David Akopyan
Former UN official

In the discussion paper “At the Crossroads” Ruben Vardanyan and Nune Alekyan present an excellent analysis of Armenia’s history and what the nation takes to the 21st century after surviving through many challenges century after century, and propose a very inspiring vision for the way forward.

What should additionally be appreciated is that it is not just a paper on offer, but a platform where our collective mind can continue brainstorming and creating a vision for the future, building on ideas and expanding on scenarios. It was also great to review so many comments from people with such a diverse background and interest in Armenia, and I want to add my input as well. Herewith below my comments and some more elaboration on various ideas.

No coincidence that while the paper was being written, the Velvet Revolution in April 2018 brought a major change in Armenia, and this is an indication that the nation reached an important tipping point/crossroads looking for a change. Hopefully, both this discussion and broader national search for a better future will unleash the creative potential of the Armenian nation to make Armenia more prosperous, developed, and the Armenians a happier and more advanced nation contributing to making the world a better place for humanity.

In my 26 years of UN career I dealt with state and nation building continuously in all the 15 countries I worked.. Reading the book offered a refreshing look on many known facts and revealed also a lot of new perspectives for me. The authors’ reflections on what makes Armenians special are very interesting: respect for creating and sharing knowledge, nurturing and using talent, self-organisation for centuries without state, dispersed eco-system of mutually reinforcing communities and businesses, etc. There are a number of good observations on the Armenian character: a)a subtle understanding of the differences between civilizations (master other cultures but also retain their own), b) a desire for wider horizons; c) competitiveness but also flexibility/adaptability. It is important that this is also an effort to search beyond the standard recipes of macroeconomic modeling and this focus on history, culture, individual and collective behaviors adds many colors to the complex mosaic. On the role of the state and what the state could do for Armenia and the Armenians around the globe, will need further elaboration. 

Reflection on the past. The past is important but it’s not the only determinant for the future. North and South Korea are striking examples on how trajectories could split with little chances to reconcile after 1000s years of common history. The decisions we make to design the future are critically important. And this platform can serve as an excellent venue to shape ideas, thinking and approaches.

Being at crossroads implies that we could turn to a better future but may also take a turn for the worst. As was said “Unless the situation is changed, it is highly likely that in 2041 we will not be celebrating the 50th anniversary of independence”. In the modern world, the states don’t disappear easily, however the compound impact of brain drain, migration, low reproduction, economic stagnation, chaotic leadership, weak institutions, low trust, all may lead to a deteriorating state, and in the geographic neighborhood of Armenia the worst cannot be excluded. 

The diaspora has its own set of challenges. In a number of countries with considerable diaspora history, assimilation is real. In many diaspora centers the erosion of the Armenian national identity is happening and now probably a smaller percentage only associates themselves with Armenia or being Armenian.

Both Armenia and the Diaspora need each other to be strong and mutually reinforcing. The network in this context implies a strong central state and strong periphery/diaspora units connected all for the common cause. 

Contributing to humanity. Ruben and his colleagues with Aurora Humanitarian Initiative probably did more than anyone else. The idea itself is unique and positioned Armenia in a special league of advanced countries. This is a first step in this important direction to lift Armenian thinking above the national horizon aiming to contribute globally and more could be done in science, art, education, nature protection, etc. Another out of the box initiative was the Armenian humanitarian mission to Aleppo in Syria with 100 sappers and medical doctors. I was the head of UNDP in Syria when they arrived. The decision by the Armenian government was not an easy one, but in all my interaction with theSyrians there was so much appreciation for this. The same is true for the Armenian troops in northern Afghanistan for almost 10 years now, helping peace and reinforcing security under German umbrella.

How are we known? I spent years in the Middle East and in every country the first reaction after they learnt I am Armenian is an appreciation for many Armenians they had known-hard working professionals, well respected in their communities- tailors, doctors, jewelers, architects, engineers, lawyers, scientists and craftsmen.

On the main conclusion of the paper and proposed vision for reactivating the networked nation concept in the 21st century for Armenia and Armenians, I am in full agreement that this is the key comparative advantage we as a nation have and this approach is very relevant for the way forward, the question is where to start and how to do this? 

