Avetik Chalabyan
Being global citizens, yet staying strongly rooted into our native soil

Regional Post talked to a senior partner in McKinsey & Company consulting firm, Co-founder and Trustee of Repat Armenia Foundation and Arar Foundation Avetik Chalabyan about challenges that Diaspora and Armenia face in 21st century and his vision of nation’s future.

Interview: Areg Davtyan / Photo: Repat Armenia Foundation

Avetik, after leaving to US in 1999 you made a successful career, becoming a senior partner in one of the leading consulting companies of the world. But still, you never lost your connection with Armenia, being involved in a various big and important projects. Why is it so important for you? One can imagine, a senior partner in McKinsey must be quite busy.
— There is a simple answer to it, and a complex answer too. The simple answer is that I’m an Armenian citizen, Armenia is my country, and I feel obligation to contribute to making it a better place. The complex answer is that our country is still endangered; it may lose the critical mass of its devoted and productive citizens, necessary to uphold its sovereignty, and fold back to its colonial past.

Personally, for me, that would be the biggest tragedy, as we will miss the greatest chance to stand from our knees, and become a modern, competitive and thriving nation. I hope this prediction will never materialize, but each of us should think and work hard to build a better future for our country, even if takes some sacrifices on our personal and professional lives.

Many of your Armenia-related initiatives, like Repat Armenia Foundation, are aimed to show, that repatriation for Armenians abroad is a clever solution (and we can already see bright results of such programs). But at the same time, personal examples of people like Ruben Vardanyan, David Yang and yourself, show that to gain a real high level success one should find a path in Russia, Europe or USA. What would you say about that?
— This seeming contradiction is mostly  superficial. I left to study in the US when I was already 27, after studying and working in Armenia for 10 years after the high school, and when I was 31, I returned to start my first project back home. Since then, I have accomplished many projects in Armenia, even more are currently underway, so in reality I have spent quite a bit of my professional time in Armenia. At the same time, I have become a global citizen, having served companies and governments not only in Russia, but also other parts of CIS, the US, Brazil, India, South-East Asia, etc.

I sincerely believe that this is our destiny – to be truly global citizens, yet staying strongly rooted into our native soil. Israel has shown a great example of this – while Israelis are fiercely patriotic, and face a constant danger living in their homeland, they have also build an impressive network of global connections and presence in many countries, this allowed them to prosper, and in turn, leverage that prosperity to defend the sacred homeland. I believe we can and have to do the same – build a strong institutional hub within Armenia, and leverage it for a global success of each Armenian, and consequently leverage that success to strengthen the homeland. In this case, our people would both repatriate and expatriate, yet staying connected to the same system, leveraging it for their successes wherever they are, yet contributing to it constantly too.

Simply think about a different type of a nation, which has no set borders, has lateral systems of self-governance, a core institutional hub within the historic homeland, many spokes across the globe, and flows of people, ideas, goods, and capital in both directions – with the current technology and connectivity, we can build this, and eliminate the dilemma which you have mentioned.
Avetik Chalabyan
Millions of Armenians in Diaspora do not consider repatriation to Armenia as an option. What do you think must be done to make the Republic of Armenia a more attractive option for them?
— The Armenia of the future, which I have just described, is still a distant dream – so the simple answer is that we need to materialize it, so our people in Diaspora would consider enlisting as its devoted citizens. We need to start from simple things though – clean up the country, and this is a herculean task. 25 years of relative independence brought lots of good things, but they took also a heavy toll on us – 1.2 million of our fellow citizens have left the country, many of them well qualified, entrepreneurial and driven, and those who stayed in the country, have still not been able to build a nation, which is universally attractive for all Armenians.

There is an objective element in it – our starting conditions 25 years ago were horrible, with war, earthquake and economic collapse creating an unenviable mess to deal with, yet the truth is that a big part of our issues are also self-inflicted, first and foremost because of the low leadership qualities of our governing elites. Therefore, the place to start is exactly in those leadership qualities, and here where we need selective repatriation, to bring more leadership talent and passion to the country, in order to augment that limited pool, which we possess here.

Although this may seem to be a circular reference – we need to improve the country to attract repatriates, yet we need to bring those same repatriates to improve the country, the truth is that there is a strata of our people abroad, who is not waiting for Armenia to become the next Switzerland, but are returning already now. Those people are usually true risk-takers, are entrepreneurial and driven, they are idealistic and in a search of self-meaning, and they feel truly responsible.They throw their bets with Armenia and come, despite the difficulties – each year we see several hundred families repatriating from more developed countries, and our aspiration is to have several thousands of them, so they can meaningfully influence the country’s otherwise sluggish course.

In order for this to happen, those who are already in Armenia should succeed; this will create a positive word of mouth and will help to reverse the image that Armenia is only for crazies and losers, and will attract more newcomers. This is exactly where we focus at Repat Armenia – to help newcomers succeed, both individually, as well as though reducing the systemic obstacles we still have here in abundance.

