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Armenians Choose Independent Path

Delegates at a conference on Armenia’s future voted for independent development, rather than placing too much reliance on Russia or Europe.
By Ara Tadevosian

Armenians meeting to discuss their country’s future have rejected the idea that they should place all their hopes in Europe – and, more surprisingly, Russia.

The 500 delegates at the unique conference held in Yerevan came from all walks of life - teachers, students, small business owners, manual workers and the unemployed. They concluded Armenia should pursue its own path, increasing economic activity and productivity, fighting corruption, and ensuring the 2008 presidential election is free and fair.

“I think it isn’t right to go with one country,” said college student Gevorg Stepanian. “You have to be more cunning and be able to manoeuvre in a number of directions.”

The event was part of “Armenia 2020” – a campaign led by several prominent figures from the Armenian diaspora, including businessman Ruben Vardanian, who is president of the Russian Troika-Dialog group of companies, and Nubar Afeyan, general director of the American group Flagship Ventures.

The results may come as a surprise to some western observers who think of Armenia as primarily pro-Russian in orientation. However, organisers said the results of the Yerevan gathering, held at the capital’s main stadium, mirrored those at similar events in Idzhevan and Ekhagnadzor, where the idea of forging stronger links with Russia was also rejected.

As one participant said, “Because of its geopolitical situation, Russia will always be interested in a weak Armenia and will keep us in slave-like dependence.”

“Historically, Russia has betrayed Armenia repeatedly and that likelihood exists today too,” said another.

A third person added, “Do you know of any other nation, other than the Armenians, who have such a strange attachment to Russia? I think not - this is just another example of our national irrationalism.”

Full integration into Europe also received the thumbs down from many of the delegates, with that option getting only 120 votes compared with 136 for preserving the Russian alliance and 210 in favour of a dynamic independent path, the so-called Singapore model which organisers dubbed “Dare to Excel”.

Those unconvinced of Armenia’s need to integrate more fully with Europe gave various reasons, with one person expressing fears the country would be forced to change its constitution, and another saying, “We’re Armenians, and Europe is not our home.”

A third participant put this view more pithily,“Europe is an old woman in civilised make-up. There’s no need for us to fall for her charms.”

Sociologist Lilit Arutyunian said the conference showed that the government’s talk of integration with Europe had been ineffective.

“It’s been 10 years now that the government has been talking almost daily about its enthusiasm for European integration,” said Arutyunian. “But these are just empty words. The government, intentionally or unintentionally, places no emphasis on the fact that the principal European value is human life, which now as before is worth little in our country.”

Many participants said Armenia’s relations with neighbours like Georgia and historical enemy Turkey were more important than European integration. This despite the fact that Turkey, with which Armenia has no diplomatic relations, was not included in any of the possible development options offered by the organisers.

“Today the question of Turkey’s entry into the European Union is being discussed. But do we want to enter the European Union with Turkey? Just imagine, the Armenian border opens and three million Turks rush in. What would happen then?” asked one participant.

But another took a different view and said, “We must strive to normalise relations with Turkey, as this will be extremely useful to us on the path of independent development.”

Armenian relations with Azerbaijan, which are still hostile because of the unresolved dispute over Nagorny Karabakh, remain too sensitive an issue for conference participants even to discuss as part of a picture of shifting regional alliances.

The country’s other near neighbour Georgia, however, was viewed as a partner by many participants. Rather than Europe, one person suggested that Armenia focus on Georgia in order to gain access to that country’s ports. The two have been trying to forge closer ties, and this summer tens of thousands of Armenians took holidays in Georgia’s Black Sea resorts for the first time in many years.

While the conference organisers admitted the current Armenian government was unlikely to pay attention to many of the findings, the strong emphasis placed on fair elections and the war on corruption may yet be reflected in future voting patterns.

Even in the best-case scenario, Armenia has a long way to go to meet the aspirations articulated by conference participants. According to Artashes Kazakhetsian, manager of the Armenia 2020 project, if the ideas behind the Singapore model were implemented in full, the country would take the next 15 years to attain the same level of development that another former Soviet republic, Estonia, is at today.

Ara Tadevosian is the director of Mediamax, an independent news agency in Yerevan.

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