Avetik Chalabyan
It’s extremely important at this stage that those who possess certain social and political capital coalesce towards the new national objectives, presenting a simple but appealing vision on how we rebuild our nation

What is it we stand for as a nation? Is it our identity, our community in the diaspora, our country, or us as global Armenians? Certainly, Artsakh had become the base of our modern national unity, its liberation a sign of triumph and true independence for a people who had seen centuries of massacre. Yet, we found ourselves on our knees now, drowning in anger and despair, looking for answers to questions we’ve never thought to ask. 

January 28th is our officially celebrated Army Day. The army was and continues to be our pillar of defense against the challenges to our existence, the guarantor of our right to build on our own path towards achieving national goals. On this day, we sat down with Avetik Chalabyan, Repat Armenia’s co-founder and board member, to discuss the post-war reality and our national agenda. I’ve met Avetik several times, but today I met a different person - disappointed in our previously failed collective efforts, but nevertheless with a hope for the prevailing of common sense and regaining the path towards security and prosperity. Our discussion put much into perspective, and the cold reality of our situation weighs no less heavy than it did before. Avetik’s words resonate, reiterating all that we’ve lost in the past months, but provide an inkling of hope for all that we have the ability to gain.  

Artsakh and Identity Crisis

‘’We have unfortunately lost this war. I would say we have even lost it to a much greater degree than we could have ever imagined, between all we gave up in lives and territory. Artsakh, with its thriving economy and vibrant community, largely lost its statehood, and which is worse, the sovereignty of Armenia is now at stake. While we were fortunate that our independence came along with a victory in the previous war, strengthening our belief in our ability of building an independent state and pursuing our national goals, our post-war situation in 2021 is very different. It was once a victory beyond that of the battlefield; a victory over our own fears, over our own disbeliefs, and one which allowed us to find the strength to overcome our hesitations and protracted inability to turn the tides of history. It was miraculous in restoring our confidence. With the loss in this war, the core of our identity was also again put into question. Realizing there would not be a similar miracle this time around, that we were effectively defeated and had to surrender, caused an extreme and paralyzing depression that would have once been incomprehensible’’.

Artsakh and National Agenda

‘’The war is not over, as we’d thought back in November, but creeping towards our doorstep. The enemy is cunning, taking full advantage of its victory to continue with small advances, entering a village one day and conquering a new position the next, while adding hostages to its count. The only way to stop this is to get up off our knees, stand up and start fighting back, at least in a small way. There are resources to draw upon, and we must leverage them, mobilize and put them in action. Trust must be rebuilt around the new national objectives, breaking down decades of propaganda and beliefs detrimental to the development of society. Our state institutions are shaken, though not completely disrupted. Years of mismanagement culminated with the war leaving the structure of the state in a woeful condition. It will take many years to restore its institutional fabric, its strength, and rebuild trust. 

With the loss in this war, we lost a very important fortress of our security, the formidable land that protected Armenia’s mainland. The population of Artsakh has now diminished, the remainder is depressed and economically disadvantaged. Armenia proper also took an economic blow with the loss of essential resources; fields, orchards, meadows, mines, waters, and industrial resources, all gone. Our losses extend also to investments that had been made over many years. Now, with the security buffer gone and the army weakened, on top of political strife, Armenia is not as attractive and businesses must account for a greater amount of risk, thus leading to fewer jobs, less economic activity, and less money flowing into the budget. Today, we have very real security concerns with Syunik and other border regions across Tavush and Gegharkunik. To tackle the situation and come out stronger in the end, we need a four-pronged strategy:

  • Our sense of security must be restored by rebuilding our friendships and allied relationships, the key bonds damaged during and even long before the war. The friendly nations should stand as joint guarantors of our security. We cannot, alone, reverse this defeat at this stage, and when the time comes to revisit the battlefield, our conditions must be realistically favorable and backed by those with the power to make geopolitical changes. In part, the enemy is so impudent because they know how much we are internationally isolated as well as internally divided. A new government must take now the helm that is more capable, more incentivized to put up a fight, and one which enjoys the trust of the people that the current one wasted not too long ago. The current government should be pragmatic and put an end to this uncertainty through some form of new start, either through voluntary resignation or by calling new elections. We need to be much stronger internally, that’s an important prerequisite to face the external challenges more effectively. A period of such a peace and stability will then be our window of opportunity to rebuild and come back stronger. 

  • Defenses must be rebuilt, compensating for the lost natural protection offered by the untameable mountains of Artsakh. It’s important to differentiate though between security and defense. Defense is a part of our security, but security is more than just defenses. In terms of the former, we need to modernize our army, building a capable fighting force now, thus cementing the backbone of our nation and our security. The recent war may be a good opportunity in that sense to revisit our concepts of defense, critically review them, learning from what’s happened and preparing for the future challenges much better. 

  • Our social fabric must be strengthened. We lost this war, not because our army was weak, but to a large extent because our society was not prepared for the war. While many were thoroughly committed with one goal in mind, others tried to steer clear of their own responsibility on the battlefield. I don’t want to blame anyone; it’s our collective failure that the society wasn’t prepared. At the very least, we must teach our citizens how not to cooperate with the enemy, either consciously or subconsciously. These are elements of our broader security too. 

  • Our economy must be prioritized. We have to keep it very dynamic, very agile and fast-growing. This is an area Armenians all over the world can contribute to, applying their best talents to accelerate the Armenian economy and ensure at least a 7-8% growth year on year. This, in of itself, will massively contribute to the security of the nation. 

