The Armenian-American community of Southern California can be proud to count one of its very own as a “Rising Son” in that segment of the Hip-Hop community still striving for substance and talent when on the microphone.
We are referring to R-Mean (Armin Hariri), a seasoned Los Angeles rapper who is perhaps best known in the Armenian community for his track, ‘Open Wounds’, which deals with the pain and injustice of the Armenian Genocide.
R-Mean recently released a brand new album and we caught up with him for this exclusive interview.
HAYTOUG: How did you first become interested in Hip-Hop and a career in music?
R-MEAN: As much as Hip-Hop was everything to me, I never thought I could be a part of it musically. It never even crossed my mind. But I used to get a lot of single cd’s that had instrumentals on it and one day I was listening to the ‘Paparazzi’ beat by Xzibit and I just started flowing. Then, gradually, a hobby turned into my main passion in life.
H: You grew up in Amsterdam for the better part of your youth. How did that influence you as an artist?
R-M: As an artist anything you experience influences you and your art in some way, so absolutely. The lifestyle and mentality you grow up with is different than if you would grow up here in LA, for example. But most of the type of Hip-Hop I was exposed to growing up in Holland was really different as well. To this day Hip-Hop is in a more pure form out there than here so I grew up with a great sense of what Hip-Hop was really meant to be.
H: What artists would you like to work with?
R-M: There are a lot of artists I would love to work with. I get excited when I see real talent, no matter what style or genre of music. In regards to Armenian artists I would love to collaborate with Serj Tankian, of course, and I would love to do something with Jivan Gasparian. I am a big fan of using Armenian instruments and influences in my music. As far as Hip-Hop artists and producers there are too many to name but, of course, all the great ones like Eminem, Fifty Cent, Nas, Jay-Z.
H: Can you talk about the track “Open Wounds”?
R-M: The first time I wrote a song about the Armenian Genocide is when I took an Armenian History class in college. I wrote the whole song in class. After that, Blind and I did a couple tracks but every time it wasn’t the one. So when we were working on the Broken Water album we thought let’s do another one but this has to be “the one.”
I had the idea to use duduk in the beat so I got a bunch of cd’s with duduk stuff on it and brought them to Blind for him to sample. I had also met Soseh, the girl that sings the chorus, at UCLA and so I already knew I wanted her on the song too. Once Blind created the beat, I wrote my verses and Soseh came up with the idea of doing the chorus in Armenian and using “Kilikia”. It just all came together perfectly, and when it was done we definitely knew it was “the one.”
I think the song conveys the message perfectly both in words and emotion. The best thing for me was that so many non-Armenians learned about the Genocide through that song because people that don’t speak Armenian still get the message through the raps and the emotion and pain through Soseh’s voice. Hopefully one day we can still push the song to an even greater audience.
H: What inspired you to write a song about the Armenian Genocide?
R-M: I was raised with the Armenian Cause instilled in me from a young age so it was always important to me. I want my music to convey an important message and I always knew that I wanted to express the pain and frustration I feel about 1915 and pay tribute to the 1.5 million Armenians that were annihilated during the Armenian Genocide through my music.
I always wanted to help somehow but just going to protests and all that wasn’t enough for me. Once I started making music I knew my voice can be heard and especially the youth—which is the most important portion of the population but, at the same time, the hardest to reach—can be educated.
H: Can you explain the title of your new album?
R-M: The Risin Son is a nickname I acquired years ago….It symbolizes the rise of the next generation….the next generation of Hip-Hop. Originally it was just going to be a mixtape of some of my unreleased material but as we were putting it together it sounded so good that we had to make it a complete album. Ras Teo and Soseh are featured on the album as well as Romeo from the Goodfellas, Roscoe from DPG, and a few other guest appearances. It’s an incredibly well put together album and if you love Hip-Hop you’re going to love this album.
To learn more about R-Mean and his music, visit his website at www.r-mean.com.
Pasadena AYF member Tro Krikorian conducts town hall meeting with Armenian Presidential Candidate Vahan Hovannesian ahead of the February 2008 elections in Armenia.
"You cannot create experience, you must undergo it."
Taking Albert Camus’ truism to heart, the Armenian Youth Federation has spent the last 75 years preparing generations of leaders, giving young Armenian-Americans the opportunity to gain real world experience through service to their communities.
Keeping with tradition, the organization’s Central Executive kicked off this fiscal year by hosting a day of lectures, workshops and seminars on leadership development.
The participants, newly elected executives from local AYF chapters throughout the Western US, spent the day learning a range of skills, strategies, and theories on organizational management, applying them at the end in scenario based exercises.
But the training seminar, though extensive, is only one of many opportunities AYF members have throughout the year to cultivate skills critical to success in personal, professional, academic and community life.
The responsibility of having to oversee a group of people working to complete "complex tasks" within set schedules comes with great rewards and many in the AYF quickly realize the benefits that come with the long hours of work they regularly put into the organization, according to Sevag Jierian, the chairperson of the AYF’s Fresno chapter.
"Recognizing that things depend on you and rising to that task, has taught me how to be a leader, mentor and collaborator–traits one often needs to successfully manage a business, or any undertaking for that matter," he explained.
For the last few years, Vache Thomassian has been learning just that. As the editor of the organization’s quarterly publication, Haytoug, he has been responsible for everything expected from a professional magazine editor, working with a volunteer team to finance and produce a magazine that reaches tens of thousands of Armenia’s worldwide.
