by Louise Manoogian Simone
Q. Our U.S. government structure is quite different from that of the Soviet Union. Can you explain Armenia's structure?
A. Our structure is inherited from the Soviet Union. To be frank with you it's not a good structure. The system was working when, besides the Supreme Soviet and the Council of Ministers, the Communist party Central Committee existed, coordinating and regulating the work of the other two bodies. The structure was intended as a kind of pyramid. Now the top (Communist party) of that pyramid has been removed.
Today in our Supreme Soviet (parliament) and in the Council of Ministers (government) we have gathered members who have good, friendly relationships and who want to work together but we feel the mechanism does not function well. The question keeps coming up whether we should create one governing body, composed of members of the Supreme Soviet and the Council of Ministers.
There are times when it is not clear who is responsible for what. Other times there are critical issues that neither the Supreme Soviet nor the Council of Ministers is addressing even though they are of national interest. Often both are so busy that it is impossible to coordinate, causing unnecessary conflicts. Of course, I'm presenting the problem in an exaggerated way so that you will understand. Let's take the District of Mardooni as an example. The Executive Committee of Mardooni implements the decisions of the Council of Ministers but, in reality, they are subordinate to the Supreme Soviet. It is a confused picture.
In my opinion there ought to be a strong pyramid style presidential government. Sometimes it seems this kind of structure is not democratic but I don't agree. Armenia today needs solid, strong leadership. We don't have long established, well developed political parties like England or America. The agendas of our political parties have not yet been clearly defined. They do not represent the concerns of different social groups. Now they all want to pursue national interests. It will be many years before Armenia becomes independent with an economy based on privatization and a country with stable, peaceful conditions. By that time the political parties will have matured and we could then possibly establish a parliamentary structure.
Q. Like all leaders you will be dependent on ministers and staff who implement goals. The Communists seemed to have kept everyone regardless of their competence — simply changing their jobs now and then. Are you under pressure to keep those that are in position or will you evaluate each year's results?
A. You know that is one of our most complicated problems. Of course popular discontent is often heard and personally I am not so satisfied either even though I am responsible for the present ministerial appointments.
When we came to power we were ready to run the country with our ideas and political views, but we were not ready with personnel. It was a difficult choice whether to appoint professionals in particular fields who had years of experience but who were in the most part communists. For me the political party was not important but they were discredited after years of corruption. If you discounted them you had to select non-professionals who, in most cases, were good people but not necessarily able to do the job.
In view of the fact that we are still in the Soviet Union we need people who have continuing ties with those in corresponding positions in Moscow. This is why a complex mosaic was created. Some people were selected from the old system and others from the new.
I don't want to make quick changes even if I am dissatisfied with a minister. I want to work and talk to him. After that it will be obvious whether to keep or dismiss him. I'm going to follow a wait and see policy with some young deputies who were appointed because I am convinced that, although their work is not up to par now, they will eventually become very good ministers.
It takes, after all, one kind of person in government if we are to remain in the Union and completely another if we quit. At this time we are gradually establishing an economic and political system which will be more attuned to the west. When Westerners come to Armenia they will feel at home with the same laws and structure. When our people go abroad they too will feel comfortable in the system.
I have told our officials that it would be very appropriate to have specialists from the diaspora as deputies in our government. We know many things from books and newspapers but we need people with experience. It's the most important thing for us today ... people. Next month about 20 deputy ministers will take 2 month training courses in France.
Q. As independence looms the second greatest concern we in the diaspora have after invasion is the economic future of Armenia. How do you see the future?
A. Armenia is in a very difficult situation because there could be two different developments in the Soviet Union. The most probable is that the economic decline will continue. Russia, for instance, like most of the republics, is not ready for private ownership. It will take many years to make changes in that huge territory. Armenia cannot improve its economy by staying in the Union. When we come out we will fall into a worse situation but at least the decisions will be ours. Remaining attached to a sinking ship we can only go down with it.
There is another possibility. If the Soviet Union receives huge amounts of foreign aid the economy may rebound. In that case the majority of Armenians will say "Let's stay in the Union and move ahead with it." This will have its disadvantages. Ultimately I believe that without independence we will not have a better life or achieve our national goals. In the end we will assimilate into some larger conglomerate and disappear. We'll simply, in the 21st Century, remember our past by saying our grandparents were Armenian.
Economically it is very difficult for me to tell you what place Armenia can occupy in the world market. But I am convinced of a few things. I believe that the strength of this country is in its people, their professionalism and their work ethics. There are countries which have the raw materials and enjoy independence, but they cannot find their place [because people don't work or have the proper education]. People are well educated in Armenia. We have good experts. Technical sciences are on a respectable level. With our genetic make-up, we have worked throughout our history. Every Armenian strives for affluence.
