Posted on February. 23. 2022
BY STEPAN PILIGIAN
I keep telling myself that political stability is going to happen soon. Perhaps I am ignoring reality and allowing optimism to be disguised as naivety. But seriously, this situation in the homeland is out of control and must stop. In times of war, nations use a ceasefire to regain some semblance of civility. In sports, the timeout is used to pause and regain control. Can someone please blow the whistle for a timeout?
The latest in a long list of bizarre political events is the abrupt resignation of Armenia’s president. Of course, most of us are completely dependent on the image portrayed by the media. Many had a favorable view of him as having a vast international network that would benefit Armenia both economically and diplomatically. Others promoted controversy about his citizenship when he spent many years abroad prior to his ascension to the presidency. His relationship was frosty with Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan based on the differences in their governance and the president’s limited scope of authority. We need to remind ourselves that Sarkissian took office prior to the Velvet Revolution nominated on a recommendation of former President Serge Sargsyan. Political differences are routine, but the rumors and reports surrounding his departure are troubling. Sarkissian informed the Prime Minister only a few hours before his announcement, thus verifying that their relationship was as ceremonial as his position. It has also been reported that Sarkissian was not in Armenia at the time of his announcement. What? Regardless of your perspective, that is not a good look. The President resigns and is not on the soil of sovereign Armenia? What does that mean? Is he fearful or simply starting a new chapter in his life? Regardless, it once again leaves beleaguered citizens confused and frustrated. The Armenian people deserve better in not only the governance of the nation but in the decorum of the political processes. Pashinyan’s response was hardly a statement of regret that Sarkissian was leaving. He seems to be more focused on a further consolidation of power with a nomination from his party that is more politically compatible. Sarkissian’s questionable departure simply enables it. Harmony within the government is admirable, but checks and balances—an essential function for a sustainable democracy—is still a work in progress in our Armenia. Respecting differences is sorely lacking. One of the most important duties of the president—confirming major appointment changes—is best served by a neutral party and not necessarily someone who is in political alignment. I have heard some suggest that the political dissension in Armenia is no different than other democracies such as the United States. Given the political dysfunction today in our divided country, that argument has some validity. The problem is that the democratic institutions and traditions in this country can withstand the aftershocks of challenges and crises. No such foundation exists yet in Armenia. The political assaults have a real impact on a small, weaker and younger state. It is not a sandbox for political gamesmanship. If attempted, the results could be devastating.
Two essential foundations in a democracy are the checks and balances created by the separation of powers and the minimizing of conflicts of interest. The system of governance in the United States (I raise this since it is probably the most relevant comparison for our readers) has a number of constitutional designs that maintain balance. The three branches of government, each with distinct responsibilities, are gatekeepers for each other. Political opposition also has a responsibility in this process. Of course, as we have seen, when motivated by partisan conflict, it can become obstructive. Any system has to be implemented based on its intent and the interests of the nation. Conflict of interest laws enable the government and those in service to limit decision making that may be of personal or collective benefit. As we have seen in the last few years with laws on congressional insider trading and most recently the debate on congressional security trading, it is a continuous process that evolves as the society matures. Armenia’s political environment lacks the level of checks and balance that encourages civil debate and the prevention of dominance. It seems the opposition was locked out for years prior to the Velvet Revolution, and it was replaced by a less experienced government that has become increasingly monolithic in its thinking.
During my professional career, the classic management style was between diversity in executive teams versus a more homogenous culture. In the former, the leaders encourage diverse thinking in order to bring forward the very best ideas. The process for decision making and consensus can be challenging, but the results are usually the best the organization can offer. Diversity is grounded by the acceptance of a common vision and mission. They are the boundaries within which debate and new ideas can flourish. The latter is more traditional with more commonality in thinking, perhaps even more hierarchical with members looking to the leader. At times, it has been referred to as a “yes person” group where the team works with the desire of its leader. It tends to be more efficient in its decision making with less debate but does not always produce the best result. It can lead to constant revision and organizational instability. The recruiting of talent is not usually the limitation for the diverse structure; it is the mentality of the leader. Do they view their role as assembling a team that they give direction to or do they value the input of the talent on the team to arrive at the best solution? Some leaders are threatened by diversity as a challenge to their leadership position. I have always been an advocate of the diversity model in professional and political environments.
Armenia needs diversity. I would encourage the prime minister to nominate a respected statesman who is the least partisan individual available. There are choices to make and implications to those choices—a rubber stamp or someone who can add real value. My fear is that Armenia will not substantially grow as a democracy until political inclusion becomes a norm. A small, young nation with a soft foundation cannot operate with a “we won, you lost” mentality with elections and governing. When an election occurs to vanquish the “losing” party to the sidelines, it only creates the type of conflict we see today. That process for 30 years has brought us to this moment. We have a politically split nation that cannot afford this division given its size, current state and geopolitical environment. In America, we have arrived at a point of ideological divide about the future of the nation. This is a debate reserved for a nation that has the financial, political and economic stability to tolerate the division. Armenia is experiencing something more related to a power struggle. The election last June was more about whether to return to the past or accept the leadership of a government that had just lost a disastrous war. The nation made a decision, but it is not a mandate for virtual control and no real opposition. Armenians have long memories and can hold grudges. No one can effectively lead in a political atmosphere so charged that every move is criticized and with a corresponding reduction of hope among the citizens. Call a political ceasefire. Bring all the leaders of major factions together, get in a room and figure out how to manage the nation with greater civility and effectiveness. Check the egos at the door, and focus on how to survive the current threats and how to prosper going forward. Instead of asking the diaspora to either move to Armenia or send funding, open the door for some fresh air and let the diaspora focus on job creation. The capital and the talent are there. The trust is not. After the ceasefire within the political circle, call a second one with diaspora leaders (that suggests a more refined structure), and make Armenia business friendly. Invite key diaspora leaders into the decision making process by structuring a collaborative model. Investors see a return, and Armenia develops a robust employment picture. The educational community and the economy are linked and will both be beneficiaries of this collaboration. Power is of no use unless a society profits from it.
When we were younger, many of us dreamed of a free Armenia. Azad Haiastan was one of the first buttons I wore as a teenager. Very few thought it would come about with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Most lived with the dream of liberating the Turkish-occupied lands. Likewise, few could have predicted the political struggle of the last 30 years. In a moment of complete honesty, our thinking was that with the capability of our people, Armenia will do well rather quickly. It turns out that it was based on our romantic view of a future Armenia. We didn’t factor in the corruption, migration and market economy transition. The optimistic view of the last 30 years is that we certainly have had the opportunity to learn a great deal. The question is whether we will take advantage of that opportunity. There is always an abundance of opportunity during adversity. That is the silver lining. We should know by now that homogenous power structures don’t work, but collaboration will. We should also know that checks and balances prevent crumbling during a major crisis. It is time for Armenia to reach deep into its soul, where all the great moments of our past reside, and find the will to work together as brothers and sisters.