Garbis: Reflecting on 20 Years of Independence

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 naive and 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.

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.

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 U.S. or Europe. Narcissism has long become a virtue of the nepotists, with their 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 daily, 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 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 must create an environment whereby new factories can be built by wealthy Armenian citizens or foreign businessmen currently 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 a 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 must be implemented, mainly by immediately stopping police confrontations or crackdowns on peaceful demonstrators. Society cannot be built while oppression and fear loom 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 1 child born per household, according to 2011 figures. He must also 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-Karabagh 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 20 years we will be able to build a country that 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 will 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.

Christian Garbis

Christian Garbis

Christian Garbis is a writer and experimental filmmaker born and raised in Greater Boston. He received his BA in English and Certificate in Film Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He has been contributing to the Armenian Weekly since 1994 and has served as an assistant editor for the paper. He lives in Yerevan with his wife and son and maintains two blogs documenting his impressions: Notes From Hairenik and Footprints Armenia. His first novel is partly based on his experiences in Armenia.


  1. What a wasted and squandered opportunity for the Armenian race.  

    It is truly sad to see what a waste 20 years of independence has been.  While it can still be argued that there has also been some victories, I can no longer pretend that things are somehow ok, it is not ok.  The Armenian nation and the Armenian people do not have the luxury of mass resources to withstand failures and mistakes, the results will be catastrophic.

  2. Simply, yes things are bad in Hayastan, but don’t just criticise, do something to improve it.
    Yes, I and you who criticise the social and economic state of Hayastan.

  3. Too many pessimists here.  Armenia is doing just fine and it is growing every year.  I see that the psy-ops is working well within the Armenian-American community.

    It is the sacred responsibility of all self-respecting Armenians today to stop making excuses, to stop spreading poison and to start partaking in the nation-building process!

  4. Christian, I CAN NOT AGREE WITH YOU MORE. Our leaders better wake up and see SMELL THE COFFEE.  Everything that is happening in Armenia today is contrary to the principles of NATION BUILDING! If this trend continues, Armenia soon will join the ranks of failed states like Somalia. In the end, the destiny of this small nation rests in the hands of the people.  
    All the power to you fellow citizens!

  5. Have you even been to Armenia?  It is not going the way of some failed state in sub-Saharan Africa.  Please be objective and not emotional with your commentary regarding the development of Armenia.

  6. IT APPEARS  THAT SOME OTHER METHODS  MUST  BE EMPLOYED>NO< I DO NOT MEAN BY GOVT.I have  on another  site  dwelt upon -let me go one  by one./
    1. The Armenian Diaspora  must be reorganized  to become a superstructure,details below.
    2.Once  this is done Ra will take  the Diaspora more seriously as LI IRAV -fully fledged partner, as such. But  even so    my modest  but  foolproof scheme  is  so that  the Diaspora-we  must ADMIT-is  there to stay,at least  the oldest one.Thence>/
    3. The New Structures  of the diaspora are based on Sovereignty as  rgds its own activities ,plus  acting as  above  said as equal partner.
    4.The Structures  encompass  the Huge  Collectivities  of our more  than a 100 thousand  -future-members  of the PCA’s  , i.e. Professional colleageus  associations.These will they carry on the other  main Task  of enhancing  the”National Investment Trust Fund”.
    Said Fund can only be brought  to existence, by the 5/6  our  magnates, each investing,note  Investing  not  donating  to form the NUCLEUS/working capital  of same.In Geneva  CH,a tax free area and neutral neither  Moscow nor  U.s. or Paris…the experts and their intll attorneys will nominate  the Fund in a way to be excempt  of  natkional   and inllt  taxes.
    the our millionaires will follow  suit,all the way down-having been fully assured and convinced  that  this  Fund is  governed by the Board  of  the 5/6 ,magnates and their monetary experts-to thousand and one  hundred  dollars  investos  the 100,000……..
    5 . The fund  -earning  some 5/6%  per annum through ionvestments  in sec ure  Glovt. Bonds  will pay all  investors  half ,mrest to be added  to capital and also  L  O  A  N  S , then extended  to small and medium size  entgrepreneurs and farmers etc., in RA/Artsakh-Javakhk.  However, as  URGENT>/
    6 Loan to be extended  to thousands  of families  who decide  to settle   in RA-/Artsakh  on above terms  for 10/15  yeasrs,
    As  rgds  the Govt.  doing  or not  doing    what  we wish them to do ore  our brethren and RA. That  is  their business, i.e.  the Govt.  -whoever  they may be. Fact  is if  you wish to know near all Govt., of the west  lately  have been dloing  what  is being done  in RA  and that  most probably led  ours to follow suit.You want  examples, .e, then now Portugal , even Italy eetc., and  why go far. the mighty USA  in 600 billion dollar Gvot  debts…
    So do let  us at  least  think of doing something ourselves  in Diaspora above wise.
    Any comments …i do welcome  Negatives  ones  especially……………. 

