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.
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.