Armenia: At the Crossroads
Armenia: At the Crossroads


by Louise Manoogian Simone

Papken Ararktsian
First Deputy Chairman of the Supreme Soviet (Parliament)

Mr. Papken Ararktsian, energetic Chairman of the Parliament, chairs the parliamentary sessions 3 days a week with a week break every 2 weeks to allow members time for committee work and other career responsibilities. The Parliament sat in session 101 days from July 1990 to January 1991. The second session which began in March will end this July. To date 17 committees have been appointed to study all aspects of legislation including education, health, industry and privatization.

The first step of privatization was begun in March when 300,000 hectares of farm land was distributed for sale: "Even I was surprised how fast it was accomplished," said Mr. Ararktsian. "We did not have time to set final prices but everyone raced to sign up. Individuals received two to three hectares divided into sorts (grades) so that the land division would be equal. If you travel through the countryside now you will see whole mountain sides being terraced for the first time in history."

During this meeting Mr. Ararktsian answered several telephone calls from assistants reporting on an unprecedented auction taking place a few miles away. The government was selling eleven state-owned stores on the outskirts of Yerevan, with equipment included, at auction. Charging 200 rubles to enter the bidding, the only other stipulation was that the new owner must continue selling the same product for five years. A 30% discount was available if store employees were the purchasers. "We were worried that people would be afraid to reveal their personal assets," Mr. Ararktsian admitted, "but it looks like we are going to clear 8,000,000 rubles today. Some stores have sold for 500,000, others for a 1,000,000."

Private apartments are also now available for sale. "By Soviet law children have the right to inherit a family apartment, so present sales are mostly to those without children who will then be able to pass them to heirs as they wish," explained Chairman Ararktsian.

Other Parliamentary discussions have centered around the recent Soviet law of 5% tax on certain goods. After great protest in some republics the law has been rescinded. "The Supreme Soviet in Armenia has decided to retain the 5% tax using the income locally for assistance programs. We have many people who need help now because of unemployment and inflation."

In a lighter vein Mr. Ararktsian announced that "plans are underway to purchase additional Aeroflot planes for charter flights from Yerevan to Paris. They will be renamed Armenia Airlines. Did you know there is already an Azerbaijani Airlines?"

Looking back, Papken Ararktsian said he knew in the 70's that the Soviet Empire could not last but economically the 80's proved the turning point as oil income dropped drastically.

"People also didn't care anymore. They weren't working and it affected all production. I tried to explain it to foreign visitors but no one believed that the end was possible. Mr. Gorbachev and others think by small steps things can change. For instance cooperatives (joint ownership by groups) were established to advance free enterprise but it is obvious," concluded Mr. Ararktsian, "only privatization can provide the incentive to spur production."

Hrant Bagratian
Vice Prime Minister Chairman of the Economic Committee
Council of Ministers

After serving the Economic Division of the Academy of Sciences, Hrant Bagratian, recently appointed Vice Prime Minister, admits, "I'm learning on the job." Responsible for preparing Armenia's budget, the transition from a totally subsidized national economy to self sufficiency will be an arduous trek.

"We pay over 744 million rubles in tax to Moscow," claims Bagratian, "but we receive twice that in subsidies. The entire Soviet budget stands around 250 billion a year. Some of the republics are withholding their payments. I'm told the first quarter of this year Moscow received only 9 billion out of an expected 42 billion."

The stagnancy of earthquake reconstruction continues to trouble him. "We've spent over 400,000,000 rubles in salaries to workers and 20% is not yet completed."

"Our biggest assets, the atomic plant, the Nayirit factory, the copper mines and even the coal mine reserves in Ichevan all need capital and expertise before realizing their potential. Ecologically we have to be very careful to protect the future of our people and country before we begin production."

Surrounded by budding economists from the University of Yerevan and the Institute of Economics Mr. Bagratian, the youngest minister to be appointed to date, realizes the next few years will be crucial ones for Armenia.

Vartan Amirbekian
Minister of Industry Council of Ministers

"Armenia produced 8 billion rubles gross income from industry but now it has dropped to 6 billion," says Vartan Amirbekian, deputy Minister of Industry. Affected by the 25% decrease in military manufacturing Armenia is looking for new production lines.

"Our first priority is to reorganize our infrastructure. Everyone used to answer to different ministers. Now we are establishing one industrial ministry with various branches, such as chemicals, electronics, metallurgy, machinery, etc., so that we can coordinate future expansion," reported Mr. Amirbekian.

"Energy continues to be a critical problem. Last year only 50% of the required gas was received for private and commercial use. Industry was shut down frequently when gas had to be rationed and 1000 buildings in Yerevan were cut off completely. Work is in progress to open another pipeline through Georgia but if, in the future, Moscow cuts Georgia's allocation Armenia will again be affected. The Armenian government has begun building larger pipelines that will increase storage space and ultimately improve the pressure. It's hard to see how we can avoid reopening the atomic plant under these conditions," continued Mr. Amirbekian. "It's conceivable we could one day be charged international rates in foreign currency for energy."

The Nayirit rubber plant, considered an ecological disaster by many, is another loss. Producing profits of 50 to 60 million rubles each year it is now 170 million rubles in debt as 4000 employees continue to receive their salaries. "The Moscow Central Government now claims," added Mr. Amirbekian, "that because they have to buy the rubber from the outside they will deduct their costs from Armenia's subsidized energy allocation."

