In Armenia, Going from Politics to Policy

Ptime Minister Nikol Pashinyan addresses USC Institute of Armenian Studies Armenia Tomorrow gathreing via Skype
Ptime Minister Nikol Pashinyan addresses USC Institute of Armenian Studies Armenia Tomorrow gathreing via Skype

Ptime Minister Nikol Pashinyan addresses USC Institute of Armenian Studies Armenia Tomorrow gathreing via Skype

As Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s face filled the screen, the Bovard audience surged to its feet. Acknowledging the standing ovation with a warm smile, the charismatic journalist-turned-parliamentarian shyly waved his hand.

“I want to congratulate you all, and mention that your support has played a vital role in the success of our struggle,” he said, speaking live from Yerevan via Skype on May 20.

Sunday’s landmark event, “Armenia Tomorrow,” featured 15 political leaders, activists and intellectuals testing the way forward. Weeks earlier, the world had watched in wonder as peaceful protests—accompanied by line-dancing, folk-singing and spontaneous hugging—had overthrown Armenia’s autocratic regime without spilling a drop of blood, sparking hope of real democracy in the post-Soviet republic.

Riding the wave of Armenia’s Velvet Revolution, the USC Institute of Armenian Studies put together an ambitious program in just two weeks. The timely event drew more than 1,500 live spectators, and 50,000 others watched via web stream, available in English or Armenian.

Armenia's President Armen Sarkissian's message to the USC Institute of Armenian Studies Armenia Tomorrow gathering

Armenia’s President Armen Sarkissian’s message to the USC Institute of Armenian Studies Armenia Tomorrow gathering

Institute Director Salpi Ghazarian framed the event around open-ended questions and a solemn promise.

“There’s a reason,” she said, “we are calling this program ‘Armenia Tomorrow.’ None of us are expecting anyone to have answers and formulas so quickly. But it’s by asking, exploring, studying, weighing, judging and choosing that we go from politics to policy, from the street to institutions. It’s the job of the academy to feed those institutions with facts, with analysis and with options.

“So today we commit to supporting and asking these questions. Our commitment is that this isn’t a one-off. This is the beginning of a long process: to break down each aspect of life in a democratic society.”

The program began with a 20-minute dialogue between Ghazarian and the new prime minister.

Speaking in Armenian via English translator, Pashinyan described the “pan-Armenian nature of the movement,” noting that the overarching goal must be to make Armenians feel ownership of their country—a transformation that can only happen with free and fair elections. “A sovereign citizen,” he said, “sets the just and honorable path for its people and a just government.”

Pashinyan’s words drew repeated applause from the audience.

From l to r: Professor Robert English, University of Southern California; Professor Katy Pearce, University of Washington; Professor Fayez Hammad, University of Southern California; Professor Anna Ohanyan, Stonehill College; David Usupashvili, Former Chairman of the Parliament of Georgia

From l to r: Professor Robert English, University of Southern California; Professor Katy Pearce, University of Washington; Professor Fayez Hammad, University of Southern California; Professor Anna Ohanyan, Stonehill College; David Usupashvili, Former Chairman of the Parliament of Georgia

David Usupashvili, former speaker of Georgia’s parliament, followed up with humorous tips on how to avoid the pitfalls of past “color revolutions.”

Armenians were wise to postpone their revolution, he said archly, because it allows them to observe and learn from their neighbors’ painful errors. Speaking on a panel moderated by USC Dornsife professor and post-Soviet politics expert Robert English, the Georgian lawmaker said, “I’m more than ready to share our mistakes.”

Usupashvili urged the new government to “treat every single Armenian as a citizen. We (Georgia) jumped directly from the concept of communist comrade to the voter,” he said, referring to his country’s 2003 Rose Revolution. “We skipped the very important concept of the citizen.”

In other pointers, he cautioned Pashinyan to avoid the temptation to demonize political opponents. Rather than portraying itself as “sole actor,” the leadership should support rivals and plan its own exit strategy. “Peaceful political transition must be possible,” he said.

The crowd at the Armenia, Tomorrow

The crowd at the Armenia, Tomorrow

Usupashvili called the political transformation now underway pivotal to his own nation’s well-being. “A prosperous, democratic, stable Georgia is impossible without a stable, democratic, prosperous Armenia,” he said, earning enthusiastic applause.

