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Fundamental Reform Can Secure Armenia’s Long-Term Future

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In the past year, the world has changed an unfathomable amount; every country has faced new challenges in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent economic recession. The new global situation presents not only challenges but also the opportunity to think about new ideas, to work out how our energy and focus can be used to create a better future for individuals across the world.

Armenia is one country that has faced existential crisis in the past year; the pandemic, the economic crisis and of course the war in Artsakh. The war has exacerbated socio-economic issues, aggravated social division and resulted in ongoing political instability –all factors that have raised questions about Armenia’s future as a nation and on the global stage. Despite the pain of the last year, it has also given us the opportunity to reflect and rethink our model for fundamental reform in Armenia.

I have long argued that for Armenia to be truly successful, we need to unite and focus on the country’s future. We have a historic responsibility to our ancestors, those who faced persecution, to heal from the past and build a successful country for our children. By building on our unique identity and historic experiences, we can use them to guide our future. However, first we must face up to serious questions on how we would like Armenia to look in twenty to thirty years’ time.

Currently, lack of opportunity is causing Armenians to vote with their feet and leave the country, with an estimated 200,000 intending to leave Armenia this year. To stop this, we must together provide a future of opportunity and belief in success stemming from a change in mindset.

I do not believe that all of the problems we face can be solved by the Armenian state. Instead, both the Armenian authorities and the diaspora should leave political disputes aside in order to consolidate and, alongside international specialists and humanitarian organisations, assist in the building of new institutions, good governance and the development of the country. Engaging with international partners is critical to raising standards and finding effective solutions.

So far, attempts at developing Armenia have been blighted by a failure to unite and mobilise both the nation and diaspora. It is not an easy task, currently there are roughly 10 million Armenians living in over 100 nations. However, we must transform the relationship to one of interdependence and trust.

Until now, members of the diaspora have largely been viewed as a source of charitable aid – this causes disconnect and indifference. Instead of charity, which I believe is detrimental to Armenia’s future as it prevents organic, conducive reforms, the diaspora should invest in long-term projects with meaningful impacts. I believe a shared vision and hope for Armenia can be created through collaboration and the implementation of impact investment. However, a strong Armenian diaspora must become more aware of their responsibility in helping the Armenian nation develop, and by updating and strengthening their institutions, enhance and ensure the preservation of Armenian worldwide heritage.

Commitment and shared responsibility will encourage desire for success and provide a crux for wider development. A blend of commercial, social and philanthropic projects will help build a better more sustainable future for Armenia. Multi-purpose anchor projects – breakthrough projects used to serve the interests of the nation and its people – will help societal evolution.  Anchor projects in the education, technological, scientific and tourism sectors will serve as a way to unite a fragmented nation, by drawing people together through communication and exchange of ideas. Long-term investment and visionare necessary, as social impact investments slowly manifest themselves over 20-25 years. Therefore, close working relationships are essential, investors need to want to be part of the conversation and want to see the projects evolve to impact the wider community.

Re-establishing Armenia as a hub of excellence in education would not only aid development and attract investment, it would attract others to the country. Investment into educational projects is investing in Armenia’s future, and promotes talent, trust, collaboration and multiculturalism –in doing so educational projects have wide-ranging personal, local and global impact. Armenia has already shown it has the potential for success in the educational sphere; with the Tumo Centre, American University in Armenia, Russian-Armenian University, French University and United World Colleges movement all having centres in Armenia. We must utilise the opportunities we have for the implementation of further educational projects.

Additionally, investment into the science and technological space would have wide reaching effect. The development of science and technology is both tangible and lucrative.It will also drive explosive growth in the health, environment and knowledge economies. The FAST Foundation is leading the way in innovation in Armenia, numerous projects support budding scientists, technologists and innovators in Armenia and the global stage. It will amplify and empower scientific advancement in the country, aiming to position Armenia as the technical and scientific hub of the region.

By fostering a competitive economy in Armenia, we can attract further foreign direct investment and also immigration. Additionally, we need to encourage good governance by developing effective and accountable governmental and societal institutions, which commit to excellence and professionalism. Impact investment and the championing of good governance will create an attractive Armenia, where not only Armenians want to live, but also the diaspora, international students and businessmen and women. This would bolster demographic security by dampening the desire for emigration and creating the social and economic atmosphere needed to raise the birth rate in the country. A growing population would mean a larger workforce, which would allow Armenia to become a self-sufficient global player, one that can build regional and global alliances.

