Trying To Get It Right: Planning The Next Five Years

Maria Titizian

BY MARIA TITIZIAN

This will hopefully be my last opinion piece about the presidential elections in Armenia. By the time this article is published, we will most likely have a new president who is the same president we had for the past five years. This should not come as a surprise to anyone. A lack of democracy, the absence of free and fair elections, an unengaged and disillusioned electorate, and a weak and fragmented opposition has made the outcome a foregone conclusion.

I have been in Armenia now for 12 years. For ten of those years I could not vote in national elections because there were certain barriers to my receiving dual citizenship. Once those barriers were lifted, I received my citizenship and in May 2012 voted for the first time ever in the parliamentary elections. I clearly remember the sense of fulfillment and the weight of responsibility I felt as I walked into the polling station, presented my passport and received my ballot. For the first time in my life, I was nervous walking to the booth to cast my vote. It symbolized something for me. I had grown up in a democratic country, where the rights and responsibilities of citizenship were ingrained in me from a young age and voting meant exercising an inalienable right. Voting in a country I had chosen to come to because I considered it my birthright therefore, carried with it not only the weight of responsibility but the weight of history. I voted for my parents and grandparents who had lost that birthright and for my children who never knew what it was like to grow up without a homeland, without an anchor to connect you to a particular identity or root you to a piece of land.

And now I have to make a decision. I have to decide whether or not I will even exercise that right on Election Day. Whatever decision I eventually make will be mine and so too will the consequences of that decision. But this is not about my voting rights. This discourse, if you will, is about what we must do so that in the future, citizens of Armenia will not be asked to take part in pretend elections.

This is about what we must do to ensure Armenia becomes a stable democracy, protects the rights of all its citizens, ensures freedom of expression, establishes rule of law and an independent judiciary, exemplifies the political will to reduce corruption significantly, designs an economic vision for the country that guarantees a competitive market, regulation and oversight that would give everybody equal and fair access to live a dignified life and that means access to dignified employment, housing, healthcare, education and social assistance when necessary.

There is one major obstacle that we must first address before moving in the right direction and that is our behavior within and outside of the borders of the Republic of Armenia. For those Armenians who are not interested in the political processes in Armenia, you can stop reading now, this may not interest you. For those who do, I propose the following actions.

First of all, we must obliterate from our thought process the idea that the problem is “too big for me to do anything about it.” Secondly, we have to stop pointing fingers at one another. Next, we must finally admit that while Armenians in Armenia haven’t gotten it right so far, Armenians in the Diaspora have been talking the talk but not walking the walk when it comes to establishing the institutions of democracy, social justice and security in our country.

Before you start writing comments to me, please, let’s for a few minutes ponder the statement. In 1991 Armenia gained independence after seventy years of authoritarian rule, where several generations of Armenians grew up isolated from the rest of the world, were educated and worked within a system that not only stifled initiative but punished you for it, where sense of community and solidarity was formal and imposed, and where freedom of independent thinking and expression or the intrinsic value of protecting one’s rights was non-existent. The years immediately following independence are well-documented and we all know the extremely difficult challenges that had to be overcome.

The newly established Republic of Armenia however had several advantages compared to the other post-Soviet republics. It was a monolithic country, a highly educated one and it had a very influential and affluent Diaspora. There were ingredients that could have ensured that the country set off on a path toward democracy, development and prosperity, yes, even with hostile neighbors and closed borders. It is true, we would and probably will not be able to boast being a country like Norway or Sweden under the current geopolitical conditions, but I’m confident we could have been in a better place than we are now.

A series of calamitous events occurred, which distorted the country’s development and instead of enshrining the values of democracy, freedom, justice and solidarity, we ended up with deepening corruption, impunity and authoritarian rule.

