The Way Forward
We have dedicated the first five articles to some of the constraints and challenges facing the Armenian nation today. While not a comprehensive treatise, they have aimed to highlight key areas that require special attention for any immediate, medium and long-term plans to lift the nation out of its current predicament. This article will attempt to summarize these issues and offer non-exhaustive suggestions to initiate discussion.
Definition of the Armenian Nation
A mortal sin of the first post-independence leadership of the country was its inability and unwillingness to define the Armenian nation. At the time, it sufficed their needs to define the nation within the borders of the newly-independent Armenia, going so far as vilifying Artsakh and establishing the us versus them mentality, a fire that smoldered for 20 something years, never addressed and never put out, which finally burned the house down. It also served their shortsighted needs to maintain a barrier between the Diaspora and Armenia. In their minds, the Diaspora represented competition, not convergence. If we are to ever stand on our own feet, we must embrace and actively seek the totality of the Armenian nation, one that includes Armenia, Artsakh and all people of Armenian heritage throughout the world. It is this single misunderstood, undervalued and underutilized resource that can propel the nation forward. The relationship thus far has appealed to the lowest common denominator of both entities. The Diaspora has been kept at bay, limiting its role to primarily feel good, philanthropic endeavors and infusion of cash into Armenia which has rewarded the Diaspora with photo-ops and galas without making them a responsible party. This has worked out for successive Armenian governments, who in their all-knowing wisdom, have given lip service to the Diaspora, taken their money and actively prevented them from participating in building a nation. This mindset is detrimental, and its ramifications are on full display today. Diasporan organizations want to hedge their bets and see who comes out on top in Armenia to cozy up to. They are unwilling to take stands that might not curry favors for them in the immediate future but will be beneficial for Armenia in the long run. Case in point: the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) and its family of organizations on the east coast including the Armenian Relief Society (ARS), Armenian Youth Federation (AYF), Hamazkayin and Homenetmen issued a statement of solidarity in May, stating that Artsakh can never be a part of Azerbaijan for well-known reasons. With the exception of the Armenian Prelacy (east coast) and St. Stephen’s Armenian Elementary School, no other east coast Diasporan organization wanted to cosign that statement (Figure X). The Diaspora’s failure to stand with their brethren in Artsakh certainly emboldened the current government to give up Lachin, Aghavno, Sus and Berdzor, as they saw no opposition coming from the outside, given that Armenia’s citizens have mostly given up on pursuing matters that will shape their future. There were no stipulations in the November 9 agreement to do so, but this treacherous government did so, seeing no resistance from anywhere, including the Diaspora. Defining the Armenian nation must be the first fundamental step, as this will delineate responsibilities and expectations from all parties with respect to one another.
State vs. the Government (Իշխանութիւն vs. Պետականութիւն)
One of the fundamental issues to understand is the difference between a state and a government. We seem to think of the terms interchangeably in Armenia, without truly appreciating the vastness that separates the two. Since independence in 1991, little effort has been made in establishing a state with institutions that stand the test of time, and the efforts that were made in establishing certain institutions, e.g. the military, are actively being destroyed. The only institution that has functioned with a degree of independence, normalcy and planning has been the Central Bank. The state is permanent. It needs to be built on solid footing and must be protected at all costs. The government comes and goes. The state must be strong enough to withstand damage from impotent, incapable and/or treacherous governments, such as the one currently in power. Building state institutions whose interests are aligned with those of the citizenry and whose fundamental roles are to protect and serve the citizenry will address this issue. The state cannot be built to satisfy the personal interests of government members.
This single item is the salvation or doom of the Armenian nation. Our fundamental issues lie in our people, who do not understand personal and societal responsibility; who do not appreciate the importance of establishing inclusive economic and political institutions; who do not appreciate the value of the state and the reverence with which the institutions of the state must be held; and who do not understand that the buck stops with them. They ARE the nation. There are many examples of fine primary education systems in the world that produce well-informed and responsible citizens. We have previously discussed Estonia, Finland and other nations. We must embark on a collective effort with Diasporan and Armenian experts to closely evaluate the top three primary education systems in the world and how they can be used to formulate an Armenian education system based on strong academic rigor, infusion of reasoning and critical thinking skills from early on, a de-emphasis on memorization, and importantly, the teaching of national values, history and civics to raise generations who are keenly aware of their history and their place in the world and are actively taught what it means to be a responsible citizen. The next generation and those coming after them will be the key to resetting the nation’s mindset and working toward nation building with common values, a strong education system and a sense of community with a clear vision for a better future. The existing generations will be forced to adhere to the nation’s new value system through encouragement and shaming by their progeny, financial pressure in the form of significant punitive measures for those in non-compliance and incentives for those opting to embrace national values.