  7. Armenia has been too Russified,the government of Armenia is the replica of the Russian government with their maffia system  of  government.Also the Armenian government must realize that Russia is depopulating Armenia.And who gave away Karabagh to the Azeris?  the Russians.Divide and conquer ,that s the policy of Russia.AS long as the 3 caucasians republics hate each other and have problems with each other ,Russia will win in the caucasus.
    Russians didn t send troops in Armenia for us but for their own interests.Armenians are still politicly ignorent.

  8. AmerikaHays are a bunch of self-hating people and genocide obsessed people. Hell will freeze over before the proud AmerikaHay takes part in true nation-building.

  9. “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.” -Yes, I agree but I’m afraid locals will ask diaspora where were you when we needed you most?  “Citizens who speak out against government decisions are cruelly suppressed by this system.”  -NOT TRUE.  The is freedom of speech there.  I would point to that great achievement.  I agree with the list of problems you want the government to tackle.  However, I beleive before anything there should be 3 simple things done.  Separation of power, executive and legislative from business.  Government officials and parliamentarians shouldn’t be involved in business.  Second, ensure free and fair elections without fraud and third curb the CORRUPTION.  Once these basic conditions are met the rest will fall in its place.

  10.  I was in Armenia this summer and everywhere we went I was so impressed with the young generation.. educated, with new ideas and full of energy. The key for Armenia in the next ten years is whether this generation will begin to take charge and thereby begin the value realignment. Today’s infrastructure is run by individual trained in the Soviet culture. The post Soviet world is full of opportunists who reaped the benefit of the slow transition from a planned to a market economy. Armenia is no exception.
          But I have hope. We are in a unique position. The problem is recognized and the diaspora and citizens of Armenia will not tolerate failure. Solutions will be found because the price of failure is too great. Those of us in the diaspora must come to the realization that a love of Armenia and advocating significant societal change is patriotic.

