By Vartan Oskanian
IN THIS SAME BUILDING where “people’s deputies” were nothing more than a rubber stamp for the Kremlin in the past 70 years, a new breed of leaders occupy the seats of the Parliament today – youthful, dedicated, patriotic and, most importantly, elected by the people. Under the watchful eyes of the Armenian public (the sessions are carried live on local television), the representatives of a new democracy fashion laws which would eradicate all traces of the Communist system, replacing them with the spirit of the land – the traditions, the heritage and essence of 3,750 years of history.
This revolution in leadership and structure is the culmination of a series of turning points in the last six months which restored the democratic principles that the independent Republic of Armenia had lost in 1920.
On May 20, for the first time in 70 years, Armenians freely elected their representatives to the republic’s highest legislative body. On August 24, in another dramatic move, the new parliament declared the start of the process of independence; the vote was a compromise between outright independence and sovereignty within the Soviet Union.
“What has occurred in Armenia is nothing less that a revolution,” according to Gerard Libaridian, director of the Zoryan Institute for Contemporary Armenian Research who has been following the events in Armenia very closely. “Its scope is wider than anything we have seen in our recent history and its implications are deeper than most of us realize now.”
The issues facing the Parliament are many and the debates are stormy. Creating an infrastructure upon which a free democratic government can be built and effectively operate, is on the top of the parliament’s agenda. Issues ranging from the revitalization of the economy to the use of the national language, to the practice of graft and nepotism are all openly discussed and legislated in daily sessions which are held seven hours a day, six days a week.
“Our main problem today is not necessarily the immediate raising of the living standards,” says Ashot Voskanian, 42, chairman of the Parliamentary Ethics Committee. “First of all, we need to create a structure which will be conducive to a more normal form of existence.”
But the dilemma that the legislators face is the question of how effectively the laws that they pass will be implemented in the face of Moscow’s objections. Armenia is still caught in the web of a multitude of channels with the central government.
Although the Yerevan Parliament adopted legislation giving superiority to Armenian laws over those passed in Moscow, still some of the legislation enacted during the past few months have shown the limits of Armenia’s sovereignty and independence.
The law reinstating the citizenship of Paruyr Hayrikian, the exiled leader of the Armenian Self-Determination Association (ASDA), proved insufficient to secure the return of Mr. Hayrikian to Armenia, since the border control is still under the jurisdiction of the central government.
The limitation of Armenia’s laws are nowhere expressed more forcefully than in the economic arena, where the republic’s budget, money supply, fiscal policy and supply of raw materials are all controlled by the central government.
Small in area and population, limited in resources, economically dependent on others, and geopolitically positioned in an unfavorable location, Armenia’s desire for independence weighs very little against Moscow’s determination to preserve the union. Unless Kremlin leaders change their minds, or the Slavic republics choose to follow Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s advice to secede from the Union, Armenia will continue to live under perceived independence, grappling with the political reality of its decades-old reliance upon and intricate linkages to the central government.
Next to the difficulties with the central government, the new leaders of Armenia face a formidable domestic opposition against their policies and actions.
Now that he is at the helm, President Levon Ter-Petrosyan has a different set of priorities for the republic. He believes in the need to put the Karabagh issue in its proper perspective, and to concentrate on other national issues that the thinks are more crucial for the nation’s survival at this historic turning point.
One such priority for the new administration is the reopening of two very controversial plants: the Nayirit chemical-industrial complex in Yerevan and the nuclear power plant in Medzamor. “If Azerbeijan continues to block the flow of oil and gas to Armenia, could somebody tell me how are we going to generate electricity?” questions Hambardzoum Galstyan, special advisor to the President. “As to Nayirit, so far 85 percent of the revenues generated from the plant has gone to Moscow. If we become beneficiaries of 100 percent of the plant’s production, I believe our people will look differently to the issue.”
At the same time the backbone of Armenia’s industry and the greatest environmental polluter of the Ararat Plain, Nayirit was shut down in December, following massive public protest rallies. It followed the closure 10 months earlier of the nuclear power station’s two reactors, shortly after the 1988 earthquake.