Whilst our geographical location at the crossroads of civilisations brings many benefits, we also face regional security threats, which was painfully evident during last year’s 44-day war. In order to bolster Armenia’s position regionally, we must first acknowledge our security situation and construct a more effective and forward-looking defence system. This will take a shift in thinking and a significant increase in spending, but more modern military thinking is needed to protect our borders and people. A reinforced and innovative security system will allow us to look forward and act to guarantee Artsakh’s physical freedom and security.

Armenia faces many challenges, but it also has a number of strengths and competitive advantages – which we must use; not only do the diaspora provide resources and experience of other systems, we are bilingual nation and a nation located at the cross-roads of four civilisations. Armenia’s geography between the Middle East, Europe and the Caucasus means we can take advantage ofa working relationship with the European Union through the Eastern Partnership whilst being a member of the Eurasian Economic Union and Commonwealth of Independent States. Russia in particular is interested in Armenia being competitive, and at the same time is the right ally to ensure regional security.

If we build on these advantages and focus on inter-dependency and responsibility, Armenians and the Armenian diaspora, in collaboration with international partners and humanitarian institutions, can build a successful country. By developing on a local level, we can look to eradicate inequality and push for a fairer more open society, one that is beneficial for all Armenians.

A strong Armenia with modern institutions and a well-educated society will improve the country’s position regionally and on a global scale; allowing Armenia to become a bridge between cultures and organisations.

Ruben Vardanyan is an impact investor, social entrepreneur and business leader. He is the former CEO of Troika Dialog which became the pre-eminent local investment bank in Russia, and has co-founded a number of global initiatives and charitable organisations, including Moscow School of Management SKOLKOVO, the United World College (UWC) in Dilijan, and the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative. Through his family's charitable foundation, RVVZ, Ruben and his partners have invested more than $600M in projects in Armenia.

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Eastern Europe

Latvia developed new tasks for NATO soldiers

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Member of the Latvian Saemas’ national association “Everything for Latvia!” and Freedom”/LNNK Jānis Dombrava stated the need to attract NATO troops to resolve the migration crisis. This is reported by la.lv.  In his opinion, illegal migration from the Middle East to Europe may acquire the feature of an invasion. He believes that under the guise of refugees, foreign military and intelligence officers can enter the country. To his mind, in this case, the involvement of the alliance forces is more reasonable and effective than the actions of the European border agencies. Dombrava also noted that in the face of an increase in the flow of refugees, the government may even neglect the observance of human rights.

The Canadian-led battlegroup in Latvia at Camp Ādaži consists of approximately 1512 soldiers, as well as military equipment, including tanks and armoured fighting vehicles.

Though the main task of the battlegroup in Latvia is country’s defence in case of military aggression, Latvian officials unilaterally invented new tasks for NATO soldiers So, it is absolutely clear, that Latvian politicians are ready to allow NATO troops to resolve any problem even without legal basis. Such deification and complete trust could lead to the full substitution of NATO’s real tasks in Latvia.

It should be noted that NATO troops are very far from being ideal soldiers. Their inappropriate behaviour is very often in a centre of scandals. The recent incidents prove the existing problems within NATO contingents in the Baltic States.

They are not always ready to fulfill their tasks during military exercises and training. And in this situation Latvian politicians call to use them as border guards! It is nonsense! It seems as if it is time to narrow their tasks rather than to widen them. They are just guests for some time in the territory of the Baltic States. It could happen that they would decide who will enter Latvia and who will be forbidden to cross the border!

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Eastern Europe

Changes are Possible: Which Reforms does Ukraine Need Now?

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Photo: Robert Anasch/Unsplash

The past 16 months have tested our resilience to sudden, unexpected, and prolonged shocks. As for an individual, resilience for a country or economy is reflected in how well it has prepared for an uncertain future.

A look around the globe reveals how resilient countries have been to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some have done well, others less so. The costs of having done less well are almost always borne by the poor. It is for this reason the World Bank and the international community more broadly urge—and provide support to—countries to undertake economic and structural reforms, not just for today’s challenges but tomorrow’s.