"For over 30 years AYF members have written for, designed, published and distributed the magazine," he explained, talking about some of the challenges he faced trying to grow the magazine. "When I was given the opportunity, we essentially had to reinvent the wheel and create a new and sustainable infrastructure for finding and managing talent for the magazine."
Vache, who is currently the Chairman of the AYF, described the job as an honor, noting the leap in his personal and professional growth while "learning how to delegate, organize and manage the functions of a publication."
"I remember the first issue of Haytoug I worked on was dedicated to examining the dire situation of the Armenians of Javakhk," he said, recalling his first project as the editor. "While working on that issue I had the opportunity to interview many experts and intellectuals, locally and internationally. That experience taught me how to research effectively, setting the stage, not only, for my future work with the magazine but also in my personal and academic life as well."
Carnie Armenian concurred, referring to her own experience helping to establish the AYF’s newest chapter in Las Vegas. As the chapter’s first chairperson, she is responsible for not only building its foundations, but also raising awareness about the organization in the community, doing outreach and getting people involved with the chapter.
"My responsibilities are endless," she said. "But so are the benefits."
For Levon Abrahamian, the AYF has been testing ground to develop leadership skills he always had but never explored. Currently the chairman of the AYF’s Central Fundraising Committee, Levon joined the organization to "make a difference in the community, to help it progress in any way he can."
"Being involved in planning some of the major events the AYF organizes has inspired me to go beyond the bare minimum, to always strive to do better than what’s expected and get the job done," he said, describing the "profound working habits and time management skills" he has developed as a result of his involvement.
No other organization or workplace environment gives its members as much freedom to explore and unearth hidden talents as the AYF does, Sevag Jierian noted, pointing to the many campaigns and projects he’s helped organize over the years.
Sevag’s chapter hosted this year’s annual AYF Olympics, a massive three day sports tournament and reunion celebration for the organization. Every year responsibility for organizing Olympics passes to a different chapter, giving its members an opportunity to put into motion their ideas for the event.
If the chapter rises to the challenge, the event easily becomes a phenomenally good time, as well as a fundraiser. As his chapter’s chairperson, Sevag, oversaw the efforts to organize the project and its various subsidiary elemen’s.
Another major initiative organized by the organization is an Alumni reunion hosted by the AYF’s Montebello chapter. This year was the 50th anniversary of the chapter and its chapter chairman, Zaven Altounian, oversaw a team who "worked on everything from conceptual planning to the final execution of the event," which is the chapter’s primary means to fund its yearly activities.
"I have learned to work on budgets and having to pick and choose different items for the event in order to stay within strict parameters in order to maintain the profitability, viability and ultimate success of the event," he said.
Montebello’s leadership, early on, recognized the strategic importance of long term planning, developing their reunion into a primary fundraising mechanism that would cultivate donors and patrons for the chapter, Zaven explained. "It’s vital that we create strong and lasting connections with our Alumni."
The reunion has been a powerful tool for showing the community that it has a vested interest in the chapter, he added. "I’ve learned that this is pivotal to the success of any non-profit."
Leadership requires vision and the AYF is a place to learn how to think outside the box, according to Sose Thomassian, the chairperson of the Orange County AYF.
"Motivating people to approach new challenges in innovative ways, requires an unconventional perspective, and the AYF brings out that creative problem solver in you," she said.
Sose is also the director of the AYF’s Youth Corps Program, which is one of the organizations most successful ongoing projects.
Having first occupied itself with small scale projects rebuilding damaged structures in Karabakh, Youth Corps took a bold and unprecedented step last year and opened what the AYF hopes to be a permanent summer camp for underprivileged youth in Gyumri.
Sending a team of 7 young Armenia’s to Gyumri to manage a summer day camp for hundreds of children was completely new to the AYF and it "needed serious planning and bold creativity," she explained, adding that "the program required a solid vision if it was to be successful and lasting."
The AYF is a chance to take hold of responsibility, to take on challenges, and make ideas happen, many in the organization often realize after completing their first fundraiser, or large scale event.
For some members a chance at leadership is why they joined the AYF. For others, the AYF helped them see a side of themselves they didn’t know existed.
"Being thrust into situations that require you to adapt to new circumstances changes people, and builds their capabilities," said Hasmig Karkouzian, the chairperson of the South Bay AYF.
Having to constantly take on new roles and responsibilities teaches you how to manage a diverse array of projects, she said. "I have been a project manager, supervisor, event planner, researcher, cook, promoter, negotiator, mentor, hostess, accountant, secretary, communicator, and educator."
Being involved provides you with a place to grow, agreed Saro Haroun, a former treasurer for the Crescenta Valley AYF, who described how his character had been shaped by the various responsibilities placed on his shoulders over the years.
Saro was the chair the organization’s Central Educational Committee last year, overseeing the curriculum of over 500 members throughout the entire organization. That responsibility is "extremely empowering," he exclaimed, stressing how his experiences in the organization shaped his trust in himself.
Membership in the AYF, in and of itself, is a remarkable opportunity for Armenian youth to develop their character, to become confident and responsible trail-blazers in anything they take on, commented the organization’s Vice Chairman, Berj Parseghian.
Two year’s ago Berj served as the AYF’s treasurer. He explained how the responsibility of having to "manage the organization’s books, budget money, and spend wisely" taught him skills he never thought he would learn. "Being in such a critical position taught me how to run a large organization, and how to achieve something greater than myself."
