Religious leaders support Ukrainian authorities in the struggle against terrorism in Donbas

The Armenian Apostolic Church apparently supports the post-maidan government.

Euromaidan PR

KYIV – The hierarchs of Ukrainian Сhurches have issued a declaration on the importance of protecting Ukraine’s territorial integrity, maintaining its borders, and counteracting the evil and diversions being carried out by terrorists in the eastern regions of Ukraine.

This issue was discussed during a meeting by the head of the Ukrainian Parliament, Acting President of Ukraine Oleksandr Turchynov, with members of the Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations, held May 22, 2014 in the conference hall of the Parliament, the Institute for Religious Freedom reported.

“We want peace, but just, so that the aggressor cannot walk on our land. A just peace must be defended. The Church blesses our military, who are defending our land. We do not need someone else’s land, but want protect our own,” Patriarch Filaret (Denysenko), Primate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate, noted in his speech.

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Kremlin-paid internet commenters caught red-handed

In case it wasn’t obvious to everyone already!

Euromaidan PR

Confirmation that the command operates a network of paid pro-Kremlin commenters appeared on May 31, 2014. Anonymous International exposed the activities of the Russian Internet Research Agency, which feeds itself from Russia’s state budget. The goal of this organization is to create, through comments on the internet, the illusion of support for the Kremlin regime.

Interestingly, the owner of the agency, Eugene Prigozhin, is the founder of the holding company Concord, known as ‘Putin’s chef.’  The company’s direct management includes Maria Kuprashevich, who is known for having taken a job in the liberal media to commit espionage.

It was found that there is a staff of people working with strict accountability to the curators. These staff writers are paid for writing pro-government comments on the internet.

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Silicon Valley of the Caucasus: Tablet odysseys

The unedited version of this article was published for the Germany-based Armenian current affairs journal “die Armenisch-Deutsche Korrespondenz” in March 2014

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Nayiri computers, manufactured in Soviet Armenia

While still a soviet republic, Armenia had garnered a reputation as the USSR’s answer to Silicon Valley. the Republic was a centre for mainframe and industrial computing, electronics, semiconductors, software development and others research and development, as well as production. Indeed, roughly 40% of the Soviet Union’s high tech and military research took place in Yerevan’s top of the line facilities, such as the Mergelian Institute and Microprocessor Institute. In fact, the USSR’s vast array of SAM missiles and ICBM relied on guidance systems designed, developed and manufactured in soviet Armenia in hopes of hitting their intended NATO targets.

Armenia also produced technological innovations for civilian and research use as well. The famous Nairi family of computers was developed at the Yerevan Computer Research and Development Institute in 1964. Other innovations were made in the production of transistors, microcomputers and so on.

The collapse of the Soviet Empire, in tandem with the Shirak Earthquake and the Karbakh War (1989-1994) shook the newly independent republic’s previously highly industrialised economy to its core. Now cut off from its former export markets within the Eastern Block as well as with difficult access to the sea; Armenian firms having appreciated the high value of human resources, turned their attention to software development. The major specialisations include embedded software and semiconductor design, custom software development and outsourcing, financial applications, multimedia design, Internet applications, web development, MIS and system integration. Armenia’s best achievements were in the fields of  semiconductor design software and IP solutions.

Since then, the Information and Communications Technology sector has been one of the fastest growing in the Armenian economy. A unique start-up scene has developed over recent years, which is growing to rival its more famous counterparts in New York, Berlin and the Baltic. Grassroots conventions such as the famed Barcamp IT conventions have already spread to cities outside the capital such as Gyumri and Stepanagert. A number of educational institutions also help secure the next generation of IT specialists. The TUMO Centre for Creative Technologies in Yerevan, for example, with a branch in Dilijan was founded to help teenagers develop their skills in programming, design, robotics and so on. Yerevan is also home to a small number of trendy coworking spaces such as the SaryanTumanyan space catering to a growing number of tech start-ups. The city also hosts a chapter of TEDx.

