Tag Archives: civil society

Stop the Custom’s Agreement from being Signed with Moscow

Armenian citizens should not allow the customs agreement to be signed with Russia.

Joining a still-abstract Customs Union, with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan confirmed onboard, is a disaster in the making and would the worst thing the Armenian republic ever did in its 22 year history. It would be tantamount to entering a screeching time vortex and landing in the dark ages, complete with the classic communist slogans pasted across the city walls and statues being re-erected glorifying the days of the Soviet dream. Putin’s dream is to bring it all back, under a different guise, but all the same associated nonsense.

After 4 years of negotiations with the EU on signing the Association Agreement and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, which would have entered its final phase with a formal signing ceremony in November, one man’s abrupt decision should not lock Armenia’s fate and compromise its long-term sustainability and prospects for expanding growth. The Armenian people themselves must decide their own future, not someone who places his own personal interests over those of the people he is supposedly serving.

Any citizen who has had the privilege of studying or even visiting Europe, the US and other free democratic nations, and has a concept of what living in a democratic society means, and cares about the long-term viability of Armenia for his children and future generations, and wants to see expanding growth on all levels — economic, social, cultural, educational and so forth–must not permit the agreement for Armenia to join the Customs Union to be signed. It will neutralize the Association Agreement with the EU–this has been confirmed by EU officials.

According to RFE/RL’s report:

Elmar Brok, the German chairman of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, likewise said Armenia’s Association Agreement will not be signed any time soon. “I feel very sorry because it is legally — because of certain conditions — not possible to be a full member both of the Customs Union and have an association agreement and free trade area agreement with the European Union,” he told an RFE/RL correspondent in Brussels.

It’s not too late to stop this customs agreement with Russia from going through by any means. Fatalists in Armenian families, especially anyone over the age of 50, need to be locked up in the closet. It’s time to ensure that Armenia does not squander its opportunity for tighter integration with the west and opportunities abound for Armenia’s sustainable development. It’s time to demand that the Armenian government intervenes and forces the President to go back on his promises in Moscow. Armenians need to stand up.

Raffi’s ‘BAREVolution’

Raffi Hovannisian

On February 28 Raffi Hovannisian is expected to reveal his plan of action for his “fight for freedom” to his supporters in Yerevan’s Liberty Square. Opponents to the government, which comprise the vast majority of the Armenian population, are eager to learn just how he intends to topple the ruling regime lead by President Serge Sargsyan, who was reelected president on February 18 despite strong objections from the opposition. Sargsyan has received congratulatory messages from Russia, the European Union and the United States despite the contested vote.

Using actual polling results and reports of blatant fraud at numerous voting stations Hovannisian claimed himself to be the real winner, having won in Gyumri, Vanadzor, other major towns and parts of Yerevan. And he has vowed to achieve victory for the Armenian people by peacefully toppling the ruling regime in his so-called “BAREVolution,” which has spread throughout society as evident by the protests by students at Yerevan State University.

But kindness can only get you so far.  Sargsyan categorically rejected Hovannisian’s requests for new elections and snap parliamentary elections when they met on February 21. In the meantime, Hovannisian has been touring the country in hopes of garnering wide support for his movement to eventually dethrone the president. The problem is, the Republican party is not about to yield power because he is asking nicely. Despite the voiced assurance by Republican party leader Galust Sahakian on Tuesday that the authorities want to have a strong opposition and are unfazed by the protests, they ultimately won’t relieve themselves of the positions of power without putting up a fight, and that is exactly what will be needed for the opposition to take the reigns for leading the nation.

An inevitable clash will mean more persecutions, indiscriminate incarcerations and potential loss of life, perhaps more severe than what transpired in March of 2008. Hovannisian and those closest to him would be blamed for inciting turmoil and likely be imprisoned. So would some of his new allies, like the radical prominent member of the Armenian National Congress Nikol Pashinyan, who was released from prison in a general amnesty in 2011, and ARF-Dashnaktsutyun, whose leaders could wind up in the slammer and face new or existing charges–it’s important to remember that the defendants of the “Trial of 31” were simply released from custody and not acquitted.

Backing down now will undermine all of their reputations ever more so, and public apathy will only widen in scope.  In short, Hovannisian and this newly forming opposition bloc has no choice but to persevere or else be forever demonized. They cannot afford to lose the respect of the public that secretly or outspokenly demands change.

