BY MARIA TITIZIAN
Watching the Republican Party of Armenia’s (RPA) convention in Yerevan on December 15 was reminiscent of an era not too long ago when communist party members would hold up their membership cards en masse rubber stamping the decisions of the Politburo. I couldn’t bear to watch it for more than a few minutes at a time as it was being broadcast live on H1, the country’s public television network. I thought to myself that if I were a member of the RPA I would be feeling a sense of shame and embarrassment at the condition of the country and most importantly at the political farce taking place ahead of the presidential elections.
Sadly, shame, embarrassment and accountability are absent in the consciousness of most politicians in Armenia, perhaps around the world. The critical difference is that politicians in the West are more sophisticated and have much more finesse when it comes to shielding their human shortcomings and personal wealth from the public eye. Perhaps most wealthy politicians in the West acquired that wealth prior to being in politics while others capitalized on their connections while in public office to accentuate it. I don’t know. In our country everything is a little more vulgar, a little more in your face and executed with much less sophistication. The key difference is that this is our country, our homeland, and our future so the crudeness and the apparent lack of integrity are felt even more acutely.
Alas, trying to disengage, to ignore, to simply change the channel and immerse oneself in ignorance is not always possible. Therefore I spent most of the following morning reading the transcript of President Serzh Sarkisian’s speech to the RPA convention where he was officially nominated as the party’s candidate for the February 2013 presidential elections. To be fair, I acknowledge how difficult it must be to lead a country like ours that has to overcome a host of pressing challenges, especially if you have come to power on a pyramid of patronage, and to eliminate any impression that I am taking passages from his speech out of context, let me say that had I not been living here, had I not been an engaged citizen, I might have considered it to be an uplifting, forward-looking speech. But I can’t. And for so many reasons.
Here are a few passages from President’s speech at the RPA convention:
“We were able to bring the country out of the financial and economic crisis. We were able to ease the tax burden for small and medium enterprises.” If we have navigated the country out of the financial and economic crisis, how can the current rates of unemployment and inflation be explained? According to an Armenia Now article published in the summer of 2012, there are more than 100,000 small and medium enterprises (SME) in Armenia of which only 20 percent contribute to the state budget while the rest are simply on paper “with no economic activities.” The SMEs that do have economic activity in the country are constrained by a number of factors including the tight lending criteria of Armenian banks that focus their lending on larger corporations and by questionable market competitiveness. And while easing the tax burden for SMEs might seem promising on paper, in practice they are the center of attention of tax inspectors who always manage to turn a blind eye to the larger, more powerful and politically-connected business enterprises that skillfully practice alleged tax evasion.
“We were able to save thousands of jobs in the mining and construction sectors; provide a serious impetus to the creation of new jobs in food production and light industry; were able to keep our financial system intact; were able to do things that even much more powerful countries failed to accomplish.” Granted, Armenia’s banking system did not collapse and we still continue to have economic performance, the question remains as to where all those new jobs are and why people continue to leave the country in the tens of thousands citing economic insecurity and a lack of faith in the future.
“We brought modern, high-quality medical service to the marzes of Armenia; created guarantees for a dignified old age for working citizens through the introduction of a new funded pension system.” If the president says that they brought modern, high-quality medical services to the regions of the country, I believe him but it might have been more efficient if they were able to ensure that qualified doctors and nurses came along with those services as there is a serious shortfall of medical personnel, especially in remote areas. The majority of pensioners today live below the poverty line, they can’t afford to heat their homes in the cold winter months and neither do they live a dignified life. By privatizing the country’s pension plan, what guarantees do workers under the age of 40 (who must take part in the new pension system to be introduced in 2014) have against severe market fluctuations when they turn 65 and find that their pension fund is no longer viable? Will they have to depend on state hand-outs to ensure that they receive the minimum benefit to survive?
“We have started, step by step, to marginalize the corruption and abuse that were getting rooted in our country for decades. We encouraged and promoted young and well-educated politicians and statesmen.” I would like to know what those steps are, and when does this administration expect to muster the political will to implement them? And yes, there are several young and well-educated politicians today in parliament and in the executive from RPA ranks who for some reason are always ready to act like arrogant schoolyard bullies against all those who deign to express their opinion of the ruling regime.
“We have commenced reforms in the most complex and important areas, starting with the police and the judiciary. We demanded that our police serve the people in a new way, conscientiously.” Then why are there so many unsolved murder cases, why do the police continue to take bribes (and this includes traffic police) and can we conscientiously say that the judiciary is free and independent?
The president acknowledges that while there has been “noticeable change in the country” over the past five years, it has not been enough and yet he goes on to say: “We have been able to make Armenia incomparably more attractive for businesses and a more dependable country for investments.” According to the U.S. State Department’s 2012 Investment Climate Statement while the Armenian government asserts that it welcomes foreign investment and the country is considered a place to do business according to some global indices, Armenia’s “investment climate poses several significant challenges: a population of just three million; relative geographic isolation…per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of about $3,000; and high levels of corruption in both official and commercial spheres. Foreign businesses must frequently contend with tax and customs processes that lack transparency and add to costs; the court system lacks independence, making it an unreliable forum for resolution of disputes… Major sectors of Armenia’s economy are controlled by well-connected businessmen—some of them members of parliament or other high-ranking officials—who enjoy government-protected market dominance. This raises barriers to new entrants, limits consumer choice, and discourages investments by multinational firms that insist on partnering with politically-independent businesses. The [Armenian government] has also on occasion deployed government agencies, including the tax and customs services, against political opponents.”
“All our steps are directed toward the people, toward the citizens of Armenia. All our efforts are for the people, our compatriots, their well-being. We have never followed parochial partisan objectives.” This one doesn’t require any further commentary.
“The organization and conduct of good, fair elections is our first and foremost priority. We have received excellent reactions to our latest parliamentary elections. It is inspiring. Today as a state, we are capable of conducting elections based on free competition, near absolute freedom of expression and unrestricted expression of will.” Perhaps the president’s speech writer forgot to mention the critical role voter bribes played during the May 2012 parliamentary elections. An article that appeared on RFERL states: “The May 6 parliamentary ballot failed, however, to measure up to those expectations. Indeed, in two key respects it appears to have been more seriously flawed than the previous parliamentary election in 2007…There were numerous reports of vote-buying by the HHK [RPA].”
“This is the Armenia, which is watched by millions of Armenians living abroad. They watch us with hope, desire and anticipation of positive changes. Sometimes, we are watched through a magnifying glass; they rejoice and despair with us, and they are right. The power of the Motherland is a great power.” This administration’s continuing support of the oligarchy, its inability to establish the rule of law and social justice coupled with complacency by the general public makes me wonder if 2013 will be a year to rejoice. As a Diaspora Armenian, as a repatriate, a dual citizen, a person who has put her faith in this country, I am so ready to rejoice because like every other Armenian, I am so tired of despairing. Like most people I have little faith that anything will change following the presidential elections in February but that doesn’t mean I’ve lost hope because the power of the Motherland sustains me, at least for the time being.