Two cases of networked nations I know well, and I want to elaborate on to also help to draw lessons/actions- Lebanon and Israel. Lebanon is not much discussed but is worth a comparison. 5 million inside, 15 million out. A long history from the Phoenician time of traders, networks of cities (Cartage and more). In the 21st century the richest man in Mexico is of Lebanese origin Carlos Slim, or Carlos Ghosh, who is back in Lebanon and many successful businesses and politicians in Latin America, Asia and Africa I met on my tours. They are well-networked, successful and connected with homeland, however all that did not bring transformative change to Lebanon. Lebanon has many challenges - fragmentation by religious lines, civil war that lasted decades, difficult neighbors. What importantly was missing in Lebanon is the long-term vision for a networked nation and how the state and nation with the Diaspora can contribute together for a bigger good.

Israel comes next. A comparison on the population growth in the 20th century for Armenia and Israel was made in the paper, not much in our favor, but differences are more. Israelis lost statehood almost 2000 years ago, and in the early 20th century very few Jews were living where today’s Israel is. Large Jewish communities were in the Middle East, Europe, Africa, Americas, about 10 mln worldwide. When the first Armenian republic was created despite all the horrors of the Genocide, we got a territory equal to Israel with almost 1 mln population. Both nations had genocides in the 20th century with Armenians losing around 1.5 mln and Jews more than 6 mln. At the time of the UN decision on establishing the state of Israel in 1948, we were in many aspects in similar positions. The same size of population, territory and economy. Now Israel has 9 mln population against Armenia’s 3 mln, Israel’s national GDP is USD 400 bln (GDP per capita is higher than in France or UK) compared to Armenia’s USD 14 bln only. Both have major disputes and military conflicts with neighbors, however Israel managed to build one of the best armies in the world, plus modern defense industry not only producing for its own military but acting as one of the major export sectors. Without Russian support our ability to stand against the Turkish military is limited, while Israel managed to win 3 major wars against the combined effort of all the neighbors with a total population of a few hundred millions. Interestingly also, Israelis were never known as good warriors in history. They were traders/merchants/bankers, but, as the discussion paper also mentions, nations sometimes change their course of development and move from one model to another.

Reasons for those differences are many and they require more detailed and contextual analysis but visionary leadership, long-term planning and an effective and functioning network between the state and Diaspora working together is the key. Israel now has next to USA number of companies listed on NASDAQ;the business links with the Diaspora led businesses in Silicon valley or New York played not the last role. Important achievement was also the ability to bring so many Jews to Israel - in the 60/70s from the Middle East and Ethiopia almost 800,000 and in the early 90s almost 1 mln from the Soviet Union. Despite many cultural differences they are amalgamating together in one culture, nation, state. Our Armenian migrants in the 90s from Azerbaijan did not stay long and moved to other locations, the same happened later with the Armenians from Syria; after the civil war erupted, not many moved to Armenia. Partly this was caused by the limited opportunities the Armenian economy has to offer but it is also a lack of state led policy to absorb and accommodate. 

Looking forward, the aim should never be to have all the Armenians in Armenia and the same was never the case for Israel, still 7 mln Jews live in the USA, millions in Europe and Latin America, etc. But, at least, for those not finding enough opportunities in the countries they are living in, Israel has an open door and there is a constant inflow of organized immigration. If well managed, immigration could contribute to economic growth and this growth will further attract more immigration. There is an excellent book written about Israel “Start-up Nation”. And my overall take is- the solution for Armenia is the Hub, but it is not just a regional or physical hub for trading, or transport, it is a global Hub networked with the Diaspora, a hub for knowledge and technology sharing, connectivity between cultures, economies and regions. Our role in the region also could be more proactive, much was said from landlocked to land bridge, but more could be done. Expanding on the missions in Syria and Afghanistan, but also acting as an honest broker between Iran and Europe, or providing a trading corridor for Iran, Georgia, and Russia, etc. Positioning ourselves as a soft power for peace and security in the Middle East and beyond will further help to firm our role as a player in a league above our weight in the complex geopolitics of today.

Our recent history has many good stories supporting this. In the Soviet Union, the Armenians were just after the Russians and Jews in science, the republic was among the most technologically advanced. Historically, according to family traditions, we always value education, we had medieval universities: Gladzor, Tatev at the times when there were not that many in the world. The first phrase written in Armenian quoted in the review also “To know wisdom and instruction …”

We have now AUA and UWC in Dilijan, both excellent Diaspora initiatives adding to the networked nation concept. Some wonderful new initiatives like TUMO bring new qualities, but none are at scale to transform the society. 

In full agreement with the main conclusion of the discussion paper, the 21st century can become our century, if we mobilize the intellectual and other resources of the nation, building upon our roots, and realizing the best traits of our national character. 


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