BY CHRISTIAN GARBIS
With the Armenian National Assembly elections slated for May 6, I am obliged to reflect upon the political situation of the last four years and contemplate where Armenia is headed. These elections will be the most important in this republic’s brief history as a test for the functioning of democracy, yet most people don’t realize it.
Nearly everyone has told me the same thing: The laws don’t work or there are no laws, and the judicial system is corrupted. They are desperate, hopeless, and dwell in a self-imposed realm of defeatism, each playing the role of the eternal victim.
Whenever I meet someone for the first time in Armenia, a minute doesn’t pass before politics comes up. For the last seven or eight years, I have heard countless people express their disgust in the Armenian government and authorities, that the country is not a country, there is no justice, the oligarchs do whatever they want and take advantage, and so forth. Indeed, not once have I met anyone who has told me that they approve of the regime in power—either backed (in Robert Kocharian’s case) or fully controlled by the Republican Party (along with its coalition partner parties).
They expect governmental reform without having to work for it, as if the authorities will one day magically realize that they should no longer lie to and cheat their citizens. They want justice and good governance, but no one can agree on how it will be achieved or who will lead that reform movement. Meanwhile, the Armenian Diaspora remains silent, continuing to turn a blind eye to the lack of democracy and governmental irresponsibility.
Given the negative mindset in the motherland, one should come to the logical conclusion that the Republican Party will win less votes than it has in the past—despite election fraud that is bound to occur—making way for a new National Assembly controlled by a union of parties, albeit fragile, that have been in opposition. This ideal union would likely be comprised of the Armenian National Congress, ARF-Dashnaktsutyun, the Heritage Party, and Free Democrats alliance, and the Prosperous Armenia Party, which has been keen to distance itself from the authorities in recent weeks, although it refuses to officially break away from the pro-government coalition. This fresh National Assembly will also signal a new era in government, one where the demands of the people will conceivably be met and, as Raffi Hovannisian put it in his interview with me, emigration is reversed so that a wave of immigration displaces it. Nevertheless, the Republican Party’s notorious pre-election terror campaign of intimidation and harassment that has already been unleashed is bound to coerce many voters to cast ballots in their favor. The authorities are also counting on disenchanted citizens to sell them their votes for 20 bucks apiece.
The issues plaguing Armenia are too numerous to list. But the most relevant points to tackle, in random order, are the following: a reformed, competent, and properly trained police force; an independent judicial system; a substantial increase in funding for social services, including doubling the minimum wage and pensions (which all contending opposition parties are pushing); the renovation of schools and hospitals nationwide, starting with the most remote areas first; the reconstruction of roads and infrastructure, again with the most remote villages a priority; encouragement for civil society to flourish; the break up of the trade monopolies, especially on staple foodstuffs, to promote competition in the marketplace; incentives for small- and medium-sized business ventures to start up; a four-fold increase in efforts to encourage foreign investment in the thriving Armenian IT sector; additional investments in the tourism industry; and the immediate cancellation of long-term environmentally devastating mining projects that would only benefit foreign investors (the local economy would not be positively affected by any means). The list can go on and on, but tacking the aforementioned issues is a good start to getting things on track in Armenia and reversing the trends of narcissism and greed that have been strangling this country for far too long.
Some argue that it will take decades and several generations to pass before the aforementioned issues even begin to be properly addressed. Unfortunately, we don’t have that long to wait. It’s been nearly 21 years since Armenia declared independence, and most citizens are no better off than they were then. Unofficial population estimates in Armenia are between 2-2.5 million. Entire villages have picked up and moved to remote parts of Russia where they have been provided housing and employment as part of a rural colonization scheme. The talented, technology-savvy youth are leaving for the U.S., Canada, and elsewhere (I personally know five software engineers who have emigrated during the last three years). And Artsakh is continuously being emptied of its populace: Only around 2,700 people are left in Shushi alone.
The new wealth and economic growth that is noticeable to foreigners and Armenians from the Diaspora is concentrated in central Yerevan—it is a mirage, a smokescreen obscuring what things are really like here. The sooner the diaspora comprehends this and puts pressure on the Armenian government to get its act together, the more secure and, yes, entrepreneurial Armenian citizens will become. But that reshaping cannot happen on its own. It needs stimulus. It requires motivation and dedicated hard work. It is dependent upon foresight and ingenuity. And it has to start right now.
Christian Garbis is a freelance writer based in Yerevan, where he has been living for four years. He has been a regular contributor to the Armenian Weekly since 1994. He has served as an assistant editor for the paper as well as in several other capacities. Christian has also written articles for Hetq Online. Accounts of his personal experiences and social critiques of life in Armenia can be read on his blog Notes From Hairenik