Where do we go from here?

By Roupen Karakashian

What future do I dream of for Armenia and Armenians…a future that I’d want for my grandchildren?

This is a question we hear all too seldom these days. Indeed, among the passionate debates that have gripped the nation since the devastating 44-day war, amidst all the vitriol, accusations and counter accusations of treason, sell-out and corruption, we hear very little about what Armenia we all dream of and want to build. There is much to divide and weaken us, but little to inspire and unite us.

Much of this unhealthy atmosphere, I believe, is due to manipulation by external forces and local elements loyal to them, who benefit from limiting our political choices to one between Armenia’s former and current rulers — the latter accusing the former of utter corruption; the former accusing the latter of treason, incompetence and sell-out to a sinister globalism that imposes on us liberal western values in absolute contradiction with our cherished national values. It is easy and tempting to fall prey to such manipulation, and to spend our energy insulting each other. I have been tempted quite often myself.

I suggest we attempt to rise from this morass and elevate the debate. Instead of focusing on “good guys” and “bad guys,” and who should rule the country, let’s think about what country/nation we want to build for future generations.

In making this attempt, I’ll try first to describe the Armenian state and nation that I dream about. I expect that a large part of what I describe will be acceptable to most, but I also expect that certain points will be challenged by some. What is important is to have a debate about them respectfully, keeping in mind that we all have the best interests of our nation at heart, and that disagreement does not make us enemies of one another.

So what do I dream of?

  • An Armenia that is stable, secure, and at peace with its neighbours.
  • An Armenia that is militarily powerful enough to deter any aggression against it.
  • An Armenia with a growing population, enticing an increasing number of Armenians as well as non-Armenians to immigrate, and giving no reason for its citizens to emigrate.
  • An Armenia that is democratic, where individual rights are protected, where there is no racial, ethnic, religious or gender discrimination, where church and state are separated, where the rule of law applies to all, and where there is a competent and accountable government with an effective system of checks and balances between legislative, executive and judicial branches.
  • An Armenia where everyone enjoys equal opportunities, where there is no poverty, where everyone’s dignity is respected, and all citizens feel and behave like stakeholders.
  • An Armenia that ranks in the first 10 countries on all elementary/secondary school system rankings.
  • An Armenia that has research universities that rank in the world’s top 100.
  • An Armenia that is a magnet for foreign investment.
  • A vibrant and revitalised diaspora, that is effectively engaged with Armenia and where it is easy to maintain and nurture one’s Armenian identity.

And what is our reality?

  • An unstable and fragile Armenia, that remains under the constant threat of war and further loss of territory.
  • An Armenia that is militarily too weak to defend itself and is at the mercy of an unreliable ally for the security of its borders.
  • An Armenia with a constantly declining population and a dangerous concentration of the remainder in the capital.
  • An Armenia that is democratic primarily in form, but not in substance. Yes, elections are held and people vote. Yes, elections have recently been more transparent and fair. But little of substance has been changed (constitution, electoral law, law on political parties, reform of the judiciary, etc.) to make democracy meaningful, viable and sustainable. There is no independent and competent judiciary, the rule of law remains arbitrary. The government and civil service remain largely unaccountable and ineffective.
  • An Armenian society that remains, by and large, macho, paternalistic, conservative, racist and sexist; where it is very difficult to thrive if one is different or thinks differently. We are proud to be the first Christian nation, but there is very little Christian spirit in the ways we’ve shown we can debase human dignity.
  • An Armenia, where over a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line, where there is no significant middle class with a stake in the system, and where connections and servility are more important to succeed, than knowledge, character and competence.
  • Barring a few exceptions in the private sector, the state educational system has not been adapted to the 21st century. Rather, it continues to rely on rote memorisation rather encouraging inquisitive thinking and questioning, does not equip the youth with necessary skills to excel in the new knowledge economy, and retains teachers who remain underpaid, demotivated and poorly trained.
  • An Armenia that continues in its failure to attract significant and game-changing foreign investment.
  • A weak and divided diaspora, where traditional leadership structures have become increasingly ineffective and irrelevant, while no new structures have emerged to fill the void. Add to this a relationship between diaspora and Armenia that continues to be marked by mistrust and contempt.

