Tag Archives: emigration from armenia

Elections Over. Now What?

Karen Minasian, photo
Karen Minasian photo

As the press and politicians predicted, Serzh Sargsyan won the 2013 Armenian presidential elections in a landslide victory with 58.6 percent of the vote. His main challenger, Raffi Hovannisian, came in second with a rather impressive 36.7 percent, much higher than Levon Ter-Petrossian’s “official” count back in 2008.

Naturally we don’t know how realistic these numbers actually are since there was widespread vote buying, ballot stuffing and arranged voter turnout with some people purportedly being bused into Yerevan from Gyumri according to one account. RFE/RL reported other specific cases of voting irregularities.

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Nelli Shishmanyan photo

There is already discussion of revolution in the air–Hovannisian’s press secretary Hovsep Khourshoudyan said today that “Even Serzh Sargsyan wants a constitutional revolution. A revolution is in the making.” And on Feb. 15 Aghvan Vartanian of ARF-Dashnaktsutyun told reporters that the party foresees a post-election “radical transformation” in Armenian politics. Naturally, such comments don’t seem serious when you have voters purportedly drawing caricatures on their ballots–one person actually ate his ballot at the polling station. This shows blatant cynicism in society, not a call for transformation.

As Armenians will likely tolerate another five-year term of Serzh Sargsyan, here’s a list of equally important issues and concerns that he should examine immediately in order to win over the confidence of the apathetic, hopelessly fatalistic public:

– Double the minimum wage to  increase the standards of living for 99% of the population, most of which is struggling, to further stimulate the economy with consumer spending.

– Dissolve the monopolies shared by several oligarchic clans to invite competition in the marketplace.

– Attract foreign investment by continuing to offer tax breaks to would-be investors. Waiving customs fees, a good chunk of which ends up in the pockets of officials anyway, would also be a nice incentive.

– Persuade oligarchs to create jobs by actually investing in the manufacturing sector instead of relying on selling cheap Turkish and Chinese imports at exorbitant prices to earn profits.

– Boost foreign investment in the IT industry. The importance of this cannot be stressed enough. There is a plethora of talented young software engineers in need of jobs and career growth potential. They are leaving the country en masse–I personally know about eight people who have departed for the US, Canada and Russia and are extremely successful there. That talent has to stay put and help build the country.

– Overhaul the social welfare system to ensure that the plight of the very poor and homeless (yes, people without shelter roam Yerevan’s streets) is assuaged by providing free housing, health care and employment for those who need it urgently.

– Either stop or retract the complex web of governmental corruption. President Sargsyan best knows what needs to be done so there’s no need to elaborate here.

The Armenian diaspora can do the following:

– In memory of the victims of the Armenian Genocide, actively become involved in curbing emigration and cease justifying the inevitability of it. As I have written on this blog the continued exodus has become an issue of national security for Armenia and it urgently has to reverse, people need to return to their homeland. Armenia needs to be populated, it’s that simple. Armenia is fast becoming a serfdom, and the middle class will likely shrink with continued cynicism and the infectious desire to be “anywhere but here.”

– Stimulate  civil society in Armenia through trainings and by promoting initiatives.

– Become proactive in democracy building efforts. The mentality that “you can’t do it” fostered by Armenians from Armenia living abroad needs to change.

Good luck, everyone.

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.

Notes on emigration from Armenia

190436_4073Emigration is the single-most detrimental threat to the Armenian nation today, even more so than governmental corruption. The National Statistics Service insists that the population of Armenia is still 3.2 million, a figure it has maintained since 2001. Meanwhile, behinds closed doors rumors are heard that there are barely 2 million people actually living in the country today. A new census is slated to be taken this year.

Emigration is increasing for the following reasons.

Lack of jobs and persistent mass poverty. The government needs to attract more investment in the IT sector. The overtures to give tax breaks to companies are still not aggressive enough. The IT sector needs to increase four-fold. Technology centers need to be established across the country, from Kapan to Alaverdi, and new talent must be continually cultivated. In the meantime, as part of a mass rural development plan entire villages are being uprooted and transplanted to remote regions of Russia, where people are offered free housing and employment.

According to the National Statistics Service, the total number of poor increased from 27.6 percent in 2008 to 35.8 percent in 2010, despite the tens of millions being pumped into the country in foreign aid packages, investments, loans and remittances. During the same period there was about a 10 percent increase in poverty in rural Armenia. The 2010 poverty line was set at a monthly income of 33,517 dram, or about $90, per adult.

Problems related to sustaining small business. Rents are going up, and smaller businesses find it hard to compete, especially with the chain supermarkets that are branching out across the city. Higher rent and prices for imported goods means less profit when customer loyalty dwindles. The lower middle class — the core of Armenian society — has less and less to spend.

Bad attitudes and pervasive apathy. I still hear lame statements like “The country’s not a country” and “Is Armenia even a country for you to come here?” A defeatist dissatisfaction with everything and blind indifference to the state of affairs are suppressing the vital strengthening of society. The only segment of the population that has the genuine right to express a feeling of hopelessness is the poor/very poor of society. Many of these people have no choice but to leave for Russia or elsewhere to find work.

Leaving is fashionable. The youth dream of leaving the country and moving to more exotic places like the US, Canada and Europe. Even if someone has a hard time making a go of things where they end up, emotionally, financially or whatever, the stigma that it is “shameful” to go back inhibits their desire to return. So you have one group that is ecstatic about living elsewhere in the world — anywhere but Armenia — and another that regrets leaving in the first place but won’t return to the homeland.

The majority of Armenian citizens have a lot to be thankful for. Although they may be blind to it, they presently have a relatively stable government and economy. The government insists that the economy will grow by 4.2% this year and that it will meet its target in collecting about $2.3 billion in tax revenues. Armenia is considered by the Heritage Foundation to have a “moderately free” economy — ranked 39th in the world ahead of Norway, France, Turkey and Azerbaijan — and is now implementing a revised, amicable registration process for doing business. It benefits from the support of the European community, the Americas, China, Japan and of course its big brother, Russia. Petty crime is not common in many parts of the capital and arguably less so in the regions. There is little to fear by walking the streets of the city center late at night, and that’s something that certainly can’t be said of very many cities in the world. And despite the beating of war drums by its oil-happy neighbor to the east, there isn’t a clear sign of a possible resumption in hostilities. No one in the international community, Armenia or Artsakh seems to take the rhetoric seriously. Moreover, Armenians have had the privilege of living in a democracy for twenty years, enjoying the freedoms of casting a ballot, thought, expression, and enterprise, all of which are taken for granted.

Emigration has long ago become a national security risk for Armenia, fueled by boundless cynicism and apathy towards nation building. If it continues unchecked, the emigration problem will instigate a severe, harrowing depopulation of the only parcel of land the Armenian nation can legally call its own. And ultimately, that will mean others will move in to take their place. The exodus from Armenia needs to be curbed and that would entail more than just evasive action taken by the Armenian government. It will need the support and encouragement of the Armenian diaspora to ensure Armenia becomes a country where anyone returning there would never dream of leaving again. That has to start happening now.

Photo credit: David Knudsen