There is another aspect. We need to work fast and follow the path of other developing countries. We have introduced private ownership in the distribution of land. I am convinced that within the next 2-3 years our agriculture will progress. There will be some problems. Some people will file for bankruptcy but then other buyers will be found who will combine parcels for greater profit.
In the early stages, Armenia has to develop its raw materials such as copper, molybdenum, berlite and so on, and sell it to be able to accumulate capital.
Q. But sometimes I hear there is plenty of molybdenum and in other places I hear there is not enough. Is there research going on in that direction?
A. The research has already been done, but today we are not allowed in the Soviet Union to export molybdenum, for instance, to foreign countries. There is a list of strategic items which cannot be sold abroad until Moscow gives permission.
We closed our plant in Alaverdi and now we have copper concentrate, not pure copper. We have the possibility of extracting tens of thousands of tons of copper annually and process them in the cable factory. The cable factory will give us great potential to sell finished products abroad and to the other republics of the Soviet Union.
Q. Can you talk about gold?
A. I don't want to give figures but Armenia has gold. Our republic is not in a state where we can sit back and enjoy life by selling copper and gold. Our people will have to sweat to bear fruit.
Q. What percentage of industry belongs to Moscow?
A. The major share of our economy belongs to Moscow. On September 10 the Supreme Soviet passed a resolution to take over all the facilities that are on the territory of our republic. But that was only a wish, not a reality.
Let's take the example of the Nayirit Rubber factory which we decided to open. Today our government wants to invite foreign companies to joint-venture with us so that we can improve the ecological standards and increase the production. But imagine what happens when a foreign company comes in and the first question they raise is "Who does the facility belong to ?" Our answer that it belongs to us because we passed a law on September 10 isn't going to satisfy them because they know they can't operate in the Soviet Union by breaking the law.
The most realistic people in the world are investors. Whenever the situation becomes uncertain they lose interest. We cannot assume ownership of the Nayirit plant until we come to an agreement with the Soviet Union. We may be able to pay them 100,000,000 rubles or some valid sum and the Soviet Government will probably accept it because it has an interest in seeing production resumed or we might agree to some other terms. In other words, we can claim independence but we have a long way to go to achieve it. Maybe after the referendum in September we can begin negotiations on various factories. It will leave us, however, with a huge debt of possibly several hundred million rubles or even several billion.
Q. Can you envision Armenia taking over Moscow owned industry without payment?
A. There is danger in confiscation. Once the government confiscates another's property it will take years for other governments to forget about it. Once you begin to confiscate property others will be wary that you may one day confiscate theirs. We must take a more civilized course.
Q. We were talking before about agriculture. You have distributed the land and everybody is working day and night on that land but how are the farmers going to get the tractors and the seeds?
A. Right now, we have many factories which were geared toward the defense industry. Now that a conversion is taking place in the entire Soviet Union, the factories are being relieved of their defense responsibilities and they do not know what to produce. We are planning to give them orders for small tractors in order to produce sufficient numbers of tractors and ultimately develop better technology so that we can provide the product to the farmers.
We buy our seed from the Soviet Union but it is not sufficient now. We were planning to buy 7,000 tons of potatoes but they told us that we could not have more than 2,000. If I am not mistaken, that item is bought from Holland. We are in a difficult situation. We are not an independent government. All the laws which have hindered us in the past in doing business with foreign countries are still in place and the Soviet Union is already taking punitive actions. They are resorting to economic pressures for political ends.
Q. Where do you get the meat, the flour and milk?
A. We import them. Let us take the meat; In 1991, we had a contract stating what we must provide to the Soviet Union and what we must get in return. We were supposed to get 50,000 tons of meat, but we did not receive anything. We produce 120,000 tons of meat locally.
Another example: the Soviet Union is supposed to give 1,000,000 tons of milk to us with butter included in that shipment. The butter that we receive is bought by the Soviet Union and then given to Armenia. The last time that butter was bought, it was shipped entirely to Moscow and Leningrad. Now, to my knowledge, there are no shipments being made to the Soviet union. The butter produced locally is not enough to feed the people.
The hard currency situation is very complicated in the Soviet Union now. Even if there were no political considerations and the Central Government wanted to satisfy Armenia, it would still not be possible.
We receive 1,000,000 tons of grain from the Soviet Union; wheat and animal feed. But the Soviet Union, up until now bought that commodity overseas and then gave it to Armenia. Russia, herself, is at present in short supply of grain. We are able to get some quantities from Kazakhstan, but not easily.