Innovative home grown projects such as Armenia’s answer to Instagram: Picsart, or other projects such as the virtual whiteboard Voiceboard, the Yerevan-based serviced apartment group ginosi.com or teambuilding app Teamable  have also attained worldwide recognition. The country has also managed to attract international ITC giants, including Microsoft, Synopsis, and Macademia,

ICT has grown at an average of 27% per year. In theory, at least, the Armenian government has made efforts to support this sector by conducting grant competitions for start-ups and R&D efforts in collaboration with the World Bank, the US government funded Enterprise Development and Market Competitiveness project, as well as the Enterprise Incubator Foundation. The Armenian and Indian governments have also collaborated to found the Armenian-Indian Centre for Excellence in ITC. The government has already designated three Tax-Free Zones for IT development in the country: The Mergelyan institute, the Gyumri Technopark and the Vanadzor technopark.

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FRM Prime-Minister Tigran Sargsyan and Gyumri Mayor Samvel Balasanyan visit the new Technopark in Gyumri (source: oratert.com)

The first ever, fully-indigenous developed tablet computer, unimaginitively named the ‘ArmTab’ was recently presented to Armenia’s Medvedev-esque Yuppie prime minister Tigran Sargsyan. This new tablet, along with its north-american counterpart, Minno is supposed to have been entirely designed locally, including the software design, operating system, applications and overall tablet design. Though it was speculated that it would be manufactured in China, Vahan Sahakian, the director of Technology and Science Dynamics/Armtab Technologies insists that they will be assembled in Armenia. Critics doubt the need for a new tablet in an already crowded market, and argue that it is just another soviet-style publicity stunt designed to showcase the country’s technological might; but Sahakian insists that the tablet will target the regional markets of Armenia Georgia and Ukraine first, and then get into a world Market. Though the tablet’s technological specifications are not yet available, its 165 EUR asking price should give it a competitive edge on its competition.

Despite overt endorsement of ITC sector development in Armenia, the Government’s actual support remains uneven. High corporate and income taxes, (update: as of April 2014, the Armenian government offers tax breaks to IT start ups)  as well as spotty rule of law hamper the proper growth of the industry. Furthermore, a recent government pension reform is poised to remove an extra 5% of the already squeezed-for-Tax incomes of these skilled professionals; with many of them now considering emigration over what they perceive as being more state ‘punishment’ for their success. (update: As of April 2014, the constitutional court has put this reform on hold, with results pending) Another issue that needs to be addressed is brain-drain amongst Armenia’s IT specialists. Many companies are not having difficulty finding senior IT positions despite high salaries and benifits, because the people necessary to fill these seats are not in the country. This issue should be addressed.

In conclusion; Armenia’s ITC industry shows a lot of promise, and can indeed turn into Armenia’s strategic economic strength if the government learns to nurture its growth instead of hampering it.

Armenia’s economic choice: Customs Union vs. DCFTA?

This article was originally commissionned and written as part of a Series for the Germany-based newspaper “Deutsch Armenische Korrespondenz” in December 2013

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On the third of September, Armenian president Serj Sargsyan’s announcement that Armenia will join the Russian-led Customs Union sent shockwaves across Yerevan, Brussels and Moscow. Up to that point, Armenian diplomats had been hard at work negotiating a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) and Association Agreement (AA) with the European Union, alongside fellow European Eastern Partnership (EaP) member-states: Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia. (Though Azerbaijan and Belarus are nominally EaP members as well, their autocratic systems barred them from further European integration). This statement has had and still has a number of political, social and economic impacts; though it should be enough to focus solely on the economic aspects.

Though the main reason forwarded by Yerevan was security (despite, ironically, denying any pressure from Moscow), a number of Armenian officials circumspectly mentioned a number of economic benefits to joining the Customs Union over the DCFTA; while others have criticised it as an economically backward system designed to protect the inefficient and increasingly uncompetitive Russian market, while offering little incentives for trading partners.