Public opposition to the opening of Medzamor is not just due to the potential danger of all such power stations, but because this particular plant is doubly prone to accidents. It was built after the model of the ill-fated Chernobyl, which suffered a disastrous explosion in 1986. Additionally, it was erected on an earthquake fault which could become active at any moment.
As the new leaders contemplate the reopening of the plants, no scientific effort has been made to reduce the risk of environmental pollution and a disasterous explosion.
“We feel more or less cheated,” says Paruyr Gharipian, 62, a construction supervisor from Yerevan. “The new leadership is retracing its steps with its moves to shelve the Karabagh issues and reopen Nayirit and Medzamor.”
To understand this resentment, one must review the chronology of the Armenian National Movement’s (ANM) emergence to power.
Armenians were the first to test the limits of perestroika when they rallied in the streets of Yerevan by the hundreds of thousands, starting in the fall of 1987. Environmental issues were the main concern at that time.
The Karabagh Committee, founded in February 1988, used the rallies and strikes as effective instruments to press for the return of Karabagh to Armenia. As the Committee gathered mass public support, especially after is heroic return last May from a six-months detention in a Moscow prison, it was transformed to a pan-Armenian movement, incorporating other political groups and expanding the spectrum of its activities beyond the issues of Karabagh. However, ANM’s overwhelming success in the parliamentary elections in May was a clear mandate to its leaders to pursue the cause of Karabagh.
The recent hunger strike by two Armenian deputies to the USSR Supreme Soviet – Zori Balayan and Sos Sargsyan, along with famous astrophysicist Victor Hambardzoumian and two others, was as much a symbolic attempt to bring the Karabagh issue tot he forefront of the Armenian agenda and to remind the people that the nation’s territorial demand weights much heavier than its economic well-being. It was a pressure on the central government to review the status of the autonomous region of Karabagh.
“The main force behind the people’s movement is the national liberation struggle-an aspiration for the restoration of national statehood on his historic homeland annexed by Turkey, Russia and Azerbaijan,” said Hrand Khachatourian, 39, deputy of the Supreme Council, chairman of the Constitutional Rights Union, and one of the leaders of the opposition in parliament.
“Unfortunately, not all the people and deputies understand the importance of this ideal,” continued Khachatourian. “The parliament mostly debates social issues. In the last few declarations, the demands of the Armenian Question were not expressed. It is a sign of artificial transformation of the national movement to a general democratic movement.”
The major political appointments by the new leadership are drawn from the pool of the ANM membership, with total disregard for members of other political parties, particularly the Communist Party. While in the West the key player change as the administration changes, people in Armenia are reluctant to give a monopoly of power to any one group.
Critics argue that the appointees are not the best qualified for their jobs. Rather, they are appointed because of their association with the ANM. There is a large pool of Communists who had occupied the highest echelons of both foreign and domestic policy arenas, gaining valuable experience that could be put to work for building the new republic. The new leadership needs to utilize all available human resources, regardless of political orientation.
“The new government does not trust the Communists,” says Ashot Galstyan, who has recently resigned from the Communist Party. “I don’t think this is fair. We are as good Armenians as they are. We became Communists not out of our ideological convictions but out of the need to become active members of society and to help build the country. Communism has been the way of life for 70 years.”
Caught between the wreckage of a discredited past and the promise of an uncertain future. Armenian politics today is a blend between the wise, the absurd, the logical and the extreme. ECONOMY
If Armenia becomes independent, what are the chances that it will survive economically? This is a question that is frequently asked but always defies an answer.
“When factory workers strike in Siberia, we feel the repercussion in Armenia,” said Hambardzoum Galstyan. “For the last 70 years, the economic planning of the country has been organized in such a way that the republics are inexorably dependent on one another.”
Indeed, 85 percent of Armenia’s end products are manufactured of parts that are supplied by other republics.
While it is common knowledge that the Soviet Union’s economy is in shambles, Armenia’s is even worse. The republic further suffers from the effect of the devastating earthquake, the Azerbaijani blockade and the frequent industrial strikes.
There is a consensus among the leaders and the people that the only way out of the economic crisis is a transition to market economy. While the plan recently adopted by the central government embraces the goals of privatization of state assets, the phasing out of central economic controls and the replacement of state monopolies with free enterprise, the pan is vague as to exactly when, how and by whom this will be accomplished.
