BY MARIA TITIZIAN
This will hopefully be my last opinion piece about the presidential elections in Armenia. By the time this article is published, we will most likely have a new president who is the same president we had for the past five years. This should not come as a surprise to anyone. A lack of democracy, the absence of free and fair elections, an unengaged and disillusioned electorate, and a weak and fragmented opposition has made the outcome a foregone conclusion.
I have been in Armenia now for 12 years. For ten of those years I could not vote in national elections because there were certain barriers to my receiving dual citizenship. Once those barriers were lifted, I received my citizenship and in May 2012 voted for the first time ever in the parliamentary elections. I clearly remember the sense of fulfillment and the weight of responsibility I felt as I walked into the polling station, presented my passport and received my ballot. For the first time in my life, I was nervous walking to the booth to cast my vote. It symbolized something for me. I had grown up in a democratic country, where the rights and responsibilities of citizenship were ingrained in me from a young age and voting meant exercising an inalienable right. Voting in a country I had chosen to come to because I considered it my birthright therefore, carried with it not only the weight of responsibility but the weight of history. I voted for my parents and grandparents who had lost that birthright and for my children who never knew what it was like to grow up without a homeland, without an anchor to connect you to a particular identity or root you to a piece of land.
And now I have to make a decision. I have to decide whether or not I will even exercise that right on Election Day. Whatever decision I eventually make will be mine and so too will the consequences of that decision. But this is not about my voting rights. This discourse, if you will, is about what we must do so that in the future, citizens of Armenia will not be asked to take part in pretend elections.
This is about what we must do to ensure Armenia becomes a stable democracy, protects the rights of all its citizens, ensures freedom of expression, establishes rule of law and an independent judiciary, exemplifies the political will to reduce corruption significantly, designs an economic vision for the country that guarantees a competitive market, regulation and oversight that would give everybody equal and fair access to live a dignified life and that means access to dignified employment, housing, healthcare, education and social assistance when necessary.
There is one major obstacle that we must first address before moving in the right direction and that is our behavior within and outside of the borders of the Republic of Armenia. For those Armenians who are not interested in the political processes in Armenia, you can stop reading now, this may not interest you. For those who do, I propose the following actions.
First of all, we must obliterate from our thought process the idea that the problem is “too big for me to do anything about it.” Secondly, we have to stop pointing fingers at one another. Next, we must finally admit that while Armenians in Armenia haven’t gotten it right so far, Armenians in the Diaspora have been talking the talk but not walking the walk when it comes to establishing the institutions of democracy, social justice and security in our country.
Before you start writing comments to me, please, let’s for a few minutes ponder the statement. In 1991 Armenia gained independence after seventy years of authoritarian rule, where several generations of Armenians grew up isolated from the rest of the world, were educated and worked within a system that not only stifled initiative but punished you for it, where sense of community and solidarity was formal and imposed, and where freedom of independent thinking and expression or the intrinsic value of protecting one’s rights was non-existent. The years immediately following independence are well-documented and we all know the extremely difficult challenges that had to be overcome.
The newly established Republic of Armenia however had several advantages compared to the other post-Soviet republics. It was a monolithic country, a highly educated one and it had a very influential and affluent Diaspora. There were ingredients that could have ensured that the country set off on a path toward democracy, development and prosperity, yes, even with hostile neighbors and closed borders. It is true, we would and probably will not be able to boast being a country like Norway or Sweden under the current geopolitical conditions, but I’m confident we could have been in a better place than we are now.
A series of calamitous events occurred, which distorted the country’s development and instead of enshrining the values of democracy, freedom, justice and solidarity, we ended up with deepening corruption, impunity and authoritarian rule.
The new leadership of the new Republic of Armenia, emboldened by their new found power and freedom, began to believe that power and freedom meant the power to take away the freedom and power of everyone else except their own. They said to the Diaspora, send us your money but not your advice, we know how to govern ourselves. And the Diaspora? Well, we became emotional and sentimental, we couldn’t believe our good fortune, we finally had a free and independent Armenia, it wasn’t united, but not to worry, we would get that too, sooner or later. We made calls for Tebi Yerkir, we said, yes, finally we have a choice to live where we want. Most of us chose to stay where we were, and that’s fine because the Diaspora is critically important, not only for its own self-realization but to support the homeland. We said, here is our love and our money, you know what to do with it. And a lot of Armenians in the homeland knew exactly what to do with it because the Armenians from the Diaspora gave it to them without any strings attached. We gave without demanding accountability. We gave without question. We gave expensive toys that came with no instructions.