Higher Education and Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math (STEAM)
We have spent significant time discussing the limitations of Armenian higher education. If we are to do well, we need to have institutions of higher learning that can compete internationally. Only such institutions can develop talent that can produce and compete internationally. We have a plethora of mediocre academic institutions that must be rethought from the ground up, where a few strong institutions will be entrusted with training our future thinkers and doers. We must evaluate different educational systems worldwide (e.g. Switzerland) and implement a system that takes into consideration our local flavors and is built on established and known successful norms. Again, the Diaspora will be key to this process, given its massive resources. However, they must be brought into a well-designed system to do their part within a unified approach and not as individual islands. While a daunting task, the only missing components are will, vision and effort, all of which can be summoned with the right environment and incentives.
The fundamental function of the state is to provide safety and security for its nation, a notion that the current treacherous government has abdicated completely. They have embarked on a campaign to systematically dismantle the constructs of the Armed Forces, as clearly stated by the current holder of the office of the PM (there will be peace, when we have no army). The fact that the Armenian citizenry has not revolted against this is telling of how far the citizenry has fallen and how sophisticated an effort has been undertaken over the past 20 years to dismantle whatever state institutions we have built, namely the Armed Forces. The military needs to revamp itself and realize that it is the backbone of the nation, assume that role and move forward to rebuild not simply by hardware, but also with modern training of the forces and indoctrination of the sacredness of their mission. The leadership must be chosen based on merit and extensive training and be removed from any corrupt practices, much more so than any civilian. This goes to the core of leading by example of a dedicated leadership, whose sole focus is the defense of our people, lands, culture and way of life. Establishing partnerships with Greek, Indian, French, Chinese, Russian, Iranian and other military counterparts is key in mastering different military doctrines to help develop up-to-date and effective defensive and offensive military doctrines. A strong offensive doctrine is a significant defensive asset in and of itself. With respect to hardware, we must think strategically about our defensive and offensive needs, given our geography and the enemy nations around us, plan accordingly and make the right procurements that will serve the nation. This is a first priority for the nation and one that warrants a multi-billion dollar loan to rebuild the military now. Without a strong military, the nation’s survival prospects are significantly diminished, as evidenced by the realities of today. A professional military backed by a well-trained militia may be the way forward for the nation. All men and women must receive military training and serve as militia until a certain age, as a backup for the professional Armed Forces who will be tasked with protecting our sovereignty. A fortress nation mentality needs to sink into the mindset of the Armenians; they are not Danes or Swedes who can live unencumbered by existential threats. They must realize that they are surrounded by enemies, and while they must live their lives to the fullest, they must always be vigilant and prepared to defend their nation.
Social and Healthcare System
A functioning nation cannot be built on wages and retirement payments that do not support the basic needs of life. Fundamentally, this must be addressed through proper taxation, judicious use of state resources, diminishing corruption and establishment of justice and equity for the citizenry. Again, our institutions must reflect our values. So, we need to clearly state our values from the top down to bring up the next generation or two that can then project and enforce our values from the bottom up. We need to establish functioning healthcare and insurance systems that will serve the nation, and not just Yerevan. We have to fundamentally change our medical education, given the abundance of Diasporan resources available to us in this domain. Again, we need to develop the right system and engage our Diasporan resources to participate professionally. Our medical school, residency and specialty fellowship training must undergo a radical change in curricula, implementation and incentives. Our physicians must also be incentivized to work outside Yerevan and care for the population.