Defining the Customs Union:

The Customs Union, which is seen by many as the pet-project of Russian strongman Vladimir Putin’s nostalgic plan for creating a Soviet Union 2.0, came into existence on the first of January 2010. The Union is comprised of countries routinely criticised for their lack of democratic development; Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan are set to abolish customs fees between them. They have also signed a memorandum to work towards further integration, and the eventual creation of a Eurasian Union, supposedly modeled on the European Union, encompassing most of the former soviet states. The combined economies of the three countries currently signed on to the project makes up roughly 3% of the world’s GDP with 2.1 trillion dollars, compared to the European Union’s share of a quarter of the world’s GDP, with 17 trillion dollars generated. It is also important to understand the founding motivations of the Customs Union vis-à-vis the European Union, and its Eastern Partnership. The Customs Union is largely an instrument of Russian soft-power, The EU, by contrast, was founded primarily as part of cooperation between equal European states, with mutual economic benefit in mind. 

Questions about accession:

During Armenia’s negotiation process, EU diplomats had made it abundantly clear that Armenia could not join two different unions, due to the conflicting customs regulations, yet Armenia hasn’t reneged on its claim that it can join both nevertheless. It is still unclear how Armenia plans to join the Customs Union, despite the president’s memorandum, due to constitutional blocks and the fact that Armenia lack of common borders with the Union wouldn’t allow it to share in the benefits of tariff-free trade.

The stated economic benefits:

Think tanks, such as the Yerevan-based  Integration and Development NGO, headed by Aram Safarian, have loudly claimed that CU accession would bring large and immediate benefits for Armenia. This, it is claimed, will be done through Russian investment in Armenia’s transport and energy sectors. Indeed, Russia has pledged to invest some €350 million dollars to upgrade Armenia’s railway system, as well as a promised €75 million in investments by the Eurasian Development Bank which Safarian says will boost Armenia’s economy by 0.4% as well as investments in Armenian nuclear energy, and a 30% reduction of the price of gas, which, it is claimed, would immediately help Armenia’s economy grow by 1%. 

Furthermore, the “Integration and Development” Think Tank, claims that a fourth factor, labour migration, caused by Russia’s easing of visa regulations for Armenian citizens, would boost Armenia’s GDP by .25%. Safarian goes on to say that Customs Union accession would benefit Armenia with an immediate 4% boost, and a longer-term stable economy growth perspective of some 2.3%. 

Finally, Armenian economists such as Ashot Tavadyan have also made the argument that because Armenia’s products are simply not yet ready to compete on a European Market, the Customs Union would serve as a sort of ‘incubation’ period to help such export industries grow.

 Weighing Pros and Cons of choosing Moscow over Brussels

Though it should be noted that the European Union is currently dealing with its own monetary crisis, as well as a continent-wide recession, its prospects for growth seem much healthier than that of Moscow. As mentioned, above, the European Union still remains the largest single market, with the world’s largest GDP.  as such, the Rotterdam-based think tank and private consultancy firm Ecorys estimates that the impact of the DCFTA on Armenia would have lead to €146 million in national income gains (with €74 million in income gains for the EU).This would be measured as long-term a 2.3% increase in Armenia’s GDP. Armenia’s exports to the EU would have been expected to increase by 15.2% and imports by 82%

Though at first glance, it may seem that the Customs Union would offer more immediate benefits to Armenia, with comparable long-term growth prospects, it is important to consider certain issues before making such a conclusion:

It is important to note that most positive economic predictions for Armenia’s entry into the Customs Union seem to rely entirely on GDP projections, which does not give much insight on true economic or human development within the country; not to mention that economists such as Aram Safarian see labour migration as a positive boost to the economy, instead of seeking the reduction of outward migration as a sign of economic growth.

1-One must assume that the investments promised by Russia would actually come, and if so, be directed through the right channels. This is important because Russia has promised Armenia investment in the past (promising to invest some €165 million in the railway network within 5 years in 2008, for which most of the promised money is still missing).

 2- Virtually all of the economic benefits predicted by pro-Kremlin analysts, or promised by Moscow, lie in energy and infrastructure, sectors already dominated by Russian state-owned corporations, as opposed to private sector investments. Though the EU was prepared to negotiate a financial aid package at a Donors Conference for Armenia scheduled for 2014, the majority of projected circular investment would have been in the private sector. 