Mr. Amirbekian, whose field of study was mathematics, recently returned from a 3 year stay in England where he was supervising the Siemens joint venture contract with Armenia to build a computer plant in Yerevan. Signed 5 years ago the contract was finalized by the Soviet and Armenian governments through the efforts of former Communist Party Chief, First Secretary, Karen Demirjian.

Starting his new post on Dec. 3 as Minister of Industry, Mr. Amirbekian is still surprised at his appointment. As a Communist Party member and past administration participant he did not expect the call he received from Prime Minister Vasken Manoukian just as he was about to return to London after a few weeks in Armenia. Asked to take the job Mr. Amirbekian pleaded for time to make a decision since he was not sure he was able to fulfill the duties. "There is no time. We know we want you," responded Prime Minister Manoukian, adding that the government would pursue him until he said yes.

"I had never found the right language to deal with the Communists now I wondered how I would get along with this new administration," commented Amirbekian. Asking a few highly placed individuals of the past regime if he should take the job he was told "no one one can refuse. We all have to do our share."

"Things are very different now," says Amirbekian. "I could never speak openly before about business because I never knew what ties the person had. Conditions today are very serious and some new appointees are inexperienced but they are flexible and, most important of all, they are honest."

Asked about his past political affiliation Mr. Amirbekian said, "Well, I guess I am still a Communist but I don't know even now where to go to pay my dues any more!"

Yessayi Stepanian
Minister of Foreign Economic Relations
Council of Ministers

"50 joint venture contracts (30% of which are with diaspora Armenians) have been signed but less than 25% are operative", reported Mr. Stepanian as he reviewed the responsibilities of his post as Minister of Foreign Economic Relations. "We know that unstable conditions, complicated regulations and the non-convertible ruble are serious handicaps for doing business in Armenia. Can you imagine, today the official exchange rate for the ruble was 60 kopecks to the dollar, the commercial rate 1.8 rubles to the dollar, the tourist rate 6 rubles to the dollar or at the bank, if you can get it, 27 rubles to the dollar and a bank trade (large sums) could be 30 rubles to the dollar. We can hardly understand it. How will anyone else!"

Mr. Stepanian looks ahead optimistically as Germans, Italians, Japanese and other foreigners continue to explore Armenia for future joint ventures, "Today, Armenia has the only railway line in the Soviet Union to Turkey. Discussions are underway to organize a "Black Sea Consortium" that will include the Ukraine, Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Bulgaria, Turkey and Rumania. The proposal would eliminate double transport taxes that now have to be paid and most important of all, guarantee railway and road transport for participating members".

Detailing future plans for his department, Mr. Stepanian expects to establish representation in foreign countries to encourage joint ventures. "Its not easy to operate in the Soviet Union", he added."Westerners want every i dotted in the contract but sometimes it's just not possible here. We are also eager to find diaspora Armenians who will be willing to work in our Armenian Government offices. We need their experience and expertise."

Busy with plans for a foreign investor's meeting in late May, Mr. Stepanian is positive that Armenia with its energetic work force will succeed in promoting new avenues of trade and manufacturing.

Hambartsoum Galstian
Mayor of Yerevan

As the recently elected chairman of the City Council of Yerevan, Mayor Galstian is actively seeking new sources of income to boost the city's annual budget. Revitalization of local industry, renovation of public buildings and modernizing transportation are only a few of the long-range challenges he faces today.

Five months in office, Mr. Galstian has succeeded in bringing law and order to Erevan's erratic drivers. Imposing stiff fines of 500 rubles for traffic violations motorists now think twice before passing red lights and making left hand turns from the right lane.

"But everything is not that easy," the mayor explained as he handled dozens of requests during our half hour interview. "Take public transportation. With the severe gas shortage, more and more of our 1,000,000 residents are using busses to get to and from work. The Hungarian manufactured busses purchased years ago by the Soviet Union are in constant disrepair. We can't buy spare parts. The Hungarians want dollars now instead of rubles." In his leisure time Mr. Galstian collects Armenian art and crafts. Hoping to broaden the market for local talent, he is organizing the first auction of paintings, sculptures and folk art during the foreign investors' meeting in late May.

Hratchig Simonian
Chairman Committee for Cultural Relations with Armenians Abroad

Familiarly called "Spiurk (the Armenian word for diaspora) Committee", The Committee for Cultural Relations With Armenians Abroad was the only government office responsible for foreign exchange programs during the years of the cold war. All cultural and educational exchanges were administered through this department, similar to others established in every Soviet Republic. Recent years have seen dramatic changes, however, as various organizations and institutions in Armenia are now permitted to establish their own ties abroad.

Publishing a weekly newspaper called the "Voice of Armenia" which is mailed to tens of thousand Armenians throughout the world, the Committee has recently expanded its activities within the Soviet Union. Armenians scattered in Russia, Uzbekistan, Ukraine and other republics are requesting assistance in reviving their heritage. "We are getting many calls to open Armenian schools, supply language textbooks, or send performing groups. Just today I received a call from Stavropol (Russia)", explained Mr. Simonian who was elected last March by the group of artists and intellectuals who comprise the committee.

Eager to invite western artists, performers, youth groups and investors, Mr. Simonian says his biggest problem is housing. "Our hotels are not up to western standards and the "Armenia Hotel" is still under renovation. We hope we can build a guest house in the near future to accommodate our visitors."

Originally published in the June 1991 ​issue of AGBU Magazine. Archived content may appear distorted on your screen. end character

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