The gulf between dream and reality is so wide that it is easy to get depressed and give up, and many of us had such temptations since November 9th, 2020. It is also very tempting to get negative, revolted and extreme, to search for culprits and traitors and seek vengeance. However, such feelings, as much as they can be expected and understood, lead to nothing constructive. We are obliged to put our emotions aside, be brutally sincere with ourselves and assess our options in a rational and cool-headed manner.

Let’s start by accepting collective responsibility for the situation in which we find ourselves, and stop searching for those to blame. We have failed as a nation. Our political, religious and intellectual elites totally failed us, even though very few are willing to admit that and make space for a new leadership. Looking back over 30 years, it is now clear that we were totally unprepared for independence. Having been under foreign rule for centuries, we had long lost our tradition of statehood and totally lacked the experience, tools and culture to build a modern state. The independence we achieved was none of our making and it was, in hindsight, totally unrealistic to expect a generation shaped by soviet rule to build the modern state that we dreamt of. I often hear people make comparisons with the state of Israel, and the ability of the Jewish nation to build a modern state after centuries in exile. In my view, one of the keys to the success of the Israeli state was that its founders came from Europe, with the education, values and ideology they inherited from the European enlightenment, whereas in our case, it was the ‘homo sovieticus’ that was in charge, with the warped value system that we’ve all witnessed.

So what to do and where to start?

The goals and priorities should be clear. We need to elevate Armenia’s sovereignty by growing its economy, building a strong and professional army able to deter potential aggressors, strengthening our democratic institutions, increasing the population, etc. It is called nation-building and we can all agree on its broad outlines. However, under the current status quo and while we remain in imminent danger of a new war, it is unrealistic to expect that we can successfully embark on this nation-building endeavour. What we need first is to secure some peace and stability, and do so without sacrificing what little sovereignty we have left.

I speak about sovereignty, because our past practice of total surrender to the Russians in fear of the Turks has led us to the impasse we find ourselves in. If we continue down this path, we will continue to bleed population and face a slow-but-certain death.

As long as we continue exchanging our sovereignty for a supposed Russian security umbrella, we have no chance of building the modern, democratic and prosperous state we dream of. Such a state is not in the interest of Russia (as such interests are perceived by Russia’s existing regime), and Russia will likely do all within its powers to prevent Armenia from becoming a master of its own destiny. It is not a coincidence that today both the ruling party and the parliamentary opposition are puppets of Russia, hoping that their loyalty will either keep them in power, or bring them to power. Any voice or entity that challenges this status quo, and argues for reducing our dependence on Russia is ostracised, persecuted and kept on the margins of political life and discourse. I am not advocating an anti-Russian agenda. That, in my opinion, would be foolish. What I’m advocating is to seek a more dignified relationship with Russia, where we behave more like partners and take each others’ interests into account.

Similarly, I don’t believe we can rely on the West for our security. Armenia is not critical to the West’s interests, and they will never risk war to defend us. The West may not threaten our sovereignty and may be willing to help Armenia economically; however in the event of war, their solidarity with us will never go beyond empty diplomatic gestures and offers of humanitarian aid. We saw how the West used and then abandoned the Kurds in Syria, and now see how the West is refusing to intervene militarily in the conflict in Ukraine. We should not expect anything different when it comes to us.

Our main enemies are Turkey and Azerbaijan. Above all else, our foreign policy objective should be to achieve some stability and security within whatever borders we are able to negotiate with them, and to give the country some breathing space to start planning for and investing in the future. We should stop our historical habit of relying on third parties to guarantee our security. The price of that security is higher than whatever concessions we are obliged to make to our enemies.

Just as important, we are obliged to negotiate our security directly with our enemies. This is not the time for bravado and pompous declarations about reclaiming ancestral lands and exacting revenge on our enemies. This is not the time for demanding justice or demanding in general. Enough of the culture of demanding. It is time to accept what we have and what we are left with, and to focus all our energies on building from scratch a state that we can all be proud of, and that can one day have the wherewithal to defend its interests and those of our nation.