How far are they really willing to take this revolution? Are they all quite prepared to serve jail time in this fight for freedom? What would be the public’s reaction to a new crackdown on civil liberties? Clarifications will be made on Thursday afternoon for an eager crowd of supporters expecting perseverance and a committal to the promise of victory. Let’s hope they are not disappointed.

Photos by Anush Khachatryan

Wishes for Armenia in 2013

Happy New Year!At the end of every year I tend to be more pensive than usual, reviewing the events of the past twelve months, its successes and failures, and what I aspire to do or see change forthcoming. Below are a few wishes for Armenia in 2013.

1. I would like to see Armenians come together and collectively agree upon something that they value, whether it is justice, fair elections, environmental protection, competitive trade or anything else, and work towards achieving that. The citizenry has never been so fragmentized. Take the upcoming presidential elections. The three main opposition parties–ARF-Dashnaktsutyun, Armenian National Congress, and Prosperous Armenia–have refused to field their own candidates and will not rally around a single contender. They refuse to put aside their political differences and tone down their arrogance, citing an anticipated falsification of the vote as the reason to bow out. These are the same parties that complained about governmental corruption and regularly called for regime change. Their decision is a noble act of defeatism, nothing more. There is nothing honorable in refusing to take part in the democratic process. They are simply letting their people down. Unity in thought, actions and deeds is imperative.

2. Armenians need to be kinder to one another and respectful of personal space. I hear too much boisterous bickering, usually about nothing, through my closed windows. Whenever I walk down the street or roam in a market I often see two or more people carrying on about something, usually hollering at the top of their lungs. Some are intentionally antagonizing. There always seems to be a need to defend one’s honor or a matter of principle to uphold (I’ve fallen into this egocentric trap myself). Then you read about people harassing each other, even brutal beatings that unfortunately sometimes result in death as we saw earlier this year when an army doctor died at the hands of brainless thugs. Maybe it’s human nature, or the personality trait of the Armenian that can’t be undone. Regardless of the excuse, it’s time to cool down. It’s time for empathy.

3. To become more compassionate, Armenians need to have a better attitude about life, their surroundings and themselves. People have become too miserable and cynical. The “country’s not a country,” “there’s no justice” and “nothing to do but leave” slogans are sounding very stale; they’ve become meaningless when the people who repeat these words do nothing to reverse or prevent what they complain about. Perceptions about society must improve, people need to feel good about themselves and each other for society to thrive. Instead of pitying, they should be producing. The chronic negativism has to stop. I don’t want my son to grow up in a spiteful society, and I’m not alone.

Happy New Year. May 2013 bring you continued health, happiness and peace.

Graphic by Billy Alexander

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.

President Orders Structures in Mashdots Park Dismantled; Protesters Win

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My wife, baby and I just returned from Mashdots park where we learned that the controversial kiosks that were partially erected and were the source of contention for about two months now will apparently be dismantled. Earlier in the day President Serge Sarkisian went to the park with Yerevan Mayor Daron Markarian. After surveying the scene he ordered Markarian to have the structures torn down. This is a huge victory for civil society in Armenia. Kudos to all the protesters who day after day stood up for what they believed in and for the rights of all Armenian citizens.

But isn’t there more to it? The National Assembly elections are right around the corner and the President’s Republicans need all the legitimate votes that they can get. Plus it’s excellent PR for the president since the city is filled with elections observers and essentially the eyes of all democratic nations are on Armenia now. Not to mention that the standoff had become a huge embarrassment for the Armenian government. On April 29 seven people were detained by police after a melee ensued over some of the protesters’ desire to pitch a tent on the park, the highlights of which have been posted on YouTube by various sources. This decision also signals a rift between the president and Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian who was adamant about leaving the structures there, promising that they would be removed in three years time, which of course means that they would have remained indefinitely. The refusal to back off also became a “matter of principle,” meaning the PM wasn’t about to let a bunch of kids tell him what to do. Regardless, had there been no protests the kiosks would have been operational and there would not have been any need for any official to demand that they be removed.

The victory of the Save Mashdots Park movement is yet further proof that if you persist long enough, you can change things in Armenia. The problem is that there are too many pessimists here in society setting a defeatist tone, and most don’t even attempt to change anything they disagree with thinking it is futile to lift a finger against the establishment.  The complaint that “you can’t do it” (or ches gara as some defiantly say here) is sounding more and more like a pathetic joke.

Now, what’s next on the agenda?

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