One country where the dialogue on reform has been longstanding and intense is Ukraine. This is particularly true since the economic crisis of 2014-2015 in the wake of the Maidan Revolution, when the economy collapsed, and poverty skyrocketed. Many feared the COVID pandemic would have similar effects on the country.

The good news is that thanks to a sustained, even if often difficult, movement on reforms, Ukraine is better positioned to emerge from the pandemic than many expected. Our initial projection in the World Bank, for example, was that the economy would contract by nearly 8 percent in 2020; the actual decline was half that. Gross international reserves at end-2020 were US$10 billion higher than projected. Most important, there are far fewer poor than anticipated.

Let’s consider three reform areas which have contributed to these outcomes.

First, no area of the economy contributed more to the economic crisis of 2014-2015 than the banking sector. Powerful interests captured the largest banks, distorted the flow of capital, and strangled economic activity. Fortunately, Ukraine developed a framework to resolve and recapitalize banks and strengthen supervision. Privatbank was nationalized and is now earning profits. It is now being prepared for privatization.

Second, COVID halted and threatened to reverse a five-year trend in poverty reduction. Thanks to reforms of the social safety net, Ukraine is avoiding this reversal. A few years back, the government was spending some 4.7 percent of GDP on social programs with limited poverty impact. Nearly half these resources went to an energy subsidy that expanded to cover one-in-two of the country’s households.

Since 2018, the Government has been restructuring the system by reducing broad subsidies and targeting resources to the poor. This is working. Transfers going to the poorest one-fifth of the population are rising significantly—from just 37 percent in 2019 to 50 percent this year and are projected to reach 55 percent in 2023.

Third, the health system itself. Ukrainians live a decade less than their EU neighbors. Basic epidemiological vulnerabilities are exacerbated by a health delivery system centered around outdated hospitals and an excessive reliance on out-of-pocket spending. In 2017, Ukraine passed a landmark health financing law defining a package of primary care for all Ukrainians, free-of-charge. The law is transforming Ukraine’s constitutional commitment to free health care from an aspiration into specific critical services that are actually being delivered.

The performance of these sectors, which were on the “front line” during COVID, demonstrate the payoff of reforms. The job now is to tackle the outstanding challenges.

The first is to reduce the reach of the public sector in the economy. Ukraine has some 3,500 companies owned by the state—most of them loss-making—in sectors from machine building to hotels. Ukraine needs far fewer SOEs. Those that remain must be better managed.

Ukraine has demonstrated that progress can be made in this area. The first round of corporate governance reforms has been successfully implemented at state-owned banks. Naftogaz was unbundled in 2020. The electricity sector too is being gradually liberalized. Tariffs have increased and reforms are expected to support investment in aging electricity-producing and transmitting infrastructure. Investments in renewable energy are also surging.

But there are developments of concern, including a recent removal of the CEO of an SOE which raised concerns among Ukraine’s friends eager to see management independence of these enterprises. Management functions of SOE supervisory boards and their members need to remain free of interference.

The second challenge is to strengthen the rule of law. Over recent years, the country has established—and has committed to protect—new institutions to combat corruption. These need to be allowed to function professionally and independently. And they need to be supported by a judicial system defined by integrity and transparency. The move to re-establish an independent High Qualification Council is a welcome step in this direction.

Finally, we know change is possible because after nearly twenty years, Ukraine on July first opened its agricultural land market. Farmers are now free to sell their land which will help unleash the country’s greatest potential source of economic growth and employment.

Ukraine has demonstrated its ability to undertake tough reforms and, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, has seen the real-life benefits of these reforms. The World Bank looks forward to providing continued assistance as the country takes on new challenges on the way to closer European integration.

This article was first published in European Pravda via World Bank

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Eastern Europe

Liberal Development at Stake as LGBT+ Flags Burn in Georgia

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Photo: Protesters hold a banner depicting U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Kelly Degnan during a rally against Pride Week in Tbilisi, Georgia July 1, 2021. Credit: REUTERS/Irakli Gedenidze

Protests against Georgia’s LGBT+ Pride parade turned ugly in Tbilisi on July 5 when members of the community were hunted down and attacked, around 50 journalists beaten up and the offices of various organizations vandalized. Tensions continued the following day, despite a heavy police presence.