 3- The nature of trade should also be investigated. For instance, not only is the EU common market the single largest trading partner of Armenia, consisting of 35.5% of Armenia’s exports and 25.5% of Armenia’s imports, (these figures would increase if one includes the other DCFTA signatories: Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, who account for 6.6% of Armenia’s exports, and some 20% of Armenia’s imports) but it is also very diverse. Armenia exports diamonds, manufactured goods, crude materials, beverages, tobacco, chemicals, financial services and commodities, where as the EU is the source of the bulk of Armenia’s imports of consumer goods, machinery and so on.

On the other hand, the Customs Union countries were the destination for only 16.79% of Armenia’s exports for 2012; mostly trade with Russia (Belarus and Kazakhstan received 0.51% and 0.28% respectively)  account for a mere 28.30% of Armenia’s imports (Belarus and Kazakhstan providing 0.28% and 0.01% of goods, mostly Kazakh chocolate, respectively). And unlike Armenia’s links to the EU, the lion’s share of trade with Customs Union countries consists of oil and gas imports from Russia, as well as some food products, and agricultural machinery from Belarus. Thus, one could surmise that Armenia’s joining the Customs Union would have very little direct benefit to the consumers, who will instead be paying higher premiums for goods imported from outside the Customs Union’s boundaries, leaving them with less money for more important purchases. 

 Armenian exports to Russia are almost entirely within the wine, cognac, dried fruit and mining sectors, virtually all of which have been monopolised by government-connected commodity-based cartels. Thus, in this sense, some sectors of the Armenian economy would benefit from Customs Union entry: those that are entirely usurped by the Oligarchy. 

 4- It is also important to consider the State of Russia’s economy, and its impact on Armenia. Russia has shown negative economic indicators in the first two quarters of this year, implying a recession, which is part of a greater trend of relative economic decline. This can be attributed to Dutch Disease due to a lack of diversification of the Russian economy, largely driven by oil, as well as the country’s underdeveloped, and largely inefficient financial sector. Armenia’s close relationship with Russia means that Yerevan has duplicated a lot of Moscow’s policies, which has resulted in a drastic reduction in Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in the country over the last two years. In his October 2013 blog, Economist Samson Avetian assessed figures on the state of Russia’s economy, claiming that Russia’s economic problems are quite structural in nature, and that Russia is in dire need of enhanced economic management and reforms. He emphasized the negative impact on Armenia, saying 

“Given that Russia is a key trading partner to Armenia, weakness in the Federation is clearly unfortunate. Especially given that significant part of Transfers/Remittances originate from there. Many of the impediments the country suffers are prevalent in Armenia as well. Unfortunately, and with continued absence of reforms and improved economic management, Armenia is expected to not only be impacted by external economic weakness but is left much exposed to the slowdown abroad.” 

5- One of the more direct benefits that Armenia would receive from joining the Customs Union would be the reduced price of natural gas. Indeed, Moscow has offered Armenia to pay the same internal Russian cost of gas with the addition of transport fees. This would come as immediate relief for many hard-pressed Armenian families, but the effect on economic output, despite what pro-Kremlin analysts have claimed, would be negligible; since goods produced with Russian natural gas would be considered as ‘price dumping’ when exporting to the EU, and would be fined anyway.

 6- Another element that hasn’t been directly considered when ascertaining Armenia’s economic prospects when choosing an economic block, is the change in infrastructure required. The EU demands a certain amount of institutional reform and modernisation from potential member states, which it is prepared to assist in attaining. This includes reduction and streamlining of bureaucracy, reduction of taxes, ease of doing business and so on. This has an unmeasured potential impact on economic growth, since it would encourage FDI as well as pan-european business cooperation. Whereas the Customs Union has no requirements in terms of political, economic and bureaucratic reform.