What happened?
The new leadership of the new Republic of Armenia, emboldened by their new found power and freedom, began to believe that power and freedom meant the power to take away the freedom and power of everyone else except their own. They said to the Diaspora, send us your money but not your advice, we know how to govern ourselves. And the Diaspora? Well, we became emotional and sentimental, we couldn’t believe our good fortune, we finally had a free and independent Armenia, it wasn’t united, but not to worry, we would get that too, sooner or later. We made calls for Tebi Yerkir, we said, yes, finally we have a choice to live where we want. Most of us chose to stay where we were, and that’s fine because the Diaspora is critically important, not only for its own self-realization but to support the homeland. We said, here is our love and our money, you know what to do with it. And a lot of Armenians in the homeland knew exactly what to do with it because the Armenians from the Diaspora gave it to them without any strings attached. We gave without demanding accountability. We gave without question. We gave expensive toys that came with no instructions.

You see my friends, instead of building institutions in the homeland, we nurtured dependence, instead of empowering we created the expectation of assistance, instead of designing and implementing programs that would have helped educate a generation about democratic principles and values, about the kind of democracy we wanted, about what we meant when we cried out “Freedom” and what the protection of human rights envisions we enabled the existing paradigm. We expected the Armenians in Armenia to wake up one morning after decades of authoritarian rule and figure this all out?

And certainly, the administration in Armenia and its network didn’t want institutional assistance, they told the Diaspora to go and well, basically, occupy itself with whatever it was that it was doing. The first president of the Republic of Armenia, even today, sees the Diaspora, not as a partner to development and prosperity but as a cash cow that shall generously give money but refrain from giving advice. Succeeding regimes were not much better, even though they attempted to engage the Diaspora in a deeper and more meaningful way.

I am not blaming one side or the other, I honestly believe that both sides are responsible for this current situation and both sides are to blame.

And because I have been criticized in the past for criticizing the current regime, because I have been called the queen of doom and gloom, because I have been accused of highlighting the problems without offering solutions, and because the editor of this fine publication has given me column space, this is what I think we can do.

If the Diaspora wants engagement with Armenia, which I believe it does, then individuals, institutions, organizations and political forces must begin to change the way they design that engagement. It is no longer good enough to build a shiny, new clinic, hospital, daycare center or library with all the fixtures and gift it to an organization in Armenia, public or private, without ensuring the necessary training and expertise that we have in the Diaspora and that means actually sending and paying Diaspora Armenian specialists to come and work, train and ensure a smooth transition of management to local staff. And most importantly, we need to have in place a clearly defined scheme of accountability with all initiated projects.

Providing democracy education for the new generation must become part of our development aid. The knowledge, skills and values that are the preconditions of living in a democracy are learnt and nurtured throughout life but when these conditions do not exist, a vacuum is created – the ability to live together in a democracy does not come naturally, it needs to be taught. We have plenty of people in the Diaspora who are experts in the social sciences, who teach in some of the best universities in the world, we have elected officials from around the world, we have people who know how to organize election campaigns, we have people who have worked on countless campaigns for both Armenian and non-Armenian candidates, we have people who understand the value of volunteering because they’ve been doing it their whole lives. Why not find partners in Armenia who engage in this kind of activity and provide invaluable Diaspora experience and expertise?

We talk about the importance of getting our youth in the Diaspora to become connected with the homeland, and there are several fantastic organizations created by Diaspora individuals and organizations that facilitate young people to come to Armenia, work, volunteer, live and fall in love with their heritage. Why don’t we design programs for our youth in Armenia to have a chance to go to Washington, L.A., New York, Brussels, Toronto and see how our Armenian communities and organizations operate, how they selflessly volunteer, how they organize campaigns, how they lobby their government for Hai Tad, how they protest for the protection of the environment, how they protest Wall Street….What happened to the whole idea of a brain circulation, being bridges of knowledge, experience, science and technology?

