Armenia’s Existential Decision: Modernization

The third installment of a multi-part series, this article was originally published in Armenian by Mediamax, on June 6, 2022.

Avetik Chalabyan’s legal representatives have published the co-founder of ARAR Foundation’s article penned at the Armavir Penitentiary Institution, where he is currently being held under trumped up charges.

Avetik Chalabyan

In my previous article, I had outlined the first pillar of Armenia’s existential decision, the regathering of Armenians. We acknowledge that reality will always differ from our plans and visions; however, we must develop and formulate them around a united approach, followed by plans for systematic implementation. Therefore, I will continue the series with this article, focusing on the second pillar, modernization.

Beginning from the establishment of the Artaxiad Dynasty, followed by the adoption of Christianity and the creation of the Armenian alphabet, Armenia and Armenians became progressive, educated and creative elements in the region up until the end of the 14th century, where Armenia finally came under the rule of Turkish power, where they created a wonderful civilization through generations, with its influence reaching as far as the French Provence and Calcutta in India.

Whether the majestic capital city of Ani, the University at Tatev glowing with its scientific minds, the divine Book of Lamentations by Narekatsi and countless other intellectual and spiritual contributions over centuries, the Armenian nation, hidden in mountains and clinging to her lands, summoned its power and talent to enrich humanity, to enlighten mankind and solidify its place in the annals of human history.

Even after that, when Armenia descended into four centuries of darkness and slavery brought about by the Turkish race, Armenians exiled from their homeland continued on with their creative spirit to serve humanity wherever they ended up. However, these four centuries left an indelible mark on the Armenian homeland. During these 400 years, all urban planning, building of churches and monasteries, scientific and artistic endeavors were deprived of their benefactors, political leadership ceased to exist, and the creative segment of the society became exiled and detached from its roots. Even after the subjugation of eastern Armenia by Russia, it took at least half a century for the regathering of Armenians and gradual improvements in living conditions that enabled them to become organized to lead the modernization, economic and cultural developments in the South Caucasus. 

This process continued on until the end of the 20th century. Thus, in a span of 100 years, modern Armenia became the scientific, industrial and cultural leader in the South Caucasus, moving past its more resource-rich neighbors.

It is the bitter irony of fate that Armenia took significant steps toward modernization while under 100 years of Russian subjugation and managed to waste all its advantages during 30 years of self-rule to become the weakest link in the South Caucasus. The nation that had given tens of thousands of scientists and engineers to the world lost to its semi-barbarian neighbor, who has been able to technologically equip and modernize its armed forces while Armenian armed forces were left with military equipment and strategies and logistical capabilities from the previous century.

Today, Armenia has reached a strange crossroads, where on the one hand a significant technological node has been developed in her capital city, integrating itself into the global value chain and creating significant value for the country, and on the other hand, its provinces are saddled with poverty, technologically lingering in the first half of the past century. On the one hand, we have private schools, whose graduates are accepted into some of the world‘s best universities, and on the other hand, we have staggering illiteracy indices in the provinces. On the one hand, we have some of the highest number of scientific publications in the former USSR, and on the other hand, the overwhelming majority of the population has no connection with the scientific advances made in the country. And, we are conceding college graduates to the majority of CIS countries.

This crossroads, as paradoxical as it may be, has a simple explanation in the wild capitalism that has reigned in the country after independence. The oft aggressive initiators of this wild capitalism have established their sovereignty over the country, utilizing her natural resources, scientific-technological and cultural capabilities. Over time, they have formulated two parallel realities: a privileged minority that reinvents itself in prosperity, education and modern professions with subsequent new economic opportunities; and the resource-deprived majority that continues to linger in its poverty and misery.

The rapid rise of Nikol Pashinyan to power is resultant from the delayed reaction of the destitute segment of our society (today reaching 60 to 70 percent of the population) against the wild capitalism, the forgiving of its many sins and the strong allergy toward its potential return.  However, the modernization processes started by Pashinyan were doomed to failure from the beginning, as they were implemented under a false agenda, dictated by neoliberal policies espoused by foreign powers supporting his government and with half-baked recipes. To date, Pashinyan’s administration can be proud of only two accomplishments: asphalting certain local and country-wide roads and making some improvements in the efficiency of the tax system. For the sake of justice, these achievements have resulted in increases in supporters of Pashinyan, especially in the provinces, where well-maintained asphalt roads were unseen luxuries during the rule of the previous authorities. 

Therefore, any new government coming after Pashinyan will have to face a critical imperative to modernize Armenia; however, that modernization will be impossible without changes in our political-economic model and a significant redistribution of public good through state levers. This will demand a new “public contract,” where a segment of the society that has succeeded and reached a significant level of well-being, will voluntarily start to help the other segment that is still experiencing poverty, by the calculation that poverty must be eradicated in Armenia over the next 20 years, where the overwhelming majority of the country will prosper and will be able to take advantage of the fruits of modern scientific-educational and technological advances.

If the new government after Pashinyan can implement this public contract, then there are at least a few important areas for modernizing the country, upon which not only public resources should be focused, but also various resources coming from abroad. The first and the most critical one is education. I have noted above that although Armenia is the most developed scientific and technological country in the South Caucasus, it is also the most uneducated one. That’s because education is available only to a minority of the society.

Today, only one-third of high school graduates are admitted to institutions of higher education in Armenia, not all of them graduate, and only a quarter of that number receive technological specializations that create competitive value for Armenia. Over the next 20 years, the number of people receiving higher education in Armenia should double, and the number of graduates in technology should at least triple. Along with the increase of the general quality of higher education, this will provide an opportunity to make a significant breakthrough in the economic competitiveness and general quality of the population of Armenia. Such a breakthrough, however, requires enormous efforts. The small number of recipients of higher education in Armenia is not so much a matter of educational supply, as of demand.