The Central Bank has been the lone beacon of professionalism in the nation. It has set monetary policies diligently and introduced and supported innovative ideas and concepts that will propel Armenia forward. However, its reach is constrained by the unprofessional and corrupt government structures that lack the vision and the will to do anything of value (the Yerevan mayor’s 7:30 a.m. city-wide wake-up call comes to mind). There are significant resources in the Diaspora that can provide sound economic advice and/or introduce expert world thought leaders to provide advice and counsel. A concerted effort, in close collaboration with plans for the nation’s STEAM future, social and military needs must be crafted for the Armenian nation of the future. Keeping in mind that the Diaspora’s purchasing power is three times that of Armenia, based on a conservative estimate, again this resource is sorely underutilized. The Armenian Diaspora must be taxed at a level to be evaluated by experts, to contribute toward the future rebuilding of Armenia in a systematic manner; be held responsible differently than volunteer/philanthropic efforts; and also be given a fraction of a vote per person, given the level of contribution, and whether they will sign up their progeny to serve in the nation’s Armed Forces. This puts the Diaspora on notice, makes her accountable and offers her a tangible asset for the future of her nation. It also forces the Armenian citizenry to up their game and be accountable to the millions of Armenians who live outside Armenia. There is no more room for comments such as “You don’t live here, so you don’t have a say.” Armenia and Artsakh belong to ALL Armenians. ALL must be responsible towards them, and ALL must do so together.
Much like every other institution in the nation, our foreign policy apparatus is entrenched in mediocracy. Though the complimentary foreign policy adopted by the nation became obsolete sometime in 2014 or so, it kept being pursued, and the existing treacherous neophytes thought that they could play both sides of the complimentary policy to their own advantage. The unfolding disaster over the past four years has demonstrated their “prowess.” The Armenian thinking works in binary terms of cooperating with Russians or Americans as policy and lamenting the absence of both entities in defending Armenia or betraying Armenia. Again, this allows us to chalk up our failures to our “partners,” who did not back us up or our nation being cannon fodder in geopolitical games, as opposed to assuming responsibility for our failures in this domain.
A serious foreign policy operation will identify mutual interests and reciprocal alliances with different nations and cultivate them jointly, all based on mutual interests and gains and/or neutralization of gains for enemies. It will not put all its eggs in one basket and will establish relationships with key nations such as the US, Russia, China, Iran, India, Georgia, Saudi Arabia, France, Brazil, Japan based on strategic thinking, identification and exploitation of mutual needs. This takes time, significant effort and vision. It also takes a well-prepared diplomatic corps that must be developed from all corners of the world. Armenia’s citizenry is limited in its thoughts and philosophies and their place in the world, given the Soviet legacy and their fundamentally lacking education system. Again, this is where the Diaspora can be a significant resource, with Armenians who have lived and experienced a variety of systems, have been educated in diverse settings and have life experiences that cannot be easily duplicated. The Diaspora’s immigrant mentality has been its key to success and one that Armenia can use a fair amount of today.
Nobody will “defend” you if you don’t defend yourself. Nobody will negotiate for you if you fail to be present at the negotiating table. As cliché as it is, if you are not at the table, you are on the menu. We cannot abdicate our responsibility and expect others to do the heavy lifting for us, when we have failed to do the hard work to establish the mutual relationships and alliances that will come in handy in our hour of need.
State Models to Think Through
Building a nation requires two main components: 1) competent and effective leadership with a clear vision; and 2) active, aware and engaged citizenry. At the moment, we have neither. So, while an active, aware and engaged citizenry is being cultivated, a strong, effective and visionary leadership must step in to guarantee the nation’s survival and development of the citizenry.
The nation has failed to develop a principled and committed political elite, simply reflecting in its leadership its own worst traits. Our political parties have by and large revolved around cults of personality with clan, բարեկամ, խնամի fealties, loyalties and deal-making at their core, much as the population has functioned since independence and even before that. This environment has not bred higher-minded individuals, since that is anathema to the skill sets needed to survive and thrive in the existing environment.
Every person who has held a position of power (at any level) has instinctively known his/her limited window of opportunity to extract as much from the system in preparation for moving to greener pastures with their publicly sourced nest egg. This is certainly understandable to the extent that there has been no system in place to guide the nation and the individual, thereby fulfilling the vicious cycle of surviving in a dog-eat-dog environment.