"Youth today are rarely given the kind of responsibility and level of freedom that the AYF provides," Vache explained, noting the AYF’s unique role in the community. “It brings youth together to volunteer for the betterment of our communities, and Armenia, while also helping them become better individuals, capable of leading our people into the future.”
It has been an historical year for the United States: two frontrunners in the race to become the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee were a black man and a woman. Without simplifying the accomplishments of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the impact of their candidacies on the future political environment of America should not be lost on the citizens of this country. Alas, there was something else this year that had never played such an important role in a presidential election cycle: the issue of health care.
Despite the temptation to suggest that it was Michael Moore’s SicKo that provided the impetus for this national discussion, I believe that it was a result of a tacit agreement between Mr. Obama, Mrs. Clinton and the other frontrunner, John Edwards – who exited the race in its early stages – to finally address a frequently ignored problem. Consequently, health care became a central campaign issue for all three Democrats and each candidate had detailed plans on how they would make health care accessible to a greater number – if not all – Americans.
The relevance of this campaign issue became especially poignant to the Armenian-American community when, tragically, AYF member Nataline Sarkisyan lost her life because the deplorable policies of Cigna Health care prevented her from getting a potentially life-saving organ transplant. Cigna’s purposeful obstruction of the procedure led to an outpouring of Armenian-American activists, along with health care advocacy groups and individuals, protesting the insurance company’s decision to place more importance on their finances than to save an individual’s life. The ensuing debacle was nationally televised and the Edwards campaign even flew the Sarkisyan family to New Hampshire to share their harrowing experience with the state’s constituents in an effort to show voters the seriousness of America’s health care woes.
As the only industrialized Western country to not offer universal health care and as the country with the most expensive health care system in the world, the debate in the United States has intensified. This article will endeavor to explain what is wrong with the health care system in America, what can be done to change it, and how this is all relevant to the Armenian-American community.
What About Health Care?
In America, health care is the responsibility of each individual or head of household, in the case of families with children. That means that, in most circumstances, a person pays for their own health care and that of their children out of their own pocket. The problem with this system is that since health insurance is provided mostly by private companies, they can charge whatever they like to those wanting to buy it and oftentimes, those prices are too expensive for middle-income to low-income workers. First, this can make it difficult even for a person who has a job that pays enough to take care of their family’s basic needs (e.g. housing, food, transportation) but who does not have much money to spend on other expenses. So, buying health insurance for oneself or one’s children becomes a “luxury” that only some can afford, although a person may be working full-time. Unlike other luxuries, health care is a service necessary for all segments of the population and its availability should not be limited solely to those who have extra money to spend.
Also, just like the weather, the economy is cyclical. Most of you reading this have probably been through a few of these up-down economic cycles and you know about the consequences of each: typically, high employment and market growth during up cycles, low employment and market decline in down cycles. The primary concern here is with those who do not have jobs, not because they do not want to work, but because there is no work available to them. A person in this situation is simply negatively affected by circumstance and he or she cannot be expected to buy health insurance in order to be able to go to the doctor, if need be.
In the most loathsome scenarios, insurance companies will refuse their health care plans to those with preexisting conditions. This means that if a child has leukemia or if a woman has breast cancer or if a man has a brain tumor before they have insurance, the insurance company can – and most likely will – deny an applicant because of the higher likelihood of death. Because of the exorbitant cost of uninsured health care, this is essentially a death sentence signed by the insurance companies.
What Can Be Done?
There have been numerous proposals of how to solve the problem of uninsured Americans and, fortunately, a few were made on the presidential campaign trail. Because of the varied living situations of the American populace, most of the proposals have been multifaceted. For example, people would have the choice to either keep the insurance plan provided by their employer or buy into a reasonably-priced program offered by the U.S. government. Most universal health care programs would provide coverage regardless of employment status, making sure that unemployment does not result in the loss of health insurance.
Included in the health care coverage would be regular and unexpected doctor visits, access to necessary pharmaceutical drugs and insurance for health-oriented (i.e. not plastic) surgeries. Also, it would guarantee that those with preexisting conditions would still be able to afford health care, giving them a higher chance of surviving their illness. Such a system would ensure that everyone would receive, at least, basic medical attention required for a normal, healthy life – or, at least, its pursuit.
Where Do We Fit In?
Very simply, any of the aforementioned issues can apply to Armenian-Americans; unfortunately, one of them did and we lost Nataline Sarkisyan because of it. As Americans, we need to be concerned that many people who need medical attention do not receive it although they contribute their fair share to the economic well-being of the country and duly pay their taxes.
As Armenians, the tenets of our culture which have given us an admirable reputation as hospitable and respectful people should be parlayed into a sense of social justice that can be partially achieved through the implementation of universal health care.
It is, as I said, an historical time in the United States and if we, as Armenian-Americans, can agree that health care is the right of each individual, we can be a part of that history – a part of potentially the greatest social change this generation of Americans will ever see.
HAYTOUG: Can you tell us a little bit about your background growing up?
SERJ TANKIAN: I was born in Beirut, Lebanon in 1967. I went to Chatalbashian Varjaran in Beirut, Alex Pilibos in Hollywood, CA, and got my bachelors in Business from California State University of Northridge.
H: How did System of a Down come to form? Were you guys expecting the super-stardom that System achieved?