In the meantime, the economic conditions are forecast to become worse. Once state subsidies are wringed out and prices begin to reflect the true cost of production, the inflation rate will skyrocket. It will be further aggravated once excess rubles in the hands of the population are put into circulation.
This anticipation is clearly evident in Armenia, where there is no shortage of rubles accumulated in the black-market economy of the last 70 years. Fearing a hike in prices, which already are abnormally steep, but most importantly concerned over the devaluation of the ruble in the near future, people are engaged in a spending spree of high-value items such as luxury automobiles, homes, artworks, etc. There are more Mercedes cars, BMWs and Audis in the streets of Yerevan than in the parking lot of an Armenian center during a dinner dance in Los Angeles.
In the republic’s major cities, the dollar is being traded for 20 rubles on the black market. The locals are getting into the habit of asking U.S. dollars for their services from foreigners, especially from Americans. This rampant frenzy was justified by President Mikhail Gorbachev’s Oct. 26 order to devalue the ruble by 69 percent.
While the macroeconomic conditions of Armenia are tied to Moscow, its domestic business activities are administered locally. There is a tremendous entrepreneurial spirit among Armenians, and the statistics prove it. Armenia has one of the largest number of private enterprises in the Union, generating 20 percent of the republic’s output. Private restaurants, small manufacturing outlets, household services, tour buses and other service-oriented are in full sway and rapidly growing in the republic.
Material and fuel shortages and power outages continue to plague industry and daily life in the republic. Fruit, meat and vegetables are plentiful but at exorbitant prices.
Another phenomenon in Armenia is the obsession with join-venture projects with foreigners. Whenever an outsider meets a local Armenian, it is almost certain that he will be asked to sing a joint-venture contract, regardless of his capacity.
To date, more than 15 joint-venture protocols have been signed with foreign firms and businessmen, but only a few have actually begun operation.
The most important among the latter is the ArmenToy factory-a joint venture between Chicago-based Breslow, Morrison, Terzian and Associates Inc. and the Soviet Ministry of Electronics Industry. The venture is already selling toys to both domestic and international markets. The American-designed toys, capable of competing with those produced in the Orient, is sending the message to other investors that Armenian labor is capable of producing high-quality products.
The new leadership has also recognized the need to bring fundamental changes to the infrastructure, in order to facilitate the involvement of foreigners in the domestic economy.
“The first thing we need to do is to improve our airport facilities, upgrade the conditions of our hotels, eliminate the bureaucratic red tape and, most importantly, establish reliable communication lines with the outside world,” says Ashot Sargisyan, president of the Yerevan Chamber of Commerce.
The Ministry of Communications has already taken concrete steps. In October, the government signed a contract with AT&T officials to establish direct telephone lines between Armenia and the West. The contract promises to have the lines operational in eight to ten months. LABOR
In addition to venture proposals with European and US entities, the Armenian Government has signed joint cooperation agreements with other Soviet republics-a process which began immediately after it was put to power. So far, Prime Minister Vazgen Manukian has signed treaties with the governments of Byelorussia, Russia, Tadzhikistan, Turkmenistan and Latvia, setting up reciprocal assistance and agreements for economic, cultural and technological cooperation.
In Western economies, there is a trade-off between inflation and unemployment; that is, in the case of high inflation there should be low unemployment. But for socialist economies changing to capitalism, there is a different set of rules.
There are no official statistics, but any common-sense economist in Yerevan will estimate a 30-percent unemployment rate for the republic. There are more people idling on the streets than working in the buildings at any given time.
The destruction of over 150 productive enterprises in the earthquake region and the flood of refugees from the Sumgait and Baku pogroms have exacerbated the unemployment problem.
With the booming of private enterprise, the government is finding it had to hire office workers who would settle for the official wages of 150-200 rubles a month. Unable to pay higher salaries, ministries have lost their workforce to private cooperatives which often pay monthly salaries of 1,000 rubles.
Meanwhile, labor unions in the republic propose establishing independent Armenian unions that are free of state control. The unions aim to set up closer working relations with Diaspora Armenians and seek representation in international workers’ associations.
