Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Wants vs. Needs

Another month, another existential crisis for Armenia.  This time, the story goes, a few people “sold” Armenia for $300 million (well, at least some had the presence of mind to say that the ruling party sold Armenia’s last remaining 20% of energy independence for $300 million).  Adding this to the about-face on EU vs. Customs Union (first announced in September, confirmed in early December and whose roadmap was approved yesterday in Moscow), Facebook is humming with accusations of loss of sovereignty and independence, singling out of traitors, and general despair.

There’s no question that the sale of the remaining 20% stake in ArmGazprom (the local arm of Russia’s giant state-controlled natural gas provider) is a negative milestone in the history of our young republic – as is any loss of economic or infrastructural independence.  And entering any union whose other members are Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus and potentially Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan doesn't exactly inspire confidence.  But the story didn’t start, or doesn’t end, here.  The reality is we need to import gas, and we’ve cornered ourselves into total reliance on Russia (by the way, we’re not alone in this predicament).  The price for Artsakh’s independence is the exclusion of Armenia from the growing list of pipelines and routes designed to weaken Moscow’s hold on energy distribution in the region.  The real failure in this case is not geopolitical – the real failure is in the short-sightedness and the refusal to invest seriously in alternative energy sources, especially given the 320 days of sunshine per year and ample water and wind energy available for harnessing throughout our 42,000 km2.

This latest series of events highlights a deepening chasm between what Armenians want, and what Armenia needs.  The more we fall into the trap of focusing exclusively on blaming the existing government, the less we can hope to take the series of steps required to put us back on the right track.

Here’s what Armenians want:

  1. Fair, democratically elected government (and the dismissal and punishment of current officials)
  2. Independent judiciary and law-enforcing law enforcement
  3. The end of monopolies and pro-oligarchic actions by the government
  4. The growth of civil society and well-established civil liberties for all, especially vulnerable social groups
  5. A government who takes concrete actions to fight poverty and inequality (creation of an adequate social safety net)
  6. The end of emigration
  7. Recognition of the Armenian Genocide by a majority of important nations
  8. Reparations for the Genocide

Here’s what Armenia needs:
  1. Safe and secure borders
  2. Un-interrupted energy security until ...
  3. … significant investment in alternative energy infrastructure (solar, wind, bio-fuels, hydro) creates some form of energy independence
  4. 200 top-notch university-level educators in high-impact/high-potential fields (alternative energy, agriculture, architecture, civil engineering, software development, cloud computing, cryptography, analytics, big data, applied physics, material science, applied mathematics, various branches of medicine)
  5. 1000 experienced product managers and business development experts focused on the global IT and other export-oriented sectors and services
  6. 1400 young and dedicated volunteers (one for each public school in Armenia)
  7. 1000 summer volunteers to lead national identity-focused summer camps for local and diasporan children
  8. 300 experienced farmers from the San Joaquin valley (since I'm partial to California) to introduce modern agricultural techniques throughout Armenia and Artsakh (basically one for every 3 communities/villages)
  9. 100 experienced physicians, across specialties, to set up regional centers of excellence in cardiology, pediatrics, advanced cancer care, imaging, minimally-invasive surgery, cosmetic/elective surgery, and treatment of various chronic diseases
  10. Export consulting firms who can help Armenian small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) get maximum benefit from the new Customs Union (for all that’s wrong with this Union, it does represent a customs-free market of over 200 million consumers for Armenian products)
  11. 5 more Ruben Vardanyans, Eduardo Eurnekians, Sam Simonians, Gerard Cafesjians and Hrair & Edele Hovnanians (to name a few)
  12. 5 fewer oligarchs (fill in your favorite nicknames here: ______, ______, ______, ______ , _____)
  13. Additional venture funds to join the newly-created Granatus Ventures to funnel capital to the most promising Armenia-based start-ups
  14. Annual financial commitment of $500 from every Armenian family with the means to give (and much more serious commitment from 100,000 affluent Armenians) – which will create a $1 billion annual investment fund for infrastructure and economic development for the country

Of course, neither list is complete – the point is that social, economic and judicial reform will not take us out of the current predicament. We – and by we I mean ALL Armenians – need to invest in the future of this country.  This investment will take different forms for different people, from simple financial support, to promoting “Made in Armenia” goods and services, to encouraging friends and relatives to visit Armenia and contribute to the growth of tourism, to considering various levels of engagement in Armenia, whether it’s to study or volunteer here, to start a global business based here, to join the growing number of progressive local organizations full of talent that require the right “bridge” to access global markets, to ease into retirement by teaching the next generation of architects, physicians, engineers here … you get the picture.

This is NOT to say that the list of wants above isn’t valid or important – merely to say that if we think rationally through the spectrum of challenges we face, we must focus on those levers that create economic value, which in turn creates economic independence, and ultimately separates geopolitical necessities from internal and national aspirations. 

Let me close with this:  if each of the 5 super-wealthy Armenians named above gave $20 million, it would leave $200 million to pay off the $300 million debt to Gazprom for the previous years' subsidies – that's $100 for every Armenian family around the world.  That's the real price of independence.

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