While ensuring our security and growing our economy, it is critical not to compromise on our identity. If the economy begins to grow too fast, you run the risk of globalization at the cost of cultural uniqueness. Part of the loss of this war may be attributed to this somewhat diffused identity in recent years, a process that needs to be reversed. Everyone living in and around this country must have a very strong sense of who they are, very strong beliefs, and an overarching national mission to bind us all together’’. 

Artsakh war and the Armenian Future

‘’We missed the opportunity to build a proper bridge with the vastly resourceful and good-intentioned diaspora, nor did we give sufficient incentive for repatriation and rebuilding their lives on Armenian soil, by creating an inclusive society and open economy. Important issues were left untackled, while polarization became a major handicap, creating a feeling of marginalization that forced those who lived in Armenia to leave in hopes of finding better fortunes elsewhere. To a large extent, we wasted the victory of the previous war. Both in Armenia and the diaspora, but especially in Armenia, we simply didn’t do enough. We had some successes, gradually developing our economy and creating interesting institutions, partially rebuilding our science and technology sector, but the changes were too slow and in no way sufficient to build the potential to either stave off the war or take a decisive win. 

It’s extremely important at this stage that those who possess certain social and political capital coalesce towards the new national objectives, presenting a simple but appealing vision on how we rebuild our nation. When you lose something, the opportunity is created to build something entirely fresh, more formidable and resilient, through a new spirit of cooperation. Our inability to do this has played its part in our past failures. We possess vast resources across the world, yet our radius of influence, which should have been equally vast, is small and almost insignificant. It is time to revisit our core beliefs and behavioral patterns. Why do we have a tendency for each of us to work alone? We are now in that period where we must have this mutual trust nurtured and grown, with a collective sense of responsibility. Who is this “we” and who will drive us forward now? There is a tendency to believe that the state is responsible for everything, however, I believe that the “we” is not only the state but much broader responsibility - from the Armenian traditional institutions and foundations, the political parties and business ventures to charities, NGOs, and even individuals. All of us must pool resources to support this overarching ideal of rebuilding the nation. We have to pick our battles, prepare for them, and eventually win them. There’s much work to be done, and while the state has to be the linchpin of this activity, it cannot shoulder the entire burden. Everyone has a job to do, and the unifying factor is the belief in the successful future of our nation through the commitment needed to bring this dream to life. 

As a starter, we need to clear our culture from unfavorable foreign influences, and invest massively into its renewal. Such investments are also required within the educational system, where we have seen some good successes on the high school and university levels, although as a whole it is not yet very effective. We must work on increasing the quality while also working on its inclusivity and making sure that the younger generation, including those from less socially advantaged environments, have access to higher education. Without this access, they can never climb up the social ladder. We have to ensure that every single person living in Armenia has some social mobility until there comes a time where no Armenian in this land remains poor. While building an inclusive society, we also should ensure better social justice, a constant fight against corruption and working towards the common good of all. 

Armenia must become a true magnet for Armenian people. I can imagine 10 million people eventually residing here. Lebanon, for example, with borders three times smaller, has the double our current population. Israel is home to nine million with a smaller territory, Belgium has eleven millions with a similar one. Ten million people in Armenia is technically feasible in a foreseeable future, if the country regains its magnetism. We at Repat Armenia believe the way to eventually open a new wave of repatriation is to make this country so attractive that for an average Armenian living anywhere in the world, more than just as a national duty or courageous sacrifice, it will become the rational choice to live here. The average family should see so many advantages in this country that they will move here naturally. And on that day, we can declare ourselves victors.''

Repatriation on the Roadmap to the Future

''While repatriation is critical in restoring our strengths and qualities, we should be pragmatic about its pace. The diaspora is multilayered and the identities of each individual, family, community, and institution differ, shaped by their political views, their environment, and their upbringing. Some live outside Armenia to make money, and it is mostly temporary, others have been in established communities that span decades and even centuries. Often there are dual identities, with very strong loyalties towards the country they live in, as well as towards Armenia. As such, at the current stage, repatriation can hardly be the main avenue of engagement, particularly for so many who are settled in respective countries and with Armenia’s current condition. Massive repatriation will become a top priority when we realize Armenia is so secure, economically prosperous, and dynamic, that it becomes naturally attractive for an average person. Currently, the better avenue of engagement is cooperating with Armenia. Those in diaspora should find partners here, institutions or individuals, engaging in activities along the lines of what I mentioned: improving Armenia’s security, creating new economic opportunities, improving the education, contributing to the culture, or helping the poor and disadvantaged through social mobility programs - in whole, building the country they would like to move in. There are so many things we can do in this country, that it boils down to having the commitments, finding the right partners, and creating the right modus operandi. This engagement should create intrinsic value while also bringing some genuine joy and gratification, as we progress towards success.

Repat Armenia should become a catalyst of this gradual repatriation. It was always quite instrumental in bringing together people of like minds across the world. That was Repat Armenia’s core specialty and its biggest differentiator. Now, Repat Armenia should double and triple its effort bringing together people and projects, helping individuals find their true strengths and trusted allies in rebuilding the fabric of our society, establish new connections and synapses, and discover more energy for generating positive change. Yet we should aspire not only to bring people together but also to give them some general sense of direction. We should constantly communicate and talk to each other to understand what our true purpose is, what our overarching objectives are, what are the key tactical goals and how to achieve them, effectively dividing our labor and our tasks. With a thoughtful approach and the right focus, we can eventually become successful on the path to rebuilding our nation, regain our confidence, and emerge victorious from struggle forced upon us centuries ago.''

Interview by Rima Yeghiazarian
Written by Tamar Najarian
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