You have also taken part in several initiatives aimed at reforming Armenia’s educational system, including Ayb School. Do you think Armenia has a competitive potential in education on a global scale?
— First, we need to set more modest yet realistic aspiration of achieving educational excellence at a regional level. Some of our regional neighbors, such as Russia, Iran, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, are substantially ahead of us in terms of educational achievements, some of them, such as Turkey and Georgia, are relatively at par with us, so our starting condition is quite modest. Yet it is obvious for many of us, that we should differentiate ourselves in education and science, and this would require conscious and continuous investment into improving its quality.

Unfortunately, the current ruling elite of Armenia, being mostly of mediocre or even poor education, has essentially neglected this for many years. Only in the last 5 years, we see some renewed interest to education, yet mostly private foundations and individuals, rather than the state, have driven this. In the coming decade, we need to catch up at least with our regional peers – this will require both more resources, but also a fundamental reform of the educational sector, so the schools and universities are no longer viewed primarily as vehicles of preserving political power, but would become the key source of the country’s competitive advantage.

We also need a huge influx of high-quality talent into the educational sector, both from inside the country, as well as from the same repatriates, so it can rise to a new level of excellence, and can train the next generation to become globally competitive. It is encouraging to see now the diaspora and repatriate driven educational initiatives, such as Tumo, Ayb or Teach for Armenia, finally taking roots and involving many more locals – this proves that we do have a competitive potential in education, and presents a good platform to build our future excellence.
Avetik Chalabyan
For many in Diaspora it's a huge challenge to stay loyal to their Armenian roots and at the same time fully integrate in the other society. What would you advise them?
— This has been mostly true in past, but things are changing, and in a favorable direction. First, the largest countries where ethnic Armenians live – Russia, the United States, Canada, France, are becoming more culturally diverse and tolerant. Second, people are able to accelerate their learning and integration, thus becoming parts of several communities simultaneously. There are some very good examples of this I observe in Moscow, with my fellow Armenian friends both being very active in Armenia, as well as being well-connected, respected and visible members of Moscow’s increasingly cosmopolitan social and business strata.

In my mind, the secret to integration is in continuous learning – as long as one puts conscious effort to learn the societal context of the host country, connect to its people, create economic and social value, and show true dedication to the interests of the host society, then the integration becomes a reality. In past, we had to sacrifice our Armenian identities for this integration – now, this is less and less of an issue, and many people in our host countries, in fact appreciate us maintaining our native identities and unique flavors, while becoming valued friends, colleagues and partners.

Thus, my advice would be very simple – integrate while staying Armenian, there is no inherent contradiction, it just takes more effort.

As a professional who worked and lived both abroad and in Armenia and has connections with many parts of the Armenian world, how do you think we should rethink Armenia-Diaspora relations? Should we continue the same path or find other aims in the XXI century?
— I partially addressed this above, but in continuation of that logic, I would like to mention, that the Armenia-Diaspora model, which we have inherited from the dark days of the Armenian Genocide, as well as from the Cold War, will be fundamentally transformed in the 21st century, and this is already an ongoing trend. A very substantial part of the people with ethnic Armenian roots will likely choose to forgo their historic identities, and will become largely assimilated into their host societies.

This is unfavorable, but also largely unavoidable, people will eventually make their personal choices. Yet if we are successful in rebuilding both Armenia and the Diaspora, then we will bring a new meaning to Armenian existence – the meaning woven of precious legacy and values, but also of bold vision, daring aspirations, and humanistic spirit uniting our people. With such a universal meaning, another substantial part of our compatriots currently living abroad, would form a New Diaspora – a diaspora by choice, rather than by force of circumstance, which we have now. This people would continue to stay Armenian wherever they are, and the notion of being Armenian will no longer be linked to the past ethnic connection (who are your parents), but to future common aspirations as members of the new Armenian nation (who are going to be your children).

We are still in a process of comprehending this new reality, and most of the existing parts of the Armenian world are not yet fully into it. Yet the search of this new, common and global Armenian identity has started, and if we are successful, we will build a convincing new narrative for our compatriots to join forces, and strive for a common future as a unified nation.

Do you have a vision for Armenia's future? Can it be bright and prosperous in, let's say, 2040? In addition, more importantly, what should we start doing right now to achieve it?
— I see Armenia’s future as a thriving hub of the new Armenian nation – alone, without the larger forces of the global Armenian nation the current Republic hardly can survive the test of sovereignty. Yet, the broader Armenian nation cannot survive the test of assimilation, without having the institutional hub in the current Republic. This creates an important prerequisite for various parts of the Armenian world to cooperate. This is not going to be easy, as the interests of elites within the Republic and abroad still can diverge in many aspects, and the foreign powers, who wield large influence both over the Republic of Armenia as well as over the overseas Armenian communities, may often interfere into this too.

Yet, if we do not learn to work with each other to a mutual benefit, we will fail the historic opportunity of restoring ourselves as a healthy and sustainable nation, and will eventually get pushed to the sidelines of the history. In that sense, the first thing we need to start from, is establishing fair rules of engagement, for every Armenian both inside and outside the country, so each of us can contribute to the homeland, and see the benefits of that contribution. This alone will unleash a huge creative energy, and will allow us to take many more successive steps towards materializing the vision, which we discussed above.

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