S.T.: We all met through rehearsal situations where one band was sharing rehearsal space with another. Daron [Malakian] and I were in different bands and met first, then met Shavo [Odadjian], and finally John [Dolmayan], when his band was rehearsing with System. We all just wanted to make a living doing what we loved to do. The rest just happened.
H: Tell us about the inspirations behind your new solo album, Elect the Dead?
S.T.: There are many inspirations from personal, to social, theoretical to political. All open to interpretation, as good art should be. The concept of the ending of civilization is also very apparent throughout the record and my thoughts of last.
H: Who will you be supporting in the upcoming American presidential election and why?
S.T.: Obama. He’s the only real candidate of choice and honesty. Originally I had supported Dennis Kucinich for his anti-imperialist and pro-working man stance.
H: Tell us about your work with Axis of Justice?
S.T.: Check out www.axisofjustice.org and you’ll see. We’ve had this non-profit since 2002 and have done tremendous work in both worlds of philanthropy (feeding the homeless, supporting food shelters, donating to environmental disasters), to our political work (labor, anti-war, environmental, human rights, genocide recognition, labor rights, etc).
H: Your music has brought an incredible amount of attention to the Armenian Cause; what is the best way young people today can raise consciousness of the importance of Genocide awareness?
S.T.: By being aware and contributing to the halting of genocide around the world now and in the future anywhere on the planet.
H: What message would you impart to those Armenian youth that feel powerless or are uninterested in issues pertaining to Genocide recognition or US policies in general?
S.T.: Everyone has a vision on this planet and not all of us are destined to deal with any specific issues or causes. I would advise people to find their own vision and pursue it with a hunger unseen to achieve their own state of transcendence. Everything on this planet is connected. And if that’s the case, then working towards justice should be one of our primary goals as humans here.
H: What are your plans for the future?
S.T.: More music, more politics, and much more love… Musically, I’m working on composing for a play, films, video games, and another solo record of jazz/orchestral elements.
By Razmig Nalpatian
“Arshavir Shiragian” Chapter
Buenos Aires, Argentina
The South American Armenian community emerged as a consequence of the Armenian Genocide. It had been created by the first refugees that arrived to the region between 1918 -1928, escaping from the atrocities that the Ottoman Empire was committing against the Armenians. After establishing and starting a new life far from their ancestral homes and belongings, they founded Armenian community organizations and institutions as a way of sticking together and maintaining their cultural identity.
Throughout years, the Armenian population in the area has increased quite a bit and, currently, a fourth generation of Armenians is taking root. The Armenian community in Argentina is the largest with a population of 120,000. The major concentrations are in the capital Buenos Aires, with 105,000, and in Cordoba, with 15,000, but also include such smaller cities as Rosario, Mar del Plata, and so on.
Coming in behind Argentina is Uruguay, with somewhere around 15,000 to 20,000 Armenians. Next is Brazil with 3,500 and, finally, Chile with 1,000. However, these numbers do not accurately portray the level of Armenians who are actively involved in the community. Unfortunately for us, a low percentage—most guess about 10% to 20%—participate consistently in Armenian community life.
In South America, the Armenian Youth Federation is known as UJA, Unión Juventud Armenia. It was founded in 1941 in Buenos Aires and, soon after, many other chapters arose in the region, creating a South American network of UJA’s. Today, we have chapters in Buenos Aires, Uruguay, Cordoba and Brazil, and our total number of active members in the region is approximately eighty.
Unfortunately, the task of fending off assimilation has been a difficult one for us outside of the homeland. In the late 1990s, our organization was in a state of flux and struggling to stay active. Also, at the same time, our region was suffering the social and economic consequences of failed neoliberal policy measures applied by the governments in power and this affected Armenians of the region quite strongly, as well.
By 2002, the tide began to turn and there was a rejuvenation of UJA activism in the region. Many chapters saw an influx of new members and a reinvigorated spirit of commitment to the Armenian community. In my hometown of Buenos Aires, there is even a new chapter, “Sahigian” in Flores, in addition to the already existing “Soghomon Tehlirian” chapter in Valentín Alsina and “Arshavir Shiragian” chapter in Palermo.
The names of all of the chapters in the region are as follows:
Buenos Aires, Argentina:
San Pablo, Brazil:
These chapters often have meetings once a week, usually at nights in the agump or in a local Armenian school. After having had our discussions we like to take time to go out together to either eat pizza or go to an Armenian restaurant or just relax and have fun with friends. In my opinion these types of outings are a great idea because, after a tough and busy week, getting to relax with friends is truly priceless.
In addition, we hold several seminars annually where all the chapters in the region participate. In these regional seminars, we attend lectures about such topics as Hai Tad, Armenian history, socialist ideology, how to be better community leaders, world affairs and developments in Armenia.
In order to accommodate everyone and make the organizational and travel issues as fair as possible, we try to have these seminars in a different city each time. Often, when deciding upon the next city and date, there tend to be intense discussions due to every representative wanting to defend their chapter’s interest. In each city or country the holidays are different, so it is very difficult to come to an agreement but, somehow, we always do and manage to continue being friends in the process.
We also have our regional summer camp which, if schedules and conditions permit, we try to have consistently every summer. Unfortunately, last summer we could not organize the camp due to the logistical difficulties. However, I am glad to report that the camp will be taking place this year from December 27-29 (our seasons our reversed) in Colonia, Uruguay and we are all anxiously awaiting this gathering. Such occasions are very important for us in our region since we very rarely have the opportunity to see our friends from different cities and, each time, we have a lot of fun renovating our ties as Armenian youth.