I am neither naïve, nor a peace-loving idealist. I’m well aware of the pan-turkic ideology. I understand that Armenia, geographically speaking, stands in Turkey’s way to realising that dream. I am a descendant of genocide survivors, I will never forget, and will never forgive, unless Turkey accepts responsibility and offers reparations. But I feel that it is essential to attempt to normalise relations between Armenia and Turkey. This is not about peace between nations. It is about normalised relations between states. It is a first step. It may or may not lead to peace between our two nations one day. I hope that it will, because only such peace can guarantee our future on our lands. Some will argue that ‘Turks are Turks’, and the minute we lose the Russian security umbrella, they will invade Armenia and finish off what they started 100 years ago. My response is that Russia’s policies in the Caucasus and towards Armenia do not depend on how faithfully we serve their interests. What is naïve is to think that if we are not faithful to her, Russia will punish us by abandoning us to the Turks. If a Turkish attack on Armenia is against the interests of Russia or any other regional power for that matter, than Russia and those powers will do all they can to thwart such an attack, regardless of the type of relations they entertain with Armenia. The opposite is true as well. If pan-turkism was a threat only to Armenia, the Armenian state would have ceased to exist long time ago. Our foreign policy cannot be a bet on how third parties will react in case we come under attack. It should instead be an effort to remove the threat of such an attack.

I realise this is a sensitive topic and needs to be approached with the utmost sensibility, openness and tact. It requires a national consensus. All the choices we are presented with are painful. We need to choose the one that does not reduce our sovereignty any further and gives us breathing space to focus on nation-building.

There is a bright side, however. As a whole, our nation does have the resources, wealth, expertise and network to succeed in nation-building efforts. After all, we are talking about transforming a small country with a homogeneous population of 3 million people. If our resources are mobilised and invested effectively, they will be more than sufficient to achieve our goals.

That we have been unable so far to mobilise our resources effectively is a testimony to our divisions, our infighting, the insatiable egos and/or pockets of our leaders and the failure of our elites in general. It is therefore imperative for a new pan-Armenian leadership to emerge, gain the trust of Armenians worldwide, propose and shape consensus over our priorities and goals, and drive our nation-building efforts.

In my opinion, the priorities are as follows:

  • Self-sufficiency and security in food, energy, water, communication and defense/deterrence
  • Investment in education and sciences
    • Schools that prepare responsible future citizens, aware of their civic duties and their rights, knowledgeable about their history and culture, and equipped with the skills and work ethic required to succeed.
    • Universities that are world-class both academically and in terms of research, and which excel in areas essential for the security and prosperity of the state.
    • An army that is integrated into the higher education system, and where military service is not a break from the education system, but rather a boost to a soldier’s education and career.
    • Continuous education programs to re-train those whose skills are not up to date.
  • Economic growth and development
    • Development of key sectors: IT/AI, agriculture, medicine, renewable energies and defense
    • Small business development
    • Export development
  • Population growth
    • Repatriation
    • Increased birth rate
    • Increased life expectancy
  • Regional and rural development
  • Eradication of poverty and the emergence of a strong middle class
  • Competent, transparent and accountable government administration
  • Investment in resources and tools necessary to enable any Armenian, anywhere in the world, to learn the language, stay actively engaged with the nation and remain connected to his/her roots.

This is a long list. Can we pursue all items, without dispersing valuable efforts and energies? Probably not. If I had to choose one area to focus on first, it would be education. I choose education because it is the sector with the highest multiplier effect, it is transformative in nature, and it can drive success in all other areas. If we want better governments in Armenia in the future, we need to start by educating new generations of better citizens, aware of their rights and duties. If we want key industries to develop, we need universities that prepare students to work in those industries and conduct research and development critical to those industries. We need to make sure that teachers are trained and qualified to teach those needed skills and values, and teaching becomes the most respected and rewarded profession. All else follows from this priority. Also, it is one domain where the amount of investment required is well within our capabilities as a nation. Just imagine taking some of the successful private initiatives realized in Armenia in the last decades (TUMO, FAST, AYP School, Dilijan School, AUA, Russian Armenian University, etc.), multiplying them by a hundred and making them accessible to all.

It is important to have an inspiring vision and a credible strategy to realize this vision. However, that is only half the battle. The other half is figuring out how to mobilize the worldwide resources of our nation to implement the strategy. What entity can be trusted to pull this off?