On the same panel, Middle East expert Fayez Hammad, a USC lecturer in political science and international relations, offered his list of red flags to watch for based on the failed Arab Spring experience. “I urge everybody, including this audience, to be vigilant,” he said, advocating special attention to changes in military culture, any rise in sectarianism or political schisms, and signs of interference from regional actors with their own agendas.

Joining by video from Paris, energy expert Bedros Terzian, president of the Paris-based Petrostrategies, weighed in on landlocked Armenia’s resource challenges. He strongly encouraged the leadership to abandon the country’s decrepit nuclear power infrastructure in favor of abundant wind, solar and hydrocarbons, explaining that as the path to economic and political independence.

Speaking from Boston, MIT economist Daron Açemoglu suggested ways to root out Armenia’s culture of kleptocracy. Cultivate human capital, he advised, instead of finding ways to punish corrupt people. “You cannot fire 5,000 judges and prosecutors,” he said. “You have to do that slowly.”

Yerevan-based jurist Edward Mouradian elaborated on the uphill battle Armenia faces. Absent an independent judiciary empowered to enforce the rule of law, civil society cannot thrive, he warned.

Mouradian appeared on a panel moderated by USC Price Policy Professor Daniel Mazmanian, along with Washington D.C.-based journalist Emil Sanamyan and political analyst Irina Ghaplanyan.

All expressed optimism for the future. “There’s a new sense of buy-in that people didn’t have before,” said Sanamyan. “No more excuses that nothing can change, that everything is fixed.” Mere weeks into Nikol Pashinyan’s term as prime minister, Sanamyan said he already looks forward to the new leader’s “exit moment—hopefully not by protest but by elections.”

Speaking via Skype from Yerevan, Ghaplanyan contrasted the new government’s commitment to transparency with the old regime’s dissemination of Soviet-style propaganda—a cynical tactic that created “a huge gap between the people and the state.”

As proof of Armenians’ new connection with their government, she pointed to the historic May 1 parliamentary Q&A that held all Armenians glued to their screens for 10 straight hours. “That’s more than the average American’s viewing-time on CPSAN in his or her entire life,” Ghaplanyan said, grinning.

Newly elected Armenian president Armen Sarkissian closed out Sunday’s event. Joining via a pre-recorded video from Yerevan, responding to questions posed to him from the Institute, the career Armenian diplomat directly addressed youth in the diaspora.

“You are sons and daughters of Armenia,” Sarkissian said, “no matter where you live. It doesn’t matter if you carry American, Argentinian, French or Armenian passport. You have to believe you are a part of this great nation.”

That message resonated with Arpi Barsegian, 24, and Zara Hovasapyan, 25. They chatted at a reception following the program, sipping coffee and nibbling on Armenian gata pastries. The young women had come to size-up the prime minister and president.

“Hearing their vision, hearing them be excited for the future role of the diaspora in Armenia, that topped everything,” said Barsegian, a business consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers. “We haven’t seen that outreach in the past.”

Swept up in last month’s euphoria, she had traveled to Armenia with her brother to participate in the peaceful protests.

“Those five days were among the happiest days of my life,” said the Armenia-born Barsegian, who emigrated 10 years ago with her family. “It was so incredible to see people dancing, hugging each other, awakened and hopeful. For a very long time, that was missing. We thought that we really didn’t have the power to bring change or to be the change.”

Her friend Zara Hovasapyan had also left Armenia as a child. A USC graduate who works as a financial analyst for Lionsgate, Hovasapyan, MBA ’16, was moved by President Sarkissian’s call to the sons and daughters of Armenia to re-engage with their homeland.

“I have been talking about repatriating for a really long time,” she said. “The change of government allays the fears we had. It’s a new beginning!”

Aram Telian, 51, sees a new beginning for the descendants of genocide survivors, too.

“As I’ve gotten older,” said the third-generation Armenian-American from Van Nuys, “I’ve felt the desire to search for people and ideas that, being born here, I never had a connection to. Now there’s a call to visit the homeland, to engage and make friends with people in Armenia. I think it will heal us, in a way.”

Established in 2005, the USC Institute of Armenian Studies supports multidisciplinary scholarship to re-define, explore and study the complex issues that make up the contemporary Armenian experience—from post-genocide to the developing Republic of Armenia to the evolving diaspora. The institute encourages research, publications and public service, and promotes links among the global academic and Armenian communities.

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