Another occasion which we look forward to just as much is the opportunity to meet our fellow ungers from other parts of the world. Our region has had the pleasure of attending various international meetings, like the World Social Forum in Brazil in 2005 and Venezuela in 2006, alongside other Armenian youth. We have also sent delegations to the American Social Forum in Ecuador in 2006 and the Pan-Armenian AYF Camp in Armenia in 2007, where we had one member from Buenos Aires and another from Cordoba participate.
For us, being so far from our homeland and having certain difficulties in raising money to travel it is a significant problem. So, when some of us do have the opportunity to travel abroad it is a major event for us and we feel that, in a way, our whole region is accompanying those individuals fortunate enough to make the trek. It is a bit difficult to explain this feeling but I am sure that our South American ungers understand very well what I am talking about.
In the area of communications, our regional media is also growing through the use of new mediums and resources. For example we have a blog, yeridasartagan.blogspot.com, where we upload documents, speeches and different things that may interest the youth. The same is true of our web page, www.ujafra.org (currently being updated). What’s more, we have our magazine Gamk which is published twice a year. In it we try to deal with topics related to Armenia, Argentina, human rights and world events. In our blog, we feature various issues of Gamk in digital format in order to extend our mission to as many people as possible.
Of course, as the youth of our community, we also lead many Armenian Genocide recognition efforts. Perhaps the largest April 24 commemorative event in all of South America is the march we organize every year in front of the Turkish ambassador’s residence in Buenos Aires. During the march, we lead a procession of over 1000 Armenians with torches and candles towards the residence, from where he hold a rally featuring speeches and demonstrative cultural acts.
Finally, we have two very important other activities on the regional level that are soon to be especially significant for the community. The first one is a campaign called “I WANT TO BE A CITIZIEN” which is related to the Armenian Dual Citizenship Law promoted by the ARF. This consists of making this law a reality for the Armenians living in South America. The main goals are to make Armenians aware of this important issue and encourage them to strive for Armenian citizenship.
The other activity we are working on is collaboration with a major Jewish student organization. The project is a competition in which the participants have to write essays about human rights for the 60th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. We have carried out similar cooperative efforts with non-Armenian organizations in the past and believe that being aware of other issues not exclusively Armenian is very important. It is also important to build bridges and alliances with other groups sharing similar concerns.
To sum up, our region continues to face the daunting problem of assimilation because, as I explained before, we are a long-standing community and the pressures to stray away from Armenian life and latch on to non-Armenian organizations and institutions are very big in our region.
The Armenian Youth Federation of South America is working to attract those young people that are not participating actively and also to keep the youth as the main character of the community. This is a complicated goal but I think that working together simultaneously and improving our every-day communication to overcome the distance barrier will lead us ultimately to success.
For its Fall issue, the Armenian Youth Federation’s Haytoug publication sat down with Dr. Ara Khanjian for a candid discussion on the socio-economic realities in Armenia and how the nation could overcome the challenges that have relegated many of the country’s population to a life of poverty and social inequality.
Dr. Khanjian is a Professor of Economics at Ventura College and a Lecturer in Money and Banking at California Lutheran University, Thousand Oaks. In 1991, he worked at the Economic Institute of the Economic Ministry of Armenia, developing economic legislation, such as labor laws. He currently serves on the Executive Board of the Armenian International Policy Research Group (AIPRG) and is the former editor of the Armenian Journal of Public Policy.
Haytoug:Armenia has been recording steady levels of economic growth and expansion for several years now. How much of this growth has trickled down to the average population and those at the very bottom of the economic totem pole?
Ara Khanjian: During the past ten years, when Armenia was experiencing a double-digit GDP growth rate, the official poverty rates went down significantly. In 1999, 56.1% of the population was officially considered poor. By 2006 that rate had dropped to 26.5%. However we have to make a few observations here.
First, there are regional disparities. A visitor to Armenia would realize that most of the improvement is occurring within the “getron” (center) of the capital, Yerevan. Outside the center of Yerevan, the improvemen’s are less visible and tend to be the poorest areas. In general, rural areas are doing better than the urban areas outside of Yerevan, because agricultural production is increasing and, during the past few years, agricultural prices were rising faster than non-food prices.
Second, it could be argued that the official poverty line is very low, and it underestimates the true amount of poverty in Armenia. In 2006 the poverty line was 21,555 dram per month, which implies that someone earning 22,000 dram ($73) per month would not be considered poor. However with 22,000 dram someone would have a very low standard of living and would be living in practical poverty.
Haytoug: What specific policies aimed at reducing poverty and increasing economic equality has the ARF advocated or implemented since joining the coalition government?
A.K.: First we should emphasize a philosophical issue. The ARF being a socialist political party does not believe in the Darwinian concept of the survival of the fittest or the law of the jungle, where the strong survive while the weak–such as the young, elderly and the unfortunate–perish. Therefore, poverty is a major concern of the ARF, while for other political parties poverty is a secondary issue, because they believe that the poor are responsible for their conditions and that they should improve their own economic situation.
The ARF is convinced that the government has an important role to play in generating an environment where the poor would have the opportunity to improve their standard of living. It is safe to claim that economic growth alone is not sufficient to reduce poverty in a country. It is essential for the government to adopt pro-poor economic policies. The ARF promoted the following pro-poor policies:
—Increase government expenditures on education, health care, housing and social programs.