  11. I beg  to differ  with some  of those  posts above.
    1.Gary’s outlouk as to RA future  will bde  catastrophic  is very exagerrated/
    2.AR  is corerct too many pessimists  here,like Gabe, comparing Armenia to Somali, perhaps he has  to go and see  the progress  ,albeit  not to what many would expect but  it is  there. Factories  are being opened  up, farming  is improving tremendously.
    3.Armen yan is right too, there  is freedom of not only speech but also local newspapers, go ONLINE  please, , Haykakan zhamanag, A1Plus  etc., all openly criticise and write  what  they see is wong. So easy …I am not in conformity with quite a few things ,mentioned  by  again armen  yan,but I also know  something  that Stepan does  not know.Armenia and rest 14  ex soviet republics  did  not  go through slow transition.He errs. I am from Spain and I know  that Spain a totaliotarian country-I lived 13  yrs Franco’s regime to a democracy  took 12  yeasrs when the country was ruled  by the Socialist Internacional pres.,sorry vice  pres. -pres. was Willy Brandt, slowly went through that TRANSITIONAL PERIOD  TO  a free market  economy.During  Felipe  Gonzalez -Socialist  regime, aas an example there was only one  petsroleum company and that plus toher staple goods  under control with ceiling prices, untill from a totalitaarian regime  it gradually went into the present one,Same happened  in portugal and Greece.Latter  ,though recently went too far  over spending  and  …
    Therefore Armenia , unfortunately overnight from one totalitarian to a Wild  free marekt economy landed  where  it  is now…
    Bygones  are bygones  this  cannot be turned back unless  a Swedish styele  socialist  system-more  or less, with hugh taxes for the very rich are levied, monopolies done with etc.,
    As to Mr. Richard  Baronian, little  does  he know of the meddling of the British in that area, Caucauses. Please get prof. Richard G.Hovanissian  4 tome books Republic  of Armenia  and you will see with photos  of the British troops  in Baki, sorry Baku with you guessed  it to take  over the   black substance.They did  not succeed  then as  the REd army enterred forcefully,they had to leave. however back now as Oil producing  companies  repeaing  the benefits  they could  not  then and all the Nakhijevn NK adjudications  sere started by them , completed  byt eh bolshevkis/communists  thinking   like  Lenin Stalin  that they could even turn  great Turkey into yet  another S.Socialist  Republic  adn g ave  the kemalists all the gold   and armament to push into armenian border . History  is there for  him to study, the Brits  have been there long b efore  the Russians.And also for  those who are  not familiar  with the Oil first being exploited  in Baku…there were some four Armenian Families  like  the lazarians, mantashian, Lianazoff-Armenian and later Gulbenkian  who started  the industry  there. Turco tatars  have later taken over through bolshevik entry as ab ove.But rest  is as  said above  now  the BP and American oil companies….
    Russians  whether we  like  it  or not are the only other-besides Irabn  that  have some leverage  in that area and will not  let  the pan turanists  enter and annihilate  us.
    Why on earth  are the turco azeris  so much against  us…they wish to connect through Nakhijevan to Azerbaijan and North East  to UYGHURLAND…..-within China proper, but  China will not  admit  that I suppose….eeither. the competition will continue unabated unfortunately.WE  have  to think of  ourselves  and reply mainly oN OUR REORGANIZED  POWER BOTH HUMAN RESOURCES  WISE  PCA,s-see my previous ppost- and NATIONAL  INVESTMENT TRUST  FUND…that  is where  our pOWERHOUSE  IS>

  12. Avetis I think your comment above is filled with hate and prejudice toward ‘AmerikaHays.’  We are the children of survivors of the genocide who were forced to grow up with a fractured relationship with our nation, never allowed the chance to fully mourn our loss and left to witness the Turkification of everything that was left behind.  Of course we are genocide-obsessed in the face of growing denial and distortion of the reality that put us in the place we find ourselves.  But that does not mean we don’t work for and support our precious Hayastan.  If your goal is to get more involvement and support for nation building from the American Armenian diaspora, you are not going to get it by driving a wedge between groups of Armenians.  How about some nation building in the form of communion building.  We are all one, the fruit of Hayk, from the valleys of Arax to the shores of Sevan to the Isle of Aghtamar to the heights of Ararat or Aragats and beyond.  Don’t we have enough enemies without creating division amongst our own? A strong Armenia is what we all strive for.  What good is genocide recognition without an Armenian nation to carry on with a flourishing Armenian culture?

    Can your contribute a positive suggestion to those you consider genocide-obsessed? Can you help develop a method or avenue of positive involvement for those who you see as a hinderance?  Can you give up angry criticism for constructive options or invitations to join nation building efforts?  Use your energy for good.

    • Agreed! Division is bad, unity is good. However, let’s remember who lives in comfort and who has to defend the country. It’s not only the US Spurk though – these folks risk to become irrelevant… They don’t represent the most numerous and most wealthy diaspora anymore.

      Unity is the answer – posting comments while sipping Starbucks in NOHO is the worst, serving in the tranches on the Western borders of Artsakh is the best, everything in-between has to be very responsible and humble . Watch for special operations against our community, don’t buy in.

  13. Are not the articles of Garbis and the comments here that support his one sided view not divisive as well?  It’s easy to pick on the person who is going against the tide, whether he is right or wrong, but not so when the cliche refrain of corruption, etc etc is repeated.  All this negative talk as a psychological element to it as well and it is not good for any people to constantly harp on the negative, especially when there is good taking place too!

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