling democracy that was both naïve yet highly optimistic. Many people believed that prosperity was on the horizon, jobs would be created, and a bright future awaited them. Little did they know that both war and unchecked entrepreneurship would set them back several years.  Some have never seen any kind of prosperity after independence, whether financial or spiritual.

Armenia today is ruled by a handful of wealthy families competing for prominence, similar to what you would find in a Hollywood film about the mafia, but without all the gory violence. The common people are subjects to the nepotistic society these leaders, or oligarchs, have created. Citizens who speak out against government decisions are cruelly suppressed by this system. Others are victims to bad policies and lose their livelihoods in the process. Civil society is weak, and initiatives to bring about change in the form of grassroots movements are often supported by outside special interest groups, mainly from the US or Europe. Narcissism has long become a virtue of the nepotists, with general disregard for law and order and respect for neighborhood peace violated day and night. Society is increasingly polarized with the dividing line between the haves and have nots all the more obvious. The social equality of Armenia’s soviet past is long gone.

Although the president is quite aware of the dire economic and societal issues that most Armenians face day to day, he either plays them down or fails to address them. For instance, he recently discounted the somber fact that entire villages have been relocating to remote parts of Russia as part of a controversial resettlement program promoted by the Russian government. Judging from the headlines in the Armenian press, it is clear that the president is often out of sync with what is transpiring in the country he supposedly rules.

Below is a list of problems that the president needs to contend with to ensure Armenia’s democratic and economic progress in the years to come:

Create jobs. In the wake of independence countless factories that were prosperous during the soviet era closed either overnight or during the course of several years. Although some like chemical plants and sugar processing facilities have reopened in recent years, Armenia’s industrial output is nowhere near what it was just before the Soviet Union began to crumble. The permanent closure of key factories in rural areas, like Sisian in the southern Syunik region and Charentsavan to the north of the capital, not to mention scores of other towns throughout the country, have resulted in a depopulation, with many people once living in small towns and villages flocking to Yerevan or leaving the country, most of them for Russia, in search of work. The president needs to create an environment whereby new factories can be built by wealthy Armenian citizens or foreign businessmen weary of doing business in Armenia. Eradicating corruption in the tax and customs departments and simplifying the business registration process would be an excellent start.

Promote small business. Yerevan mayor Karen Karapetyan made himself public enemy by sweeping traders off the streets (oddly only florists are allowed to sell roses from sidewalk stands) and destroying inconspicuous kiosks where cobblers, tailors, and cigarette sellers set up shop. Shopkeepers are harassed by taxmen and some are even forced to close for days on end while they scramble to clear up minute discrepancies found as a result of loopholes purposely left open by the tax authorities to extort bribes.  Although Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian has often talked about encouraging the growth of small businesses, he has been reluctant to disclose the details of policies his government plans to implement. Tax breaks coupled with guaranteed interest-free government loans would encourage small businesses to open and help nurture an environment of trust.

Encourage civil society. In flourishing, deep-rooted democracies dissent and opposition to government policy are tolerated, and public advocacy is allowed to function. Initiatives to promote civil society need to be implemented, mainly by immediately stopping police confrontations or crackdowns on peaceful demonstrators. Society cannot be built while oppression and fear looms overhead Armenian citizens.

Tax the wealthy and give tax breaks to the lower classes. Hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue can be generated if only oligarchs were taxed, the sums of which could be funneled to important social programs. By 2006 estimates 26.5 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Free housing could be provided to impoverished citizens still living in shacks, temporary housing, or on the street. Also, pensioners could finally receive monthly stipends that are in line with the current standard of living, which is continually on the rise with food prices often skyrocketing, especially in the period leading up to the holiday season. The government should aim to eradicate poverty nationwide, and it can easily do so if and when taxes are properly collected.

Prevent emigration and promote immigration. President Sarkisian desperately needs to draft a plan for slowing down the exodus from Armenia. That should include job creation through promoting foreign investment in the manufacturing and IT sectors, an increase in the minimum wage, and equal opportunity, particularly in government agencies. He also needs to address the relatively low birthrate, with 12 children born for every 1,000 people and on average one child born per household, according to 2011 figures. He also needs to ensure that infrastructure is modernized even in the most remote villages of the republic.  Several areas of Artsakh along with the Armenian controlled territories surrounding it must be populated, and that again can only come about with increased investment and the vital infrastructure in place.  When Armenians worldwide feel confident that the Armenian government is able to provide the means and conditions for promoting growth throughout the regions, they will begin to immigrate.

These are only a handful of issues that loom over Armenia’s destiny.  There are just as many if not more challenges related to Armenian foreign policy that must be addressed, the most important being the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which seems to be floating in an eternal stalemate.

In his Independence Day remarks, President Sarkisian hailed the new generation of the republic recognizing its “concerns and demands” of a better society.  He also stated that “… in the next twenty years we will be able to build a country which will come close to our ideals. I believe in that because I believe in our collective power.”

Now the pressure is on the president. He alone can muster the support of both an apathetic public and the oligarchic society backing him by making the right policy decisions that would benefit all, not just a select few. That is a difficult balancing act, but the means to accomplish such a feat simply need implementing and the vision to do so. Having said that, it is up to Armenian society as a collective whole to ensure he aspires to the same ideals to which he alludes, the same that all citizens expect to live by.

Apathy Found in Cheese

This morning I cut into a lump of braided string cheese, which I bought in a neighborhood store that mostly sells produce and foodstuffs made in villages of Armenia. Just after pulling apart a segment of the cheese I found a long strand of hair that was intertwined with one of the braids. There was also some kind of unidentifiable wheat colored dust in the cheese, which could have been breadcrumbs. That surprise did not actually await me for the first time, and I had stopped buying homemade string cheese years ago (from the Gomidas market) for that reason alone.

This blatant lack of quality control tells me a few things. One, the woman (I assume based on the hair’s length) who made and braided the cheese did not evidently bother to wear some kind of head dress — a scarf, hairnet, whatever — to prevent her hair from falling into the cheese. The mysterious specs of dust shows that the cheese was not made in a sterile (okay, let’s say somewhat sterile), sanitary environment. I can only imagine how unclean her hands were. Simply put, the woman doesn’t care about quality, and furthermore she is demonstrating disrespect towards her customers by not ensuring that her product is free of debris. Moreover, her carelessness shows a lack of self-respect by not giving a damn.

I often wonder when complaining, discontented Armenians are going to awake and start standing up for something, anything. I’ve told people time and time again, and have written in my blog entries, that change in society and governance must come from the bottom-up. It’s the people who have to demand that apathy not reign in their own society, and they can’t be afraid to push their government to meet their needs, whether economic or social. You hear complaints everywhere — in markets and taxis, in newspapers, on the Internet. But nothing changes — the same issues related to unemployment, social inequality, and economic instability not only continue but are worsening. But people don’t get it, and they continue to complain and moan. Ironically, the main opposition block, the very one that was supposed to represent the marginalized and unlucky, is “negotiating” with the government, the details of the talks still unclear.

But regardless of how hard life may seem to be, you have to foster dignity, you need to respect yourself before you can respect others. Armenians must understand that change comes from within, it comes from the soul. You have to embrace the hope and potential of change. You have to believe it.

That can start by making high-quality cheese.