–Increase in the pension paymen’s.
–Increase in the minimum wage.
–Increase government regulations and restricting monopolies.
–Improve public infrastructure, such as rural roads and water resources.
–Provide easy access to credit by the poor.
This last point is considered an important factor. Corruption deteriorates the businesses environment and it slows down economic growth. Also corruption increases inequality. Armenia’should aggressively reduce the level of corruption.
Haytoug:The official political coalition agreement of the current Armenian government and much of the statemen’s coming from President Serj Sarkisyan acknowledge the need for the state to fight corruption, combat the shadow economy, promote jobs, reduce inequality, alleviate poverty, and so on. In your view, what are the prospects for the current coalition government to effectively tackle these socio-economic issues in Armenia and what role does the ARF play in these efforts?
A.K.: With our focus on poverty, we were able to influence the government and make it more aware of the needs of the poor. During the opening ceremony of the ARF’s 30th World Congress, one of the first concerns mentioned by Prime Minister Dikran Sarkisyan in his speech was the fight against poverty. This was not a coincidence. Prime Minister Sarkisyan, knew that the ARF cares about the poor; therefore he explained to the ARF World Congress delegates that he also is concerned with the conditions of the poor. In addition, the government of Armenia, similar to many other developing countries, with the cooperation of the World Bank, has adopted a Poverty Reduction Strategic Paper, PRSP, which is a long-term plan for reduction of poverty in Armenia. http://www.prsp.am
Under the pressure of the IMF, the government of Armenia was trying to reduce the budget deficit by reducing government expenditures on social programs. The ARF actively advocated increasing government pro-poor expenditures, such as on health care, education, pension etc. In order to finance these pro-poor expenditures, the ARF advocated a reduction in corruption and collection of the correct amount of taxes from rich families and large businesses.
Meanwhile the ARF was and still is arguing that the government could afford to generate a slightly higher level of budget deficit and could allocate the additional borrowed funds on education, health care, pension benefits and other pro-poor government expenditures.
Haytoug:How much of the disillusionment and dissatisfaction that exists in Armenia–as witnessed during the post-election turmoil in late February and early March–do you think is attributable to social inequality and real or perceived injustice in the economic sphere?
A.K.: Social inequality, high rates of poverty and real injustices in the economic sphere are causing significant amount of discontent. The almost annihilation of the middle class during the 1990s and the emergence of the very rich made people feel much poorer.
At the same time it seems to me that in Armenia the very rich are not hiding their substantial amount of wealth. Instead, they are showing it off and making the poor feel even worse. Also the rich and the powerful sometimes are violating the laws blatantly making the ordinary citizen feel even more helpless. For example, sometimes you will notice that a young person driving a luxury car in the streets of Yerevan is violating basic traffic laws arrogantly. In this sense it is essential to apply the law to everyone, including the rich and the powerful.
Recently we should note that, along these lines, there has been some reduction in petty bribery that traffic cops used to collect from ordinary citizens.
Haytoug: The Armenian government’s budget has reportedly seen a 35% increase in tax revenue in the first half of this year and the government has promised to increase spending on social programs as a result. How best do you think increased tax revenue should be used to alleviate economic hardships in Armenia?
A.K.: Even with such increases, the level of tax revenue in Armenia is still relatively very low. It is important that in the near future, the government of Armenia collects the correct amount of taxes from large enterprises.
In order to reduce the economic hardship of the poor in Armenia, government expenditures on education, research and development, health care, and rural infrastructure, such as roads, electricity, running water, schools, health clinics, etc., should increase.
Probably the top social spending priority should be on education, because an adequate type of education improves the potential for individuals to find jobs and be productive members of society. In general, historically speaking, when a socialist government comes to power in a developing country, one of the first major goals becomes improving the level of education, because education is the best way to reduce poverty.
Haytoug:Is there anything you would like to add in sum of our discussion on economic issues facing Armenia?
A.K.: Let me make a few suggestions and statemen’s.
When we discuss economic issues I think it is useful to keep in mind that our concern should be the economic interests of the masses in Armenia and not just the interests of the upper middle class and the rich.
During this summer I had to read “the Jungle” by Upton Sinclair. It is the most famous socialist novel in the U.S. The novel is based on the conditions of the meat production industry in Chicago around 1905. I strongly advise you to read this novel. You will see the extreme poverty that existed in the U.S. at the turn of the century and how the system was so unfair. It took generations of socialists, union members and workers to fight and struggle in order to have the labor rules and regulations–such as coffee break, vacation time, eight hour work-day, safer working conditions, some amount of job security, retirement benefits, etc.– that we take for granted. None of these things existed one hundred years ago. We should appreciate them and be thankful to the past socialists and union members who struggled, and even died, in order for us to enjoy these working conditions today.
Each one of us should feel that it is our duty to take steps in order to generate a fair economic system, where poverty in Armenia is eliminated, where everyone has access to adequate level of education, health care, public transportation, child care, housing, adequate retirement, etc. and where everyone in Armenia has at least an acceptable standard of living.
Editor’s Note: This interview appears in the Fall issue of Haytoug, the Armenian Youth Federation’s
official publication. The Fall 2008 issue can be found at community
centers, schools and local bookstores. Pick up a copy or download it in PDF format.
One of the reasons for our organization’s longevity has been our ability to adapt to the changes of our times–both in the US and the Armenian nation. In the era surrounding our creation, we focused on gathering the youth and keeping our sense of identity alive. As time went on, the AYF became much more active in the struggle for Genocide recognition and political activism.