The traditional Armenian political parties have been woefully ineffective for a variety of reasons: dealing with decades-long Soviet propaganda against them; depleted local rank and file and intelligentsia resultant from Soviet purges; complete lack of preparedness to deal with the rough-and-tumble petty politics of Armenia with no room for idealism; inability to disseminate a coherent message on their well-developed political platform; and unreasonable expectations that will only set one up for failure among others. So, here we are in the middle of a significant national crisis, having failed to develop a cadre of dedicated, intelligent and principled public servants to take the reins of power.
We have demonstrated little appreciation or understanding of due process, separation of powers, unbiased judiciary or simple justice for that matter. Our political structure must undergo a radical change to embrace a more open and inclusive political environment with meaningful participation and contribution from the Diaspora. The Yerevan “elite” must understand its limitations through its Soviet survivalist mentality and pseudo intelligentsia legacy and do away with its uncalled-for disdain for the դրսեցի and գեղցի and stop with its language superiority complex (their only tool to mask their limited educational experiences and exposure to the wider world). We must realize that we only get one shot at this, one shot where all of us pull the wagon in the same direction with red lines that none of us will dare to cross. We have learned and mastered all the ills of western politics: how to stack the judiciary; how to buy votes and rig elections; how to place cronies in high places with no backgrounds to serve; and how to extract from the system for personal gain.
Now it’s time to adopt a more representative approach, something along the lines of the Swiss form of government. We need to develop a more representative parliamentary system with Diasporan inclusion, through proper vetting mechanisms in place. We may adopt direct democracy, where citizens over the age of 18 may vote on how the country is run, where much like the Swiss system, mandatory, popular initiatives and optional referenda will be held to pass laws, amend laws, amend the Constitution…based on the will of the citizenry. Draconian rules designed to maintain hold on power and suppress public opinion must be eliminated.
A portion of the National Assembly can be elected through general elections and representing different political parties, and the rest can be selected from the eligible population pool through a random computerized process and Diasporan representation. This way, the National Assembly will represent the people through political parties and direct citizen inclusion. These citizens will draw salaries to reduce corruption and will have strict disclosures in place to avoid any conflict of interest. They will serve one term and will be guaranteed employment post-service at the same or equivalent position prior to service. The ratio of political party elected versus citizen-selected representatives must be thought through carefully and optimized over time.
Another variant will be to have a National Assembly with deputies from all political parties and Diaspora representation who are not career politicians. They will hold their regular jobs and their part-time legislative duties. The Assembly will convene a few times a year for a number of weeks to discuss issues and pass legislation. In between sessions, the deputies will read proposals and attend meetings. This will enact a more grassroots notion of “citizen legislature,” to maintain a closer relationship with their constituency and the issues affecting them. Again, these legislators will be paid well and be held to strict financial and conflict of interest disclosures to avoid even the slightest appearance of conflict. Any conflicts must be kept in check with well-regulated lobbying rules. There will be a clear understanding of all deputies’ outside dealings for absolute accountability and transparency.
We can establish a National Council, as the executive power, where a number of National Councilors from different political parties and Diasporan representation will be elected by the National Assembly for a number of years and share the duties of a head of state. The Federal Councilors will rotate, and every year one will take on the role of president.
We can create a judicial system with staggered terms for the judges to be appointed by the president of the Federal Council, to be eligible to serve only one or two terms with transparency for all personal assets before and after assuming judicial roles. This practice must be applied to all branches of the government. There will be no lifetime appointments, and the staggered terms along with the appointment of the judges by the rotating president of the Federal Council will further reduce the chance of crony installments and skewing of the legislation toward one faction or another.
These examples are not exhaustive and are only meant to engage us all in fruitful discussions on how best to work toward a bright and secure future for the Armenian nation. Our limitations are only in our imagination, commitment, willingness to sacrifice and personal and financial investment into the future of Armenia and Artsakh. None of the leaders of the past 30 years will be remembered kindly in our long history, nor will we, as the generations that gained it all and lost it all, if we don’t come to our collective senses soon.