On the face of it, the Georgian state condemned the violence. President Salome Zourabichvili was among the first with a clear statement supporting freedom of expression, members of parliament did likewise and the Ministry of Internal Affairs condemned any form of violence.

But behind the scenes, another less tolerant message had been spread before the attacks. Anxiety about this year’s events had been rising as a result of statements by the government and clergy. Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili suggested the march “poses a threat of civil strife.” The Georgian Orthodox Church meanwhile condemned the event, saying it, “contains signs of provocation, conflicts with socially recognized moral norms and aims to legalize grave sin.”

For many, these statements signified tacit approval for the abuse of peaceful demonstrators. Meanwhile, the near-complete absence of security at the outset of the five-day event was all too obvious in Tbilisi’s streets and caused a public outcry. Many alleged the government was less focused on public safety than on upcoming elections where will need support from socially conservative voters and the powerful clergy, in a country where more than 80% of the population is tied to the Georgian Orthodox Church.

The violence brought a joint statement of condemnation from Western embassies. “Violence is simply unacceptable and cannot be excused,” it said. The Pride event was not the first and had previously been used by anti-gay groups. Violence was widespread in 2013 — and the reality of attacks against sexual minorities in Georgia remains ever-present.

In a socially conservative country such as Georgia, antagonism to all things liberal can run deep. Resistance to non-traditional sexual and religious mores divides society. This in turn causes political tension and polarization and can drown out discussion of other problems the country is marred in. It very obviously damages the country’s reputation abroad, where the treatment of minorities is considered a key marker of democratic progress and readiness for further involvement in European institutions.

That is why this violence should also be seen from a broader perspective. It is a challenge to liberal ideas and ultimately to the liberal world order.

A country can be democratic, have a multiplicity of parties, active election campaigns, and other features characteristic of rule by popular consent. But democracies can also be ruled by illiberal methods, used for the preservation of political power, the denigration of opposing political forces, and most of all the use of religious and nationalist sentiments to raise or lower tensions.

It happens across Eurasia, and Georgia is no exception. These are hybrid democracies with nominally democratic rule. Armenia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and others have increasingly more in common, despite geographic distance and cultural differences.

Hungary too has been treading this path. Its recent law banning the supposed propagation of LGBT+ materials in schools must be repealed, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on July 7. “This legislation uses the protection of children . . . to discriminate against people because of their sexual orientation . . . It is a disgrace,” she said.

One of the defining features of illiberalism is agility in appropriating ideas on state governance and molding them to the illiberal agenda.

It is true that a mere 30 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union is not enough to have built a truly liberal democratic state. Generations born and raised in the Soviet period or in the troubled 1990s still dominate the political landscape. This means that a different worldview still prevails. It favors democratic development but is also violently nationalistic in opposing liberal state-building.

Georgia’s growing illiberalism has to be understood in the context of the Russian gravitational pull. Blaming all the internal problems of Russia’s neighbors has become mainstream thinking among opposition politicians, NGOs, and sometimes even government figures. Exaggeration is commonplace, but when looking at the illiberal challenge from a long-term perspective, it becomes clear where Russia has succeeded in its illiberal goals. It is determined to stop Georgia from joining NATO and the EU. Partly as a result, the process drags on and this causes friction across society. Belief in the ultimate success of the liberal agenda is meanwhile undermined and alternatives are sought. Hybrid illiberal governments are the most plausible development. The next stage could well be a total abandonment of Euro-Atlantic aspirations.

Indeed what seemed irrevocable now seems probable, if not real. Pushback against Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic choice is growing stronger. Protesters in front of the parliament in central Tbilisi violently brought tore the EU flag. Twice.

The message of anti-liberal groups has also been evolving. There has been significant growth in their messaging. The anti-pride sentiment is evolving into a wider resistance to the Western way of life and Georgia’s Western foreign policy path, perhaps because it is easily attacked and misrepresented.

To deal with this, Western support is important, but much depends on Georgian governments and the population at large. A pushback against radicalism and anti-liberalism should come in the guise of time and resources for the development of stronger and currently faltering institutions. Urgency in addressing these problems has never been higher — internal and foreign challenges converge and present a fundamental challenge to what Georgia has been pursuing since the days of Eduard Shevardnadze – the Western path to development.

Author’s note: first published at cepa

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