I am neither apolitical nor unbiased, yet regardless of where one falls on the political spectrum, there is an aura of unpleasantness pulsing in Armenia today. The unpleasant feeling isn’t new, but it rears its ugly head everywhere one turns, whether it be in the words of a taxi driver or in the complaints of colleagues. This feeling can best be associated with some sort of combination of disgust, suspicion and hatred. Let’s call this mixture “DSH.”
DSH is a feeling that has come somewhat naturally to people from the Soviet era. After all, while the USSR was preaching equality and power to the proletariat, there was clear inequality between the members of their society. Citizens saw this in the fancy cars driven by those with keys to the factories and members of the Communist party, as well as the wealth of those who worked illegally on the black market.
Some lived better than the rest, and they were looked upon with disgust because they were living better while violating the Communist preaching of complete equality. They were looked upon with suspicion because they were somehow manipulating the system to their advantage and found a way to get ahead with every move they made. And they were hated because they were simply living better, while the majority of people could only dream of doing so.
This feeling of DSH didn’t stop with Armenia’s independence. If anything, the feeling was enhanced by the growing gap between poverty and wealth that ensued after the Soviet Union collapsed. With the wipe-out of the ruble, there were a few who would stand tall, as others suffered silently. Within a matter of days, weeks and months, Armenia once again became a land of haves and have-nots. Those among the haves used their resources to grow more and more powerful, putting their capital to use, while those who had nothing struggled daily just to survive.
Though it can be said that Armenia has come a long way in the past 30 years—economically, militarily and politically—it is without a doubt that we still have a clear split between the haves and have-nots. Here we are, three decades after independence, and we still have a country where a tiny group of citizens drive Bentleys and travel the world, while everyone else can barely pay twenty cents for public transportation. To deny this reality is to merely put our heads in the sand. And with this, it is only natural that we should expect an aura of disgust, suspicion and hatred.
DSH has not merely risen naturally because of the economic gap, but it has also been cultivated and fostered in the propaganda of opponents of authorities, including by those who recently came to power. One of the clearest examples of this is the accusation that the brother of former president Serj Sarkissian, often referred to as “Sashik,” was owner or part-owner of the company that placed traffic cameras throughout Armenia. The claim was that the president had given his brother a contract to set up cameras wherever he pleased and fine violators; then, he’d pocket most of the money collected. In other words, the narrative many rallied behind was that their own system of laws was rigged against the average citizen. The government was out to oppress and steal from them, taking what little they had left. This particular instance—in which citizens genuinely believed that officials placed a camera to steal their money—not make traffic safer—turned out not to be the case. In fact, there are many instances in which citizens reacted unfairly to genuine efforts by officials to put laws and regulations into place to protect them. But DSH—or the idea that all leaders are crooks out to make a buck at the expense of citizens, who have nothing—is deeply seated in Armenia’s population. Such propaganda has also caused the Diaspora to adopt DSH toward authorities in Armenia, as well.
Even after the “Velvet Revolution,” DSH remains a serious problem. In other words, even after the “evil regime” was decapitated and the “people’s prime minister” was brought to power less than a year ago, there are new signs of this attitude of disgust, suspicion and hatred. The clearest example I can think of is with respect to a law that seems to be mere common sense. The new Minister of Health, Arsen Torosyan, wants to make car-seats mandatory for young children. It’s pretty common to see children in Armenia standing up in moving cars and looking out the window, oftentimes without even having a seatbelt on. Yet discussion of this law has led many to oppose it, claiming that its aim is to merely give a few politicians the opportunity to import car seats, sell them and monopolize the industry. According to such claims, the motives of the Health Minister are commercial and self-serving; the safety of the children being the furthest thing from his mind.
The point isn’t that there is zero corruption in Armenia, or that there is no justification for being suspicious; rather, the point is that DSH is alive and well, and it is hurting our Republic’s development.
