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Armenia's Struggle for Independence

Muriel Mirak-Weissbach | 23.08.2008 12:29 | Anti-militarism | History | Repression | World

Each country must find its own way, shaped by its immediate situation, and seen against the backdrop of its own specific cultural and political history. In the case of Armenia, it is evident that any perspective for real economic progress must be based on cooperation with its neighbors in the context of a regional development perspective. This means negotiating political solutions to the continuing conflicts with Azerbaijan and Turkey, in order to reestablish normal economic and trade relations. To achieve this, requires a capable leadership dedicated to the future of its nation and its people, as well as support from the international community. Armenians are seeking such leadership.

Armenia's Struggle for Independence

Muriel Mirak-Weissbach, Global Research, 12.08.2008

When Armenia declared independence on September 21, 1991, diaspora Armenians
joined hands across oceans with their 4 million compatriots in the former
Soviet republic, to celebrate. Certainly, mainly bottles of excellent
Armenian cognac were emptied. Finally, the Soviet occupation had ended, and
a perspective had opened up for an independent, sovereign Armenia, to join
in collaborative economic relations with its neighbors, to develop the
enormous potentials of the country in the context of regional economic

Now, at a distance of 17 years, the question posed is: what has become of
this dream? It is not only the estimates of economists, political analysts,
and social scientists that count, but also the firsthand impressions gained
by Armenians from the diaspora who have visited the homeland, "Hayastan."
This author visited Yerevan and outlying areas in late July, and managed to
gain some initial insight into the potentials and the problems of this
beautiful country.

The basic message I came away with was: Armenia is a great country, which
boasts extraordinary cultural achievements stretching back millennia, a
country which, in cooperation with its neighbors, could not only advance to
become a modern industrial nation, but also to launch a cultural
renaissance, to revive the splendor of the arts and sciences. The main
obstacles placed in the path of such a development, are three: first, over
the past twenty years, a post-Soviet oligarchy has emerged, in Armenia and
abroad, which exerts enormous influence on the economy and politics of the
nation. Secondly, although nominally independent, Armenia, like the majority
of the former Soviet republics, suffers from the continuing influence of
major foreign powers in its economic, financial, and political life. Despite
its commitment to independence and sovereignty, it continues to be played
like a pawn on the strategic chess board, in a modern version of the Great
Game, between the Anglo-American powers in London and Washington, on the one
hand, and certain circles in Moscow. Thirdly, and perhaps as a consequence
of the first two factors, the national political leadership has not managed
to articulate and pursue a long-term vision for the nation.

The Role of the Church

One of the most important institutions in Armenia today is the Armenian
Apostolic Church. Since its establishment in 301 A.D. as the state church,
it has been one of the pillars of national identity. Thus, any visit to
Armenia must include visits to its many magnificent churches and
monasteries. These are important not only as architectural monuments, but
also as testimonies to the fundamental role of the Christian religion in the
country's history. Among the many great monuments are the churches of St.
Hripsime and St. Gayane, dedicated to the sisters who chose martyrdom rather
than relinquish their Christian faith.

Etchmiadzin, is the most important church, comparable to St. Peter's in Rome
for Catholics. It is built on the site where Gregory the Illuminator had a
vision of Jesus, who wielded a hammer to indicate the construction site.
Sunday services at Etchmiadzin are a very special experience, with the
magnificently trained voices of the choir singing the mass--not as a musical
accompaniment, but as active worshippers in the age-old divine liturgy--and
the supreme head of the Armenian Apostolic Church present. As the
Catholicos, Karekin II, moves through the parish, parishoners press through
the crowd to render homage to him, and he, placing his hand on the heads of
those who came nearest him, gave them his blessing.

One can still admire the magnificent architecture of the old churches, some
dating back to the earliest era, just a few centuries after Christ, even
though they were not yet in top condition. Nonetheless they had withstood
the ravages of time, and, with the help renovation efforts since
independence, had maintained at least a semblance of their former splendor.
In an audience with foreign visitors, which this author attended at
Etchmiadzin, His Holiness Karekin II explained that, for the first seven
years after 1988, the church devoted all its energies and funds to provide
humanitarian aid for the victims of the earthquake, the Nagorno-Karabagh
war, and the poor. After that, the church turned its attention to the task
of rebuilding, which meant renovating and restoring those church edifices
that could be saved, and building new churches, four of them in Yerevan. At
the same time, a new generation of priests had to be educated; 23 are
ordained per year, on the average, and forty were ordained this year.