Certainly, there are Diaspora initiatives realizing innovative programs in Armenia with promising results. But too few of them are doing this in the field of democracy education. If we want to see democracy and rule of law flourish in Armenia, if we want to see the new generation gain the knowledge, tools, inspiration and desire to ensure regime change, how to constructively demand for their rights, how to effectively lobby and mobilize, how to run an election campaign we need to arm them with those tools and not just write comments on Facebook, or articles in newspapers and ceaselessly point fingers. And I’m really tired of the excuse that “they won’t let us.” If there is the will, the resources and the commitment, there is always a way forward.

We have five years ahead of us until the next national elections to start planting the seeds for the establishment of democratic rule in our country. The historical imperative has never been more pressing. If we want to struggle to ensure the inalienable right to self-determination for the people of Artsakh, for the international recognition of the Republic of Nagorno Karabakh, if we want to restore the historical rights of the Armenian people and if we want to stop the migration hemorrhage, then we must establish a stable, vibrant democracy. When we sit around negotiating tables with the world, we must speak and act from a position of power and integrity. We cannot demand justice when it is absent in our homeland. We need to rethink our national agenda and place the establishment of democracy and justice in Armenia at the top of that list.

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12 Comments

  1. Elka said:

    Maria, I love this article….so well written and enlightening! Giving money with no accountability is very surprising, a painful mistake. Hopefully, the next few years will show a much stronger democratic and just society.

  2. Abadjian Berge said:

    My opinion is that there should be an “authority of the diaspora” representing the diaspora. All cash flow would be given under conditions imposing full transparency, justice, fighting corruption & fake investment strategy.

  3. Jirair Poladian said:

    Getzess Maria jan,I propose that U get elected to the bureau as the first Lady and in doing so change the name to the National Democratic socialist party of Armenia(there is nothing revolutionary left in the old version or federation for that matter)!!You spoke from my heart on the matters which plague our homeland since 1991 and yes we must employ all the points that you afore mentioned to be proud of being Armenians again!!I have lived in Armenia now for 22 years and I share your views 100% this is why I saw the recent hostilities in Syria as a godsent to repopulate Armenia with Armenians who have the expertise and knowledge to eventually achieve the goals you mentioned above!!It is very rare that people from the USA and Canada make the decision to emigrate to Armenia but not impossible for them to bring their expertise and planning here for the betterment and stability of our Homeland(Hayrenik)!!Better late than never,it is high time that we got our act together and participated on mass for the reanimation of our dying nation!!The easiest solution is to pack up and leave as many have chosen rather than make a stand and strive for a better future for our children and generations to come.We are all to blame for everything thus far but as Christians we can repent and move forward as long as there is a will there will always be a way.Upon getting elected to the Bureau and serving for five years Maria jan,only another five years of Armenian citizenship and You’ll have my vote of confidence to be the first Women president of the new National Socialist Democratic Party of Armenia!!!Under which time I will be proud to finally become a dual citizen and vote for you.God bless u and give us all the strength to persevere during this crisis,we are not hopeless.Armenia has been around on this good earth too long for us to quit and abandon all hope for a Free Independant and United Armenia!!!

    • bigmoustache said:

      first of all jirayr, emptying our ancient presence in syria is not a godsend. it would be a SHAME for armenians to lose their presence in the middle east. there are churches and communities we run there, we have a voice in govt, second of all the ARF has always been socialist, they are national and international (wherever armenians can be found) . what maria is talking about is a revolution, why do u think the name is not relivant? they are nationalist socialist they dont need to put every description of their organization in their name.