The worldwide diaspora can play a significant role in this process not only through material assistance but also through the sharing of knowledge, skills, experiences, and solidarity. In order to do this adequately, however, we must come to a clearer understanding of not only the current conditions in Armenia but also the historical context in which they were spawned.
Indeed, if anybody should realize the importance of remembering history, it us, the Armenia’s. We must learn the lessons of history when it comes to the legacy left on Armenia by the Soviets and the past two administrations; we must learn the lessons of history when it comes to the struggle for Hai Tahd and the sacrifices of those such as Vahan Cardashian and the Lisbon 5; and we must learn the lessons of recent history here in our own backyard, when we see the ravages of a profit-driven health care system taking the lives of our very own.
Only by paying attention to history and drawing the obvious lessons it teaches us can we make certain that the future will be a more just and equitable one.
We agree with the words featured in this issue from musician, activist and former AYF alumnus Serj Tankian when he says, “Everything on this planet is connected. And if that’s the case, then working towards justice should be one of our primary goals as humans here.”
It is in this spirit that we present this current issue. It is also in this spirit that we call on all Armenian youth to join together to create a more righteous future for our people.
On August 8th, 2008 an estimated 50 million people were clinched to their television sets watching the elaborate spectacle of the 2008 Olympics Opening Ceremonies in Beijing, China. Every country cheering for its heroic athletes. Every athlete carrying their country’s honor on their shoulders. For most countries, this event passed by like a New York stock market ticker. However, for Armenia, the Olympics hold a deeper meaning.
For Armenians around the world, the Olympics are a time to come together in unification and to celebrate the country’s history, struggle, significance, and most of all, its freedom. Olympic representation is a symbol of our country’s progress, determination and will. It is a profound moment for Armenians, and it is an event that every Armenian should watch proudly.
For decades up until the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenians were forced to participate in the Olympics competing under the flag of the USSR. Every medal won was viewed as a Soviet victory, not an Armenian victory, a fact that undoubtedly bothered Armenians greatly. At home, Armenians were forced to watch sporting events of foreign countries with the hope that they will find at least one Armenian competing.
Yet, it was not until the 1994 Winter Olympics Games in Lillehammer, Norway, and the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia that Armenia was able to represent herself on an international stage. Finally, a chance for Armenians to wave their flags, cheer, and rejoice, as a free and independent nation. Listening to the announcer say “Armenia” into the microphone, listening to the television broadcaster talk about Armenia’s athletes, and listening to the crowd in the arena’s cheer, can send chills down any Armenian spine.
This year, newly elected President Serzh Sargsyan, who holds great relations with the Chinese government, personally attend the Opening Ceremonies. More importantly, this year Armenia has 25 athletes participating in 7 sports. Among their staples, which include weightlifting, boxing, shooting, and wrestling, three more sports have been added to their arsenal for 2008: judo, swimming and athletics. With every Olympics, new events are added to the list, which undoubtedly serves as a testament to a dedication towards progress.
The underlying aspect of Olympic participation is not winning gold, or breaking records, rather it is the significance of competing on an international stage, as a free country. It is showing the world that although our numbers our weak, our will is endless, and as a nation we have persevered for so many years. Although the Olympics will not get us Genocide recognition, although it will not return to us our lands, it is still a symbol of our country’s existence, strength, and independence.
It is for this reason that we must watch the Olympics proudly. It is for this reason that we must tirelessly support our courageous athletes. And it is for this reason we must cheer, shout, and cry when we see our colors displayed on international television, or when we hear our country’s name repeated over and over and over again.
Can you imagine trying to understand the depopulation of Nakhichevan or Kharabakh’s struggle for self-determination without considering the impact of Stalin’s decision to carve up these regions from Armenia in 1921? Better yet, can you imagine trying to understand the present state of Armenian-Turkish relations without looking at the facts of the Armenian Genocide? Although some parties, such as Turkey and Azerbaijan, would prefer that we look at issues through such an ahistorical lens, those concerned with truth would be wise to realize the importance of history.
Simply put, history matters. Those who do not properly understand and acknowledge history are not only doomed to repeat it, they are setting themselves up for even graver outcomes in the future. As historian Howard Zinn has suggested, not being aware of history is like being born yesterday. In his words, “If you forget history, if you were born yesterday, then you’ll believe anything.”
In the case of the present day Republic of Armenia, understanding history means taking a critical look at the previous 70 years of Soviet rule over this land. Only then can we properly understand the current fabric of social and political life and contemplate ways of moving forward.
The Working Class
Contrary to the rhetoric and official proclamations of the Soviet Empire, the USSR was about as socialist as it was democratic. Rather than empowering workers and freeing them from conditions of oppression, Armenia under Bolshevik rule witnessed the domination of workers by the state and its appointed overseers.
Under the Bolshevik regime, workers were placed into arbitrary unions used by the government to control industries and ensure the implementation of party policies. Those who did not obey would face the danger of losing their job, income, benefits, or worse. In effect, the Soviet factory managers replaced the previous owners of capital as the new exploiters of the working class.
In this environment, Armenian workers never had the opportunity to organize independently and exercise their class-consciousness. Perhaps even worse, appeals toward class sensibilities and trade unions themselves became largely discredited by the experience of the Soviet era, which carried out its subjugation under the false banner of ’socialism.’