Clearly, the Armenian government cannot be the one taking the lead here. It has neither the capability, nor the independence, nor the credibility required to succeed. One day maybe, but not now and probably not in the next 10 years. The endemic corruption in Armenia, and the countless examples of embezzlement and self-enrichment witnessed over the last 3 decades have completely broken the relationship of trust between the Diaspora and the Armenian state.

If not the Armenian state, how about any of our existing pan-Armenian organizations? How about the church? I’m afraid, there also, the answer is ‘NO’. I don’t mean to diminish the critical role they have played in our history, and in the Diaspora following the genocide. Indeed, many of us have remained Armenian and feel the way we feel today mainly thanks to their efforts. However, the sad reality is that over time these entities have lost their vitality and their ability to unite a large majority of our nation around common goals. Since Armenia’s independence, they have all strived to support and help Armenia, but their efforts have fallen far short of the massive mobilization required to address the priorities discussed above. They have been good at community-building and maintenance, but they have failed at the larger challenge of nation-building.

What are some principles that could guide us in deciding what sort of entity/structure is needed?

  • Should the new entity be democratic in nature, i.e. with membership and an elected leadership? As much as I like democracy, I’m afraid of such a structure because it can be quite bureaucratic, and gives equal voice and vote to people of unequal quality. Its leadership will not be stable nor lasting, there will be wasted energy fighting to get elected to the governing body, and it can be easily penetrated and influenced. My preference would be to have an entity structured like a Foundation or NGO, where a board of directors is appointed at the start by a consensus of all those involved in launching the initiative, and then that board of directors selects new board members each time an existing member resigns, is incapacitated, passes away, or reaches a certain age.
  • Cooperation with the Armenian government: The new entity should engage with whatever government is in place and should try to convince, cooperate, and influence. For projects that require government cooperation, it should advocate its position, adapt if reasonable, and proceed only if there is acceptance by the government to respect the rules and standards that apply to all projects validated by the new entity. If the government is an obstacle, the entity should engage the public in Armenia and build public demand for its agenda. Some projects may not require the cooperation of the government and those can be undertaken immediately. Disbursement of money should always be under the control of the new entity, with 100% accountability of every penny spent.
  • The new entity (especially members of its board) should not engage in politics, in the sense of participating in elections, endorsing candidates or supporting any political party. It should always advocate and not oppose.
  • The new entity should not engage in pure charity. All projects should be investments in the future, with a multiplier effect, and fall under one of the adopted priorities. It needs to stay laser-focused on the priorities and not disperse itself on every worthy cause.
  • The board of directors should not consist solely of large donors or funders. I am not against a major donor being on the board, but we should not create the impression that this new entity is owned by a few rich Armenians who dictate its agenda, and that they will take care of all the funding needs by themselves.
  • A majority of the board members should be citizens of countries that are democratic and where individual rights are protected by the rule of law.
  • Members of the board should not be members of political parties, or any other entity that can influence/dictate their actions and decisions.
  • Members of the board should be selected based on the following criteria:
    • Ability to contribute either with skills and knowledge, network or fundraising
    • Knowledge of the Armenian landscape, the challenges we face and prior engagement
    • Respected and trustworthy
    • Open-minded and positive
    • Independent (not members or employees of one of the traditional entities, financially independent)
    • Representation: geographic, gender, generational

Once a board is established, it would then appoint various advisory committees and hire permanent staff. However, the new entity should avoid becoming top-down, with only vertical communication. Rather, the objective should be to create a platform, where participants in the platform can freely exchange with each other, make proposals, come up with projects, form project groups, and work in a decentralised manner. The board should make sure that priorities and strategies are clearly defined, that there are clear criteria for adopting and validating projects, that there are rules, guidelines and standards that apply to all validated projects (project management, metrics, accounting, reporting, etc.), and that the necessary tools and resources are available to each project team to help them succeed.

There are already several efforts in this regard, and several entities have emerged to try to fill the leadership vacuum. This is highly commendable, but we need to accelerate the process since we don’t have the luxury of time. I look forward to readers’ reactions, in hopes of developing a critical mass around a common agenda that can rally all forces. Let us focus on what unites us, rather than what divides.