      • Jirair Poladian said:

        To bigmoustache,I am a former member of ARF so I am fully aware that it is a national socialist democratic party as I had mentioned!!It hasn’t been living up to its name of revolutionary of late is why I made my comment about changing its name(relivance), as for our presence in the middle east I do not disagree with you on that account. We have earned through long years of hard work a very strong influence today within the Government and community in Syria.I do not like to see that my peoples values are being down trodden by both the Muslim rebels and Government forces in unison today which has left our many churches and community centres in ruins not to mention the loss of Armenian lives during all of this!! I saw the war as a godsent solely for the fact that if Syria had not fallen into this demise the Armenians of Syria would not have emigrated to Armenia in vast numbers.The Godsent is reffered for Armenia and not for the situation in Syria,for the influx of Armenian-Syrian refugees will fill the vacancies created by the present day Armenia as mentioned in the above article!!The ARF is active in the diaspora as revolutionaries more so than they are in Armenia…..keeping their people safe in the middle east and abroad do not misunderstand me.After all bigmoustache jan Armenia is the lifeline that if cut and emptied will be the end of the diaspora overtime,this is the bitter truth that even the influence we have earned worldwide(including in the middle east)will not save us!!!

  4. Sonya said:

    Once again Maria – you hit the nail on the head….I’ve been saying this to people all these years since many years ago I, like other empassioned Diaspora Armenians renovated a school in a remote village thinking it was my ‘bit’ but had a wake up call when I realised that the nonprofit who had renovated the kindergarten in the same village one year before stood empty. The sanding machines frozen like ghosts and paint brushes still hanging from the wall stood in the vacant rooms as I was told they did not have the funding to finance a school teacher….. you completely and sincerely hit the nail on the head…the queen of illumination I might say :)

  5. Nora Armani said:

    Mentalities have to change on both sides. This is the most difficult task ahead. And with these mentalities, the legal system in Armenia along with the modus operandi in the Diaspora has to be overhauled. The justice and legal systems in Armenia, just like many other of its institutions, is corrupt. And as such no law enforcement can guarantee that whatever is planned will be implemented in the proper way.
    Changes in the legislation or in the operation of the legal system should be at the top of our agenda. When the most productive Diaspora-operated or owned NGOs and businesses are scrutinized and unjustly accused of embezzlement and money laundering, while at the government level everything is considered ‘legal’, there can never be any serious collaboration. In the Diaspora, there have to be regular seminars and conferences educating the wealthy benevolent Armenians who wish to donate or invest in Armenia. By uniting forces and learning from other Diaspora individuals’ or Organizations’ experiences in Armenia, we could not only improve our future efforts, but present a much stronger front and therefore more negotiation power and less vulnerability. When one Diaspora person or organization is illegally accused, the entire Diaspora should react. Organized efforts are needed to educate and protect the Diaspora cash cow.

    • gabe korajian said:

      Dear Maria, I read your articles as often as I can. Your observations and remarks are very sincere and powerful. You are a brave person who speaks her mind without fear. I hope, one day, I will also have the courage to send the open letter I have prepared for President Sarkisyan. After I read your article, rest assure, I am now ready to do that. All the power to you Mrs. Titizian…You and your entire family are brave…As an Armenian-Canadian, I know that..

  6. Ani said:

    Many excellent points here, Maria. Not at all doom and gloom. Reality is can be bleak, but we need to have honest conversations. I think that anyone reading the Asbarez online is interested in the political processes in Armenia. Through better and more frequent dialogue–and a more inclusive approach by the Diaspora and Armenia in equal measure–we can find ways to participate and nation-build in meaningful ways. There is a great lack of training and planning for continuity of operations and growth. We are great at ideas but not the ‘what-comes-next’ part of the story. Ongoing training–virtual or in person–is a necessity and is long overdue. Perhaps a virtual conference addressing these issues can take place soon–that way everyone can have a voice and participate? Just a thought.

  7. GB said:

    I am sure Armenian population in Armenia will be reached to a perfect political maturity, and will stop labellings politicians as pro West or pro East!!They will chose a government, where there will be less corruptions, less oligarchs, more freedom, better health care, stronger army, and better in economy. Armenians in Armenia, are deserved to have one of the best countries of the world!!

  8. AE said:

    Brilliant article! Time to put our collective money where our collective mouth is! Really Tebi yergir this time!

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