Meanwhile, in the countryside, Stalin’s brutal collectivization forced peasants against their will into collective farms controlled by local Communist party officials. Those who resisted were executed while many Armenia’s ended up being forced to leave their homes in the countryside and crowd into urban areas.
The countryside itself was left sacrificed for the sake of heavy industry and military production. Virtually no investment was made in the rural economy or infrastructure, resulting in severe decay still felt to this day. In fact, with over 30% of the current population in Armenia working the land, one of the most pressing needs in the area of poverty reduction is investing in infrastructure, such as rural roads and irrigation systems.
A further problem in today’s Armenia is that institutions such as trade unions and worker cooperatives continue to be negatively associated with the repression of the Soviet past. Overcoming this legacy and organizing workers independently to protect their interests will undoubtedly be one of the major tasks for the foreseeable future.
Political Participation & Ideology
In the arena of political participation, the Soviet era has also left an indelible mark on Armenia. Not only were political decisions dictated from above (via Moscow) but even those democratic institutions which did exist served largely as empty, ceremonial devices for validating the Communist regime. For example, there were elections in the USSR but they were virtually all uncontested races, where participation was considered part of the ritual of being a Soviet citizen.
In addition, mass organizations such as youth groups, student organizations, political parties and trade unions were seen simply as stepping-stones for career advancement. Participants usually joined these groups to enhance their future and gain the support of party bosses, not to make a difference in politics or join with like-minded individuals to affect change. As a result, for decades, Armenia was almost completely deprived of the valuable practice of voluntary civic association and engagement.
In turn, the heavy political repression of the Soviet period transformed politics into a nuisance that was to be avoided, not embraced. Naturally, people preferred to keep their true political ideals private and relied the most heavily on close family ties and social networks. The economic hardships and political persecutions of the post-Soviet leadership in Armenia only reinforced this pattern of disillusionment with politics and political participation.
Along these lines, ideology also became a negative connotation for many in post-Soviet Armenia. The USSR’s stated mission of building communism and being driven by ideology discredited the promotion of such ideals in general. People came to expect that their leaders would make ideological proclamations in public but practice something completely different in private. Not surprisingly, ideology in general became negatively associated with Bolshevism and its deceit.
We can see the pitfalls of this phenomenon playing out today, with the ‘opposition’ of Levon Ter-Petrossian having no real platform or ideology to speak of besides calling for a regime change in his favor. Reversing this trend and reinstituting an appreciation for political platforms and clear visions of a more decent future will be a key factor in ensuring a more rapid and healthy democratization process in Armenia.
Of course, the fundamental problem of corruption in Armenia also has its roots in the Soviet era. Given the fact that the Communist Party relied on its managerial class (the apparatchiki) to govern affairs, distribute appointmen’s, and hand out benefits, many regional and local ‘leaders’ used their power to expand their own personal gain. If a citizen had a problem, he or she had to turn to the local or city party committee for a solution. Getting help from such highly concentrated centers of power required some sort of ‘connection,’ favoritism, or bribe to those in authority.
Thus, getting by in the Soviet system inherently required political influence, social connections, and personal networks. The totalitarian, top-down nature of management also led to the wasteful distribution of supplies and constant shortages. People were conditioned to set aside national concerns and look out, instead, for their own narrow personal and familial interests.
It was also during the Soviet era that a black market economy developed in Armenia, which then ballooned out of control following independence. This was precisely because the only people who had experience with the market in the Communist period were those who operated illegally. As one can imagine, such individuals were the best skilled at evading laws and taking advantage of circumstances to pull a profit.
Today, people continue to view patronage and family networks as key channels for getting ahead and money, in many ways, has become the new way to get around bureaucratic difficulties and daily obstacles. It is no secret that businessmen who operate in the ‘hadows’ and evade regulation are also prevalent in the economy.
A serious campaign to combat corruption and bring market activity within legal parameters is one of the most important challenges facing the country. This struggle must be waged if we want to see a more prosperous and equitable Armenia.
The Soviet State had a severe impact on countless other facets of Armenian life; everything from the education system and media to national identity, culture, and relations with the Diaspora. The list is too long to be covered here.
The main point, however, is that the legacy of the Soviet Union must be well understood when analyzing conditions in today’s Armenia. Seventy years of rule behind the ‘Iron Curtain’ had dramatic effects on the development of the Armenian Republic, just as the respective host country each community has been forced to develop under has shaped life in the Armenian Diaspora.
So how do we move forward? One simple starting point would be to reverse the negative trends and artificial characteristics imposed on Armenia during the Soviet period. Returning Armenia to its natural course of development without interference from abroad (whether it be from Moscow, Washington, or anywhere else) would seem to be one of the most basic lessons drawn from the Soviet experience.
The recent political turmoil in Yerevan also suggests that political organization in Armenia needs to focus more on the root causes of social injustice and inequality. The discrediting of class-consciousness, political ideology, and civic organization during the Soviet era is very dangerous and must be overcome soon. Otherwise, as we saw with the campaign of Levon Ter-Petrossian, discontent and political anger in the country can be diverted into demagoguery, sensationalism, and attacks against national unity.
Reviving the true values and ideals of socialism becomes even more critical in this light. This revival can best be assured through democratic, bottom-up organizing around principles of economic equality, accountability, social justice, and national (not personal) priorities.
Achieving such progress will require not only a proper understanding of history but, more importantly, the willingness to change it.