Just over two weeks ago, overwhelmed air traffic controllers managed to coordinate the landings of almost 1,500 private jets on the tarmac of the tiny Swiss resort town of Davos. Passengers included CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, celebrities, academics, diplomats, lobbyists, dignitaries and heads of State from all over the world. Most intended to socialize with the global elite at the annual World Economic Forum (WEF).
One of those jets, presumably the Armenian Government’s Airbus A319, carried Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan on his first official attendance of the prestigious four-day conference.
The World Economic Forum, a week-long conference, has taken place at the end of January since 1971. According to the Geneva-based non-profits website, the WEF commits itself to “improving the state of the world.” To that end, the Forum brings together politicians, financiers, activists and opinion leaders from around the world in Switzerland to discuss solutions to global issues. Despite the altruistic motive, the Forum receives frequent criticisms for assembling a ‘stateless elite’ who, in the words of American political theorist Samuel Huntington, “have little need for national loyalty, view national boundaries as obstacles that thankfully are vanishing, and see national governments as residues from the past whose only useful function is to facilitate the élite’s global operations.”
Pedantic concerns about global wealth inequality, gender issues or elitism aside, the Forum remains the premier event for diplomacy and economic cooperation. What better place than a ski resort filled to the brim with investors and heads of state to pitch economic or political cooperation agreements?
The Prime Minister apparently had little time to experience the breathtaking views or picturesque landscapes of the Swiss Alps. His meeting-packed schedule paints a picture of a man on a mission. Fresh from the Velvet Revolution which propelled him into executive office, Pashinyan was determined to cash in on the flattering international coverage and outpouring of sympathy for Armenia.
The political portion of his revolution recently completed with the swearing-in of a new cabinet; Pashinyan told reporters that he now intends to follow up with an “economic revolution.” In Davos, the Prime Minister championed his early reforms—clamping down on corruption, cutting bureaucratic red tape and reducing corporate and personal income taxes. At a dinner in Zurich, Pashinyan laid out his economic vision: “The cornerstone of our future growth will take the form of an investment policy framework that drives productive job creation and export competitiveness.” He then invited both Diaspora Armenians and foreign investors to “get rich, while enriching [Armenia].”
The head of government also highlighted opportunities for growth in biotech, pharmaceuticals, agriculture, tourism, tech and the creative industries. It would appear that his efforts bore fruit.
Upon his return to Yerevan, the PM briefed his cabinet on his time spent in Switzerland. He recounted holding meetings with executives of countless multinational corporations, diplomatic delegations and development agencies. He pitched Armenia as an ideal investment destination to anyone who would listen.
As the world’s newfound poster-child for non-violent democratic revolutions, Pashinyan took part in a panel discussion entitled “Shaping the future of democracy.” He shared the stage with Colombian President Iván Duque Márquez, Nepali Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli, New York Times publisher Arthur Gregg Sulzberger and director of Management Today project Daniella Ballou-Aares.
Among the more concrete results from Davos was a formal promise from Marriott International CEO Arnes Sorenson to open yet another Marriott-branded hotel in Armenia by the end of this year. Marriott currently operates three hotels in the country. Shinichi Kitaoka, president of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (Japan’s answer to USAID), told Pashinyan that they would be sending a delegation in search of new cooperation opportunities. The Agency already operates in Armenia.
The Prime Minister made headway on his promise to encourage Diaspora investors to the homeland when he met with Christina Ahmadjian, an Armenian-American board member for the Japanese manufacturing giant, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. Ahmadjian also promised a working-visit to the country of her forefathers.
Pashinyan also evangelized tech leaders on Armenia’s potential as an Eastern European Silicon Valley. He was spotted galavanting with the likes of eBay Vice-President Cathy Foster and Apple CEO Tim Cook. Photos of his meeting with Cook made headlines not only in Armenia, but they were also plastered on all sorts of blogs aimed at Apple fanboys across the globe.
The PM met with Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė and other leaders, but his most controversial appointment was a sit-down with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. The two managed to hold an informal tête-à-tête on the forum’s sidelines, where they discussed ongoing plans for a détente along the Artsakh frontier. This series of talks, which started in Dushanbe, Tajikistan back in September, has caused some among Armenian society to call for clarification on what “preparing for peace” entails. Aram Hamparian of the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) wrote on Facebook: “We may hope for the best, but must – given our history and geography – prepare for the worst. […] We need to stay open-minded, but not so open that our brains fall out.” According to Pashinyan however, these talks were just that, talks.
Pashinyan’s overtures to international big business have also drawn the ire of both progressives and ultra-nationalists back home. Critics expressed worry that his “neo-liberal” (whatever that means) approach would either harm Armenian workers or dilute Armenian national values. Those who scoffed at Pashinyan’s call to “get rich, and enrich” saw it as an open invitation to exploitation. Of course, economic relationships do not function as a zero sum game. Trade is mutually beneficial by definition, or else it would not take place. The benefits of FDI on smaller economies are indisputable, so long as they are properly harnessed. Pashinyan argued that Armenia stands to gain through cash injections, knowledge sharing, tax revenue and most importantly, the creation of skilled employment opportunities that foreign investors can bring. Here is a helpful video.
In any case, Pashinyan unveiled a new Armenia at Davos. His charismatic persona on full display, he put a pleasant face on the country’s international image. His vision for a business-friendly, innovative and technologically advanced Armenia wooed many at the Forum. Similarly, his out-of-the-box diplomatic outreach to friend and foe alike offered a glimpse into a dynamic yet pragmatic foreign policy. For better or worse, Pashinyan’s performance in Switzerland signalled a break from the business-as-usual of the past. Hopefully, Armenian taxpayers will also see a return on investment.