Conclusions:

Image Though Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) officials are currently scrambling to flaunt the economic advantages of Armenia’s potential Customs Union accession, they are still unable to answer the constitutional, geographical, financial and economic concerns that they themselves had been citing prior to September 3rd as impediments to Customs Union accession. Though it is difficult to predict what will happen, one can also take note of the fact that both Kazakhstan and Belarus have recently expressed disgruntlement and desire to leave the organization. The actual benefits would be shared by a small minority of people in Armenia, while others would see price increases in their daily purchases. The only actual calculable benefit that Armenia would get is avoiding the economic sanctions that a vengeful Russia would impose, by threatening to deport labour migrants, and banning Armenian products, which would devastate Armenia’s already Moscow-dependent economy. 

 

Understanding the Armenian world view when dealing with the Artsakh Conflict

Despite the world having witnessed our recent history, we are still asked by International mediators to be reasonable in our demands (our demands to preserve what is left of our nation)

 it would be really nice if, for once, the international community, the Turks and the Azeris would care to understand the Armenian case: We are a nation of people who’s contribution to the world is quite disproportionate to our size, and yet have constantly been marginalised by larger interests, seen as disposable problems, to the point where our plight has even been refered to as “the armenian QUESTION“, as if we were a problem that the world was trying to effortlessly wash its hands of. For most of our recent history, we have been criticised as a nuisance by larger powers in the grand scheme of World Affairs, because we complained about our lands being taken from us, our people murdered, our sovereignty being violated, or culture compromised time and time again. Yet, we have constantly been asked to compromise on these things which we have held dear by the same powers who asked us to sacrifice for the greater good, to appease our aggressive neighbours, or for future compensation.

Today we live in a Republic that is one tenth the size of the state we were legally promised in 1919, which itself was only two thirds the size of the land we have historically lived in; which didn’t bother Stalin who decided to disect us even further.

Different Armenias

 We do not have the luxury of having a Sprachbund stretching from Blugaria to China like our neighbours do, our closest kin have long since been assimilated into other cultures, there is no where else for us to go. We have nothing left to give, and yet we are still being told by the International community that we are being unreasonable, that we must compromise…This is not an irrational call for romantic nationalism, or irredentism, this is a very real, pragmatic issue for us. IT is an issue that intails the very survival of our nation as a relevant, independent state in the modern world. We collectively share the pain of the Azeris who suffered in the early nineties, but it was a necessary pain, Just as the pain of the Indian-born Britons who left for a land of their ancestors that they had never seen, when India received it’s independence.

It should be noted, however, that despite the fact that the Armenian nation has already lost so much, for the sake of peace, the Armenian negotiators at the Kazan conference offered a compromise that was so humiliating for the Armenian side that some of the points have still not been publicly revieled. This very reasonable proposal was turned down by Aliyev. In other words, no matter what we offer, they will still ask for more.

Should Azeri refugees be alloud to return to their homes? Absolutely. Should we allow Azeris free passage through Armenia/Artsakh, as part of a pledge to allow all of mankind the right ot freedom of movement, and dignity they deserve as fellow human beings? Definately. Should we dream of the day where we could one day trade freely with Azerbaijan and look towards eventual regional economic integration? We are more than willing…Yet, to give up even an inch of land for which we have fought and bled for? NEVER.

“Pro-Azerbaijani letter is an outrage”- a letter to the Baltimore Sun

This letter was originally published on September 12th, 2012 as a response to the letter “The U.S. should back off its criticism of Azerbaijan’s handling of the Safarov case” by Emil Israfilbek in the Baltimor Sun. the Publication could be found here.

 

In his letter “The U.S. should back off its criticism of Azerbaijan’s handling of the Safarov case” (Sept. 10), Emil Israfilbek displays very concerning signs of lack of compassion and understanding for human rights, by writing that he is unable to understand why Armenians would be (rightfully) insulted by the Hungarian government’s decision to extradite convicted murderer Ramil Safarov back to his home country after having served a mere fraction of his sentence, despite international condemnation of the event. Furthermore, his letter tries to masquerade a blatant incident of racism as a call for non-interventionism.

To clarify: The Nagorno-Karabakh War was sparked by a vote in the historically Armenian region of Nagorno-Karabakh (which had been detached from Armenia, and transferred to the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic as part of a Stalin-era ploy to foster relations with Azerbaijan’s powerful ethnically