A good portion of what we receive from the Soviet Union is not actually produced in the republics. It is imported. Therefore, even trading with the other republics will not solve the problem. The fuel situation is different because we receive fuel from the other republics; mainly from Russia.
Q. Where does the gas come from? From Siberia?
A. No, from Turkmenia. Two pipelines coming from Turkmenia and Russia join in Mozdok before entering the Caucasus Region. This last year, for example, Georgia was receiving 15 million cubic meters daily instead of 30 million. But I know that this is the deliberate policy of the Central Government. The pipeline which crossed Azerbaijan and entered Armenia from Mozdok pumped gas with great pressure. Mozdok pumped as much gas as possible but all that was reaching Azerbaijan and staying there. Very little ended up in Armenia.
Q. What is the solution? There has to be an understanding with Azerbaijan.
A. We have to come to an understanding with Azerbaijan. But it is very difficult since we have the Karabagh issue where we cannot make concessions. We don't know how our relations with the Central Government will shape up as we raise the question of independence. We may install pipelines from Iran in the future. It is a big project. If we sign a contract, as far as I know, the project will take seven to eight months work. We can work fast because it is close by but that question has not been resolved.
In short, it is a difficult situation. We cannot use the atomic power plant. It can generate 400 megawatts of power, but we cannot start using it, especially after deciding at the Supreme Soviet that we will operate the atomic power plant only after a public vote. I am convinced that people will vote against it.
Q. How much foreign currency does Armenia receive annually?
A. This year it was $40,000,000, but it is sometimes complicated to figure out. For instance, we produce an item which is shipped to Minsk who, in turn, with Moscow's approval, sells it abroad. It is then difficult under those circumstances, to identify our fair share of foreign currency profits.
Q. I have heard that all foreign currency is kept in Moscow and nothing is forwarded to you. You have to apply to the Central Bank in order to withdraw your own foreign currency.
A. It's true. For example, we assume we have money at the bank and when we need it, we find out that the money is not in its place.
Q. We hear a lot about the "business mafia" in the Soviet Union. They often say that Gorbachev cannot do anything because everything is under "mafia" control. What does that mean?
A. Everything in the Soviet Union is owned by the State and the directors of these facilities use the State property for their own purposes. [Suppose] I am appointed the director of a factory. I don't risk a penny because I have not made any investment. But, the factory belongs to me, supervision is minimal and therefore, I have the opportunity to operate the factory the way I wish and reap the benefits. In order not to be fired, I have to share part of that income with my superior, and therefore, I have one binding relationship with him.
Then there are groups which are involved in racketeering who exert pressure on me. I may need some people to scare those groups. In order to keep those people happy, I set up a store next to my factory and give it to the security people for income with the understanding that they will serve me. This way the pyramid of power structure runs all the way down and creates a whole inter-related system which, in fact, is exploiting state property supposedly owned by the people. The authorities and the security people at the top and the thieves at the bottom join each other in one single group. We can call that group the mafia.
Q. Of course the best hope for Armenia is joint ventures. Some have already been created, but most of them have signed contracts in Moscow with different ministries. Now 1 hear Armenia is planning to develop its own laws. Will Armenia respect previous contracts?
A. We have passed legislation requiring registration, if I am not mistaken, and, yes, we honor them. The number is growing. I asked yesterday and there were already 50. When we came [to power], I think the number was 9 or 11.
Q. Are they active or they have just signed [papers].
A. There are 50, but as I go around asking, I find out that very few of them are active. But I have to admit that no favorable conditions have been created. Our greatest complication is private property and state property. The state property is corrupt and still under the control of the old order.
There is no proper supervision. It is very handy for local private entrepreneurs to exploit government property. A large number in the private sector have become like vultures, busy exploiting government property.
Joint ventures should work in the following manner: There must be private enterprise here which can sign its contract with a foreign private enterprise. If the foreign firm signs a contract now with a state enterprise there cannot be a clear policy until we become semi-independent or fully independent.
Q. Of course, every businessman's first question will be how will they ship their products out when Georgia closes down the railway and Azerbaijan does the same. What will you do about transport?
A. We have to find other outlets through Turkey and Iran. Currently we are engaged in negotiations. Turkey has shown great interest in opening up those outlets, but Iran has not shown any interest yet.
We will try to normalize our relations with Azerbaijan as much as possible. But, the process of disintegration in the Soviet Union will still continue. People in the Caucasuses will rise up. Not only Georgia or Azerbaijan may blockade us, but also other ethnic minorities above them could do the same.
Q. I hear that you will buy cargo planes. Is this true?
A. We have already purchased and paid for a few cargo planes. But, we have not received those planes yet. We were also supposed to get three IL-76's.