In the conditions of poverty and limited availability of high-quality education, most young people in Armenia have neither the opportunity to prepare for university exams, the financial means to study there, nor an idea of how they will capitalize on their education after graduation.

As a result, education remains largely the privilege of the children of the educated section of the society, and this watershed is gradually deepening. Therefore, if we want to carry out a real educational revolution in Armenia, we must address the deep problems conditioned by poverty, in particular:

  • In all large settlements (with at least 1,000 inhabitants), there should be state-funded kindergartens. Children’s education should start from preschool age and be free.
  • In these settlements, schools should be modernized, and the state should provide not only free education, but also food, uniforms and school supplies.
  • The state order in universities should be expanded several times. All state universities should establish regional branches with the state subsidizing their work.
  • Additional educational opportunities should be created everywhere in the country; “TUMO box” type facilities should be available to all children.
  • Private schools should receive funding from the state per student equal to the state, which will create a competitive environment and continuously improve the quality of school education.
  • Universities should be completely depoliticized and focus on creating quality and demanded educational value together with employers.
  • The top two to three leading universities of Armenia, continuously improving the quality of education, should appear in the list of the top 500 universities in the world, with the goal of achieving higher positions in the future.

This is a very ambitious program and is possible only with a significant effort. It will require not only significant material resources (additional 300-500 million US dollars per year), but also thousands of dedicated people who will implement the program. Repatriation is important here, as most of the fighters of such an enlightenment movement must be recruited from abroad, be it a physics teacher in a border village or a professor of biotechnology at the best university in the country. The good news is that all of this, albeit on a limited scale, has already begun (e.g. TUMO centers, Ayb schools, Root laboratories, Teach Armenia and similar programs). This movement is already gaining momentum and proving its vitality. Therefore, the task of the next stage will be to scale the programs that have already proved their viability, to make them accessible to every child and thus to overcome the most important challenge of Armenia’s modernization.

Interconnected with the previous one, the most important task of modernization will be to change the existing territorial distribution of the population in Armenia. Today, 30 percent of the population of Armenia lives in villages, and 20 percent in settlements with urban status, which are basically big villages. Such a structure of the population has been formed historically, in particular, as a result of de-industrialization during the period of independence, but this is not an optimal solution for the 21st century. The situation is complicated by the fact that most of the rural settlements are small and do not have enough scale to provide minimal social infrastructure. Today, the average Armenian village has approximately 1,000 inhabitants and 400 hectares of arable land, neither of which is sufficient for normal socio-economic activity. If we also take into account that this average is also conditioned by the presence of several dozen large settlements, it is obvious that most of the rural settlements are not viable in the long run, where there is already a continuous outflow from them.

As difficult as it may be, the possible solution is to concentrate the population in Armenia in smaller, but large, well-off and prosperous settlements, where the social infrastructure necessary for modern life is available, there are quality educational opportunities, and the concentration of labor and infrastructure make them attractive for investment. This process has already started in Armenia, but it must be implemented with much greater determination. To this end, priority settlements in each region should be identified for development, and the state should start investing in improving the social infrastructure of those settlements, modern planning for expansion and creating favorable conditions for attracting investors there. To avoid arbitrary decisions, centralized public investment must be combined with the ability to take the initiative, present innovative projects and attract investors. This will also create a competitive environment throughout the country and will stimulate the local settlement development initiative. Ultimately, the goal is to move approximately one percent (about 30,000 people) of Armenia’s annual population from low-income and rapidly evolving settlements over the next two decades to improve their quality of life, creating new economic opportunities and providing access to children. There will be modern education and its associated benefits.

I would also like to address an important question: who will be the engine of modernization? If during the years of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union the main impulses of modernization were given from the imperial center and carried out on the spot by creative Armenians, then in the coming decades, most likely, there will be no such “imperial” umbrella. Armenia must modernize by cooperating with Russia, the European Union, the United States, China and other technologically advanced countries (for example, Japan, Korea, Iran, India) and try to take advantage of the accomplishments of these countries. In the current highly polarized geopolitical situation, this will require a very complicated tug-of-war, but it is absolutely necessary if we want to expand the resource base from which the ambitious project of radical modernization of our country will be fed.

After all, only such modernization will allow us not only to develop the country and make it competitive in the modern world, but also to accumulate sufficient resources for the effective defense of the country and the advancement of our national goals. Each of you should ask yourself what you are doing to modernize our country, and what you can do in the next stage to increase the existing results tenfold.

Ara Nazarian, PhD

Ara Nazarian, PhD

Ara Nazarian is an associate professor of Orthopaedic Surgery at Harvard Medical School. He graduated from Tennessee Technological University with a degree in mechanical engineering, followed by graduate degrees from Boston University, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and Harvard University. He has been involved in the Armenian community for over a decade, having served in a variety of capacities at the Hamazkayin Armenian Educational and Cultural Society, the Armenian Cultural and Educational Center, Armenian National Committee of America, St. Stephen’s Armenian Elementary School and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation.

1 Comment

  1. Great article! A couple of points spring to mind. Re-distribution of the country’s population is definitely required for the xountry to be modernised. However, great incentives have to be given to the population including redistribution of land and property. It is a gigantic task and frankly I am not sure Armenia in ita current state can succeed.
    The greatest open bleeding wound is the exodus of the youth from Armenia. How do you propose one could tempt the youth away from big (foreign) city lights and into a lifelong struggle for yet another nation re-birth?
    I have been pondering this question in my mind for years…

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