You see my friends, instead of building institutions in the homeland, we nurtured dependence, instead of empowering we created the expectation of assistance, instead of designing and implementing programs that would have helped educate a generation about democratic principles and values, about the kind of democracy we wanted, about what we meant when we cried out “Freedom” and what the protection of human rights envisions we enabled the existing paradigm. We expected the Armenians in Armenia to wake up one morning after decades of authoritarian rule and figure this all out?
And certainly, the administration in Armenia and its network didn’t want institutional assistance, they told the Diaspora to go and well, basically, occupy itself with whatever it was that it was doing. The first president of the Republic of Armenia, even today, sees the Diaspora, not as a partner to development and prosperity but as a cash cow that shall generously give money but refrain from giving advice. Succeeding regimes were not much better, even though they attempted to engage the Diaspora in a deeper and more meaningful way.
I am not blaming one side or the other, I honestly believe that both sides are responsible for this current situation and both sides are to blame.
And because I have been criticized in the past for criticizing the current regime, because I have been called the queen of doom and gloom, because I have been accused of highlighting the problems without offering solutions, and because the editor of this fine publication has given me column space, this is what I think we can do.
If the Diaspora wants engagement with Armenia, which I believe it does, then individuals, institutions, organizations and political forces must begin to change the way they design that engagement. It is no longer good enough to build a shiny, new clinic, hospital, daycare center or library with all the fixtures and gift it to an organization in Armenia, public or private, without ensuring the necessary training and expertise that we have in the Diaspora and that means actually sending and paying Diaspora Armenian specialists to come and work, train and ensure a smooth transition of management to local staff. And most importantly, we need to have in place a clearly defined scheme of accountability with all initiated projects.
Providing democracy education for the new generation must become part of our development aid. The knowledge, skills and values that are the preconditions of living in a democracy are learnt and nurtured throughout life but when these conditions do not exist, a vacuum is created – the ability to live together in a democracy does not come naturally, it needs to be taught. We have plenty of people in the Diaspora who are experts in the social sciences, who teach in some of the best universities in the world, we have elected officials from around the world, we have people who know how to organize election campaigns, we have people who have worked on countless campaigns for both Armenian and non-Armenian candidates, we have people who understand the value of volunteering because they’ve been doing it their whole lives. Why not find partners in Armenia who engage in this kind of activity and provide invaluable Diaspora experience and expertise?
We talk about the importance of getting our youth in the Diaspora to become connected with the homeland, and there are several fantastic organizations created by Diaspora individuals and organizations that facilitate young people to come to Armenia, work, volunteer, live and fall in love with their heritage. Why don’t we design programs for our youth in Armenia to have a chance to go to Washington, L.A., New York, Brussels, Toronto and see how our Armenian communities and organizations operate, how they selflessly volunteer, how they organize campaigns, how they lobby their government for Hai Tad, how they protest for the protection of the environment, how they protest Wall Street….What happened to the whole idea of a brain circulation, being bridges of knowledge, experience, science and technology?
Certainly, there are Diaspora initiatives realizing innovative programs in Armenia with promising results. But too few of them are doing this in the field of democracy education. If we want to see democracy and rule of law flourish in Armenia, if we want to see the new generation gain the knowledge, tools, inspiration and desire to ensure regime change, how to constructively demand for their rights, how to effectively lobby and mobilize, how to run an election campaign we need to arm them with those tools and not just write comments on Facebook, or articles in newspapers and ceaselessly point fingers. And I’m really tired of the excuse that “they won’t let us.” If there is the will, the resources and the commitment, there is always a way forward.
We have five years ahead of us until the next national elections to start planting the seeds for the establishment of democratic rule in our country. The historical imperative has never been more pressing. If we want to struggle to ensure the inalienable right to self-determination for the people of Artsakh, for the international recognition of the Republic of Nagorno Karabakh, if we want to restore the historical rights of the Armenian people and if we want to stop the migration hemorrhage, then we must establish a stable, vibrant democracy. When we sit around negotiating tables with the world, we must speak and act from a position of power and integrity. We cannot demand justice when it is absent in our homeland. We need to rethink our national agenda and place the establishment of democracy and justice in Armenia at the top of that list.