There are dozens of examples like the ones I have mentioned, but for brevity’s sake, I believe these two examples should be sufficient to drive the point home. The point isn’t that there is zero corruption in Armenia, or that there is no justification for being suspicious; rather, the point is that DSH is alive and well, and it is hurting our Republic’s development. Some of us say it’s merely karma, and the new leadership will itself suffer from the monster it is partially responsible for cultivating and fostering. But such an approach to our nation promises nothing but harm and stagnation. Accordingly, we must work against this attitude of disgust, suspicion and hate.
I hope we can all agree that it is absolutely critical that DSH be halted, or at least minimized. There are likely many ways to do this, and here I’d like to offer two possibilities. One simple option would be to have populist leaders leave the people alone and not pass any laws that will better the country. Such leaders would ignore all problems and just tell people what they want to hear, while collectively burying their heads in the sand. For example, the Health Minister can choose to continue to allow children to be vulnerable as passengers in a moving vehicle rather than pass a law that requires car-seats and protect them. One suspects this approach will quickly stall progress in our young republic. Option one, then, is nothing more than maintaining the status quo while merely running a favored PR campaign. It does nothing for Armenia.
The second option for fighting DSH, I believe, is a viable one with two critical dimensions. The first dimension is educational, and the other is economic. In this approach, any law proposed is backed up by an educational campaign. For example, when the Minister of Health proposes to require car-seats for children, he would also launch a campaign to inform people about what a serious problem it is to have children unstrapped and unsafe in moving vehicles. Citizens would see billboards containing statistics (information about child injuries/deaths related to car crashes was not easily accessible for this analysis which is a problem in and of itself), and if necessary, graphic images. Ministry employees would visit children at school and present on the importance of child-safe car seats and how it can save lives. Pamphlets would be passed out on busy street corners. Celebrities would appear in advertisements promoting the law. In other words, people would be bombarded with information that promote child safety car-seats everywhere they turn. And though it would be costly, it would be money well spent, for it would ensure successful implementation.
One would think that educating the public on such issues would be enough to conquer DSH, but I believe it wouldn’t be enough. After all, in Armenia, the average citizen would claim that even though they now understand the importance of car-seats, there will be government officials and their friends who will take advantage of their connections to import and monopolize the sale of car-seats, becoming filthy rich. That is why it is very important to ensure economic policies and regulations are laid out and communicated alongside the educational campaign. It’s also important to be understanding of the people’s economic hardship, and that it is necessary, first and foremost, to give plenty of time for such a law to be enforced (i.e. Announcing that citizens have until January 1, 2020 before car-seats for children become mandatory.). After all, the last thing people want to hear is that they must buy a $200 car seat starting next week or otherwise they will be fined. This is very important for those with a lack of resources.
The economic dimension must extend even further for those who have no way of complying with new policies. To continue with the same example, the government needs to get involved with somehow making the car-seats affordable to those who simply cannot afford it. There are a number of people who live in my village that own a 20-plus year-old junky Russian car. These cars break down on them on a regular basis, but it is all they have. And they use this car to drive down to the city so they can get to work. So although these people can afford these cars, they cannot afford “luxuries” like child safety car-seats. What are they to do? Are they to drive with their children illegally and risk getting fined? Are they going to be law-abiding citizens and never let their children in their car? These are not real options. In light of this, I suggest that the government must somehow make abiding this law possible for all citizens. This may be in the form of subsidizing car-seats. This may be in the form of the government importing car-seats and selling them to citizens directly. It may even be in the form of a tax-break for families with children which would cover the cost of the car-seat. Whatever the path, the economic aspect must always be considered as a critical part to any new legislation. Only then can DSH be minimized.
The attitude of disgust, suspicion and hatred must be eliminated in our country if we want to see progress. This poisonous attitude will come to hurt this current government in much of the same way it hurt the former ones. And what’s worse, it will go on to hurt any other potential government we have, damaging our chances of growing into a thriving country we can all be proud of, a place where we can see our future.