The move comes despite the recent decision of the new Ministry of Labor and Social Security to depoliticize its apparatus, which previously included Communist Party committees. The latest decision of the government to abolish the traditional Labor Day of the Socialist Revolution, which was celebrated every year on November 7, is another step toward eradicating the vestiges of the Soviet system. The decision replaces all non-Armenian holidays with national ones. MIND-SET
Despite all the upheavals of the past two years and the uncertainties presently surrounding them, there is an overall feeling of optimism among the people today.
The Karabagh movement, the Sumgait and Baku massacres, the calamity of the earthquake, the conflict with Azerbaijan, and finally the reclaimed democracy have successively instilled in the Armenian mind-set of the imperative of taking destiny in hand. Not only were Armenians rudely awakened to the insecurity of their economic foundations, social well-being and cultural heritage, but they also came to realize that their personal as well as national existence was at stake.
The earthquake homeless and a new wave of refugees fleeing pogroms in Azerbaijan, Tadzhikistan and Turkmenistan evoked sentiments reminiscent of the days of the Armenian Genocide.
With the disenchantment in the Kremlin’s insidious policies and the disillusionment in its own Communist leadership, Armenians were pushed to rely on themselves and to put forth leaders in the Yerevan Parliament who would pursue their national interests. A sort of unity and self-confidence resurfaced as the people’s representatives began to negotiate with the central authorities.
The relief efforts in the aftermath of the natural tragedy also had a major impact. A population which was beset with a feeling of being neglected by man and God, cheated by its Communist leaders, and deprived of its basic rights suddenly found itself in the center of world attention. With the arrival of volunteer groups, downpouring of supplies and economic assistance, a new outlook was stimulated. Industry and technology were put on the path of modernization; new factories, schools, hospitals and other facilities were built, towns and villages were revitalized.
The Soviet system’s bungled and dragging efforts for Armenia’s reconstruction on the one hand, and the quick and efficient help from the West enlarged the gulf between the Armenian people and the Soviet system. ARTS & MEDIA
The return to national values and democratic principles is best mirrored in the performing and plastic arts as well as the other media. Stage directors, artists and writers are no longer constrained by guidelines set by the state, censorship political taboos and limitation of themes.
Writers have the option of two unions nowadays-the old and privileged one, affiliated with the USSR Writers Union, and the newly founded Union of Armenian Writers, which is independent of the center, has its own newspaper and literary magazine, and most importantly, it is also open to Armenian writers in the Diaspora. Writers and journalist Zori Balayan was elected its president.
In the arts, glasnost did not affect artistic expression until the middle of 1988. The demand for changes and the need to head the spirit of the time were carried over from the mass street rallies which had started early that year.
The outburst of passion, the collective appraisal of social structures, the resurfacing of the people’s self-consciousness needed a new aesthetic expression. This need found its reflection in new-born rituals, colorful exhibitions of placards, collages, cartoons and photocompositions in which new forms of figurative symbolism were used mainly by amateur artists.
The new-found freedom brought about a thematic change. The 1915 Genocide, the Stalinist purges and the Brezhnevian stagnation-all prohibited subjects not so long ago-became predominant in both the arts and literature.
The arts are currently going through a transitional period, which encompasses the revision of positions, the search for ways, and the mastering of new social dialects. Armenian artists are trying not only to represent the political and social rumblings around them but also to open up the vision of a new Armenia.
In the print media, the new democracy has prompted a host of private political, literary and business publications. Among the most notable are Munetik, Urbat, Andradardz, and Business World. The government’s official newspaper itself was transformed. The former mouthpiece of the Communist Party was renamed from Sovetakan Hayastan to Khorhrdayin Hayastan, and most recently to simply Hayastan.
In the same spirit, towns and cities named after heroes of the Communist Revolution regained their previous Armenian names. The most notable is Leninakan, which now boasts its ancient name of Kumairi.
Finally acquiring the privileges of true democracy and regaining their national identity, Armenians have come out of a long tunnel; this is a time of adjusting the dimmed vision of their Soviet years to the enlightened perspective needed to set out on the long and tortuous road ahead and to shoulder the duties that democracy imposes. The enormity of hurdles awaiting them seems to defy hopefulness, but the resilience and ingenuity of a people who has lost and regained kingdoms and survived history’s slings inspires confidence in Armenia’s recovery and progress into the 21st century.