Q. What kind of business do you conduct with Georgia?
A. The volume of our trade with Georgia is very limited.
Q. And Azerbaijan?
A. With Azerbaijan we are on the level of zero. But, as I talk to the directors of our factories and business people, they tell me that some business is going on. For instance, a factory in Azerbaijan has a division in Rostov. That factory sends the items to Rostov and we get that item from there. Let's face it, business does not recognize war.
Q. Of course the situation in the earthquake region is very sad. What hopes do you have that you can complete those buildings?
A. Do you know that during the last two years, only 19% of the proposed housing has been completed? This year, additional houses will be provided to people and we hope the percentage will go up to 40.
If we are left alone in this work, it will take many years. But it is useless to expect the Central Government or the other republics to help us because they are in difficult situations. We cannot pin our hopes on them.
Foreign countries, of course, helped us with some housing. But if you take the percentage of help we received from abroad it is only 1.4% of the total. That is only moral help for which we are very grateful, but it is not enough. Now it's difficult to generate any large joint effort. First, the emotional period about the earthquake is already over. It was important to come up with projects the first year. In these two or three years, the interest is less. Second, and very significant, when someone is contributing, there has to be correct accountability. Huge sums of money have been collected, invested in Armenia or sent to the Soviet Union and no one abroad has received statements as to how those funds were spent.
Q. I had heard that different countries had donated 22 million dollars in cash for earthquake relief.
A. If I am not mistaken, it was 32 million dollars. When I came [to office] I asked for the figures the first day and was told that 32 million was raised and 10 million was left. But this was at the tail end of many projects. The other day I proposed forming a committee comprised of representatives from the government and the parliament to look at the statements beginning the day of the earthquake in order to find out what assistance has been sent to Armenia, how has it been distributed and to come up with a complete statement. We are responsible to the world. We have to give a proper accounting.
Q. When did you first begin your political involvement? A. 1965 [50th anniversary of the Genocide] alerted us all. But I started getting involved politically in 1967.
Q. When you say alerted in '65, What do you mean?
A. National sentiment and unresolved Armenian problems. I can tell you that after the 1965 demonstration I came in contact with many people who already belonged to different organizations. It was then that the spirit of independence was awakened in us. When people start thinking about national problems, sooner or later, they end up with the idea of independence. I can tell you that in 1966 and 1967, the young people who were involved in that kind of activity were already raising those ideas.
Q. In those years did you think you would succeed? A. Never. I only had one goal. I wanted to inspire as many Armenians as possible with the ideals of independence so that in 50 or 100 years, people would think of getting rid of the Communist party, liberate themselves from the empire and create an independent state. But, I could not imagine in my wildest dreams that the time could come this soon.
Q. In the Diaspora, we feel that Armenians cannot get along with each other and cooperate. But the Karabagh Committee was able, more or less, to keep together and reach its goal. How did you succeed?
A. Let me say first that Armenians are a unique people in terms of cooperation. They can cooperate with each other very well. I reject the theory that Armenians cannot work with each other. When we look at the history of our people, there are unique cases of cooperation if we compare ourselves with other nations. We normally fail to do that, denigrating ourselves unfairly.
The Karabagh Committee was under great pressure from outside by the people. The pressure was so great that the Karabagh Committee could not break up. I am not talking about the inner atmosphere which was truly very friendly and cooperative but the fact that people had put a great responsibility on the Committee made a great difference and to break that Committee up and quit was tantamount to treachery. That kept us psychologically stuck together.
Q. You've seen many bad days and good days. Which were the worst? The best?
A. I thought you were going to say the opposite that we had seen many good days and now we were in the bad ones!
Q. Do you mean that these are the worst days?
A. No, I am just joking, but these are very hard times because the responsibility is great and the course we have taken does not depend entirely on us. Many events that are taking place in the Soviet Union and in the world and even events like the Persian Gulf War may fundamentally influence our destiny.
It is not enough to move ahead with logic. We have to foresee the future. You personally know what kind of problems we encounter in our daily life. The Soviet Union is a huge mechanism. It may look like 3.5 million people does not represent a large figure but this mechanism has to manage a huge state property and when that state property does not want to move ahead the situation just gets worse.
Q. I know you are married. How many children do you have?
Q. How old are they?
A. I want to remember. I can tell you more easily which grade they are in. One is in the first grade, one is in the fifth grade, and the other is in the tenth grade.
Q. Boys or girls?
A. All three are girls.
Q. Has their life changed much in these last couple of years when you are so busy?
A. We miss each other. When I go home, we are all happy to be together.
Q. Have you had a vacation lately?
A. I was in Amsterdam for a week, but that was not vacation. I had work to do there.
Q. Do you have any free time?
A. Seldom. And when I do I get my papers together and begin reading.