Economy in Ruins

The Armenian Apostolic Church survived as an underground operation
throughout the seventy years of Soviet occupation. Once the country regained
its independence, religious leaders moved to resurrect its existence, both
physically and spiritually.

If the church has managed to engage in physical reconstruction and personnel
development, this stands in stark contrast to what has occurred in the
economy. What had once been the backbone of the Armenian economy -- its huge
industrial factories -- stand in ruins. Even on the outskirts of the capital
Yerevan, enormous factory buildings can be seen, once active and employing
hundreds, if not thousands, of productive workers, not lying in ruins. Brick
and stone buildings sit there, with their rows of windows of smashed glass,
gazing like so many blind eyes. If one ventured into one of the abandoned
factories in Yerevan to get a closer look, one finds that there were people
living inside the carcasses of buildings.

In other parts of the country, which had been even more heavily
industrialized than the capital, the picture was as bleak. In Gyumri, the
second largest city after Yerevan, the scene is reminiscent of a post-war
landscape. Spitak, the epicenter of the horrendous earthquake of December 7,
1988, is not far away. Twenty-five thousand people lost their lives and
500,000 were made homeless. After the earthquake the two Metsamov nuclear
power plants were shut down, one of them to be reopened only in 1995. In the
early 1990s, electricity was available only two hours a day in the national
parliament, many people froze to death. To survive, families baked lavash,
the typical thin Armenian bread, and lived on that. Schools were closed
during the winter, because of the lack of heating, and the time lost was
retrieved in summer sessions. Armenians chopped down all and any trees they
could find, to have firewood for heating. Deforestation resulted on a large

Temporary shelters were erected throughout the quake-affected region, to
provide minimal protection from the elements. The music school in Gyumri, is
a case in point. In 1988, the metal lean-to shack was to be temporary, but
now, 20 years later, it has become all too permanent. The school is
supported by the Fund for Armenian Relief, and the young students there are
grateful for whatever facilities they have. Cheerfully ignoring the
makeshift conditions whenever foreign visitors come, students will gladly
walk up onto the small stage and perform, Armenian music on traditional
instruments, as well as European classical pieces.

It was not only the dreadful earthquake that ravaged the economy. The war
against Azerbaijan for control over Nagorno-Karabagh led to an Azeri
blockade of all rail and air traffic with Armenia. An estimated 85% of all
cargo had been shipped by rail, so this devastated the economy. Armenia's
GDP collapsed 60% between 1989 and 1992-93. Turkey joined the blockade in
1993 and, though a ceasefire was brokered by the Russians in 1994, the
borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey have not been reopened. Massive
population shifts also occurred with the war: 230,000 ethnic Armenians were
expelled from Azerbaijan to Armenian and Nagorno-Karabagh, while 800,000
Azeris had to leave Armenia and the occupied areas.

Then, when the Soviets withdrew, they took whatever they could with them.
What was left behind was then prey to the ill-conceived policy of the first
post-independence governments. In line with the dominant liberalist,
post-industrial ideology in the U.S. and western Europe, Armenia's
governments (like those of other former Soviet republics) were coerced into
adopting IMF policies allegedly aimed at "modernizing" and "rationalizing"
their economies. The old structures of the centralized Soviet bureaucratic
economic structures, it was said, had to be dismantled, to pave the way for
the "liberating" influences of free trade, privatization and so forth.
Translated into post-independence Armenia, this meant: all factories, plant,
equipment, etc. would be put up for sale and the first bidder could take
all. In the privatization craze that followed, the entirety of the country's
industrial capacities was bought up, and in part exported.

A Post-Industrial Nightmare

Under the Soviet system, Armenia had had a highly developed industrial
sector, and produced machine tools, chemicals, electronics, textiles,
processed food, and synthetic rubber. It exported manufactured goods,
including machinery and textiles, and imported energy and raw materials.
Under independence, the large industrial and agro-industrial complexes were
abandoned, and small-scale agriculture was developed. The high levels of
resultant unemployment led masses of young, skilled Armenians to seek work
elsewhere. No fewer than one-fourth of the entire population, an estimated 1
million of 4 million, emigrated. Some went to Georgia or Russia, countries
which readily offered them work, while others went farther to the U.S.,
where they might have distant relatives. The exodus of such a large number
of people has robbed the country of many young and skilled workers.

The privatization and liberalization wave swept through Armenia in the
1990s, after the first large-scale IMF-backed program was implemented. In
June 1994, a foreign investment law was okayed, and three years later, a Law
on privatization was passed. Privatization did not go through without a
fight. In 2001, a branch of a Virginia-based group AES, tried to take over a
majority share of four Armenian electricity distribution networks. The
daughter company, called AES Silk Road, sought control not only over the
distribution networks, but also over power-generating companies, as well as
export and import of electricity. The public opposed the sale, as did a
group of thirty political parties and one-third of the members of
parliament. They did so on grounds that privatization of the electricity
grid, which was considered the best in the Commonwealth of Independent
States (CIS), would jeopardize national security. AES failed in its takeover

Russia was also interested in Armenia's energy sector. After the
distribution system was privatized in 2002, Russia's RAO-UES bought it up in
2005. It also holds interest in the nuclear plant Medsamor, which provides
40% of the country's electricity. In addition to its hydroelectric plants
which generate 25%, Armenia has been importing electricity from Iran since
2006. Its gas and oil are both imported, from Russia (via Georgia) and Iran,
the latter having constructed a new gas pipeline. It receives its nuclear
fuel also from Russia. Telecommunications have been privatized 100%.

Finally, although Armenia has its own armed forces, including ground forces,
air force and air defense, it is not solely in control of national defense.
It has troops in Nagorno-Karabagh, and patrols the borders with Azerbaijan
and Georgia, but Russia, which has a base at Gyumri, has its troops
monitoring the borders with Turkey and Iran.

The Oligarchs

Strolling through the center of Yerevan, one might have the impression that
all the suffering associated with the earthquake, the war, and the
post-independence economic isolation, is past history. Radiating out from
the Republic Square, with its majestic buildings, are large avenues along
which scores of new buildings are being constructed. The New Prospect street
is lined on both sides by high-rise buildings, erected in modern style but
recalling traditional architectural forms, with rounded arches and pillars
in Armenia's typical pink-colored stone. The new buildings are slated to
house fashionable shops on the street level, and office buildings and/or
apartments on the higher storeys. Such construction, which is visible
everywhere in the capital, is only superficially a sign of prosperity. As
friends explained to us, the massive construction activity is not part of
any coordinated urban development perspective, but rather a place where
local oligarchs can "park" their considerable capital, of unknown origin.
Such capital flows without being subjected to taxation, and the enterprises
hired to put up the new buildings often work "informally." Some of the
wealthier multimillionaires among the oligarchs, have built for themselves
immense villas on the outskirts of the capital, which looks more like royal
palaces than personal residences. At the same time, as mentioned above,
there are squatters finding refuge in the bombed out factories. Another
monument to the faceless oligarchs behind the building boom, is the row of
gambling casinos that the visitor encounters just on leaving the shiny new
international airport. No matter what time of day or night, the neon lights
are flashing at the countless gambling joints that line the highway from the
airport to the city center. Who owns them? Do they pay taxes? Why are they
there at all?

The Role of the Diaspora

The largest portion of direct foreign investment in Armenia comes from the
diaspora, the 8 million or so Armenians living outside the country, in the
Middle East, Europe or the United States. Their contributions can be seen in
literally every layer in society -- in real investments to build up
infrastructure, including for tourism, and in social support programs for
the needy, for example, a project in Gyumri which provides warm meals for
the elderly, and much more. There are also private initiatives to support
reforestation programs, like the Armenia Tree Project, (
which is producing one million seedlings per year, to help reforestation in
cities and other areas that were robbed of their forests in the early 1990s.

Such projects are crucial for rebuilding Armenia's economy, and are greatly
appreciated by the project directors, teachers, cultural institution
personnel, and others, who have been facilitating contacts and programs.
Yet, at the same time, such individual projects in and of themselves will
not solve the overall problem. In the view of political figures this author
spoke with, who have been active in parliament and in the opposition, what
is lacking in Armenia is a government-sponsored program for long-term
development. This is not only an economic issue per se, but one which has
profound cultural and moral implications. The situation can be summarized as
follows: Armenians in the homeland have gone through tremendous suffering,
during the Soviet occupation in one form, and then through the earthquake,
war and post-Soviet economic collapse, in another. As always throughout
their thousands-year history, they somehow managed to survive. Some will
justify today's economic misery, with high unemployment and a low standard
of living, by saying, it is a thousand times better than 15 years ago.
Others may indulge in a bit of nostalgia, saying that, although they were
worse off under the Soviets, things somehow functioned. In all cases, the
leit motif is: we survived.

A Vision for Armenia

This is true, and is to the credit of the population that it has withstood
adversity and endured against all odds. But can survivalism be the
foundation for a modern nation-state? The impressive monument and museum
dedicated to the genocide, in Yerevan, bear witness not only to the
unspeakable horrors of the genocide, but also to the incredible capacity of
the Armenian people to somehow survive. But more is needed.

Leading political figures in the opposition stress the urgent need for a
national program, a "vision" of what Armenia can and should become as a
truly independent and sovereign, modern industrial state. Right now, if it
is dependent on energy supplies from abroad, if its energy distribution
system, its telecommunications, security and transport are in private, often
foreign, hands, how can how can one say Armenia is truly independent?

Without jeopardizing important political and economic relations with its
neighbors, the country needs to chart a course for its own development,
which will lead to true independence. Armenia has enormous potential:
although devoid of traditional raw materials like oil or gas, it is rich in
minerals, and has extraordinarily productive soil. Its population and
labor-force, which represent the primary wealth of any nation, are rich: the
almost 3 million Armenians are very young, the median age being 31-34 years
old. Fertility rates have been rising, at the rate of 1.35 children born per
woman in 2008. With the exception of Turkey and Azerbaijan, it enjoys good
relations with all nations.

But it lacks a vision, and a political elite capable of mobilizing the
population around a national purpose. Without touching here on the internal
politics of the country, it is clear that the population sees most, if not
all, of the post-independence governments as failures. Vicious internal
faction fights have taken place, more as struggles for power than as
principled exchanges over ideas. Violent incidents have punctuated this
process since 1991: a shoot-out in parliament on October 27, 1999, led to
the death of Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkissian, Speaker of the Parliament
Karen Demirchian, two of his deputies, a minister and three other members of
Parliament; six parliamentarians were wounded. Although the material
perpetrator was apprehended, mystery surrounds the background. More
recently, on March 1 of this year, when opposition groups demonstrated to
protest alleged fraud in prior elections, the police opened fire on the
crowd in Yerevan, killing 10 and arresting 82, who are still in detention.
In late July, the so-called opposition, which rallies around former
president Levon Ter-Petrosian, was holding daily sit-ins in the city center,
demanding the release of the 82 political prisoners. The latest development,
as of this writing, is that Ter-Petrosian has called for former President
Kocharian to be put on trial for serious crimes, including his having
established a "despotic rule" which allegedly led to the 1999 shootout and
the recent events.

The political infighting is evidently intense. But where is a national
leader, with a vision, of how Armenia can emerge from the continuing
political crisis, and chart a new way for its future?

What comes to mind as historical reference points are, of course, Franklin
Delano Roosevelt, who mobilized a downtrodden American people, smashed by
the Great Depression, to rebuild the economy through his New Deal program of
great infrastructure projects. One thinks of Charles de Gaulle in France,
who lifted the French out of the catastrophe of Vichy and the Second World
War, to become a true republic. In the post-Soviet world, one thinks of
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin who, as president, redefined the role
of Russia, and mobilized resources to emerge from the profound economic,
financial and moral crisis of the 1990s. Another useful example in the
post-Soviet world is today's president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev,
who has successfully engineered a transition from the Soviet planned economy
to a modern social market economy, without relinquishing national
sovereignty, or destroying the industrial plant, equipment and skilled
manpower of the nation.

Each country must find its own way, shaped by its immediate situation, and
seen against the backdrop of its own specific cultural and political
history. In the case of Armenia, it is evident that any perspective for real
economic progress must be based on cooperation with its neighbors in the
context of a regional development perspective. This means negotiating
political solutions to the continuing conflicts with Azerbaijan and Turkey,
in order to reestablish normal economic and trade relations. To achieve
this, requires a capable leadership dedicated to the future of its nation
and its people, as well as support from the international community.
Armenians are seeking such leadership.

Muriel Mirak-Weissbach
- e-mail:
- Homepage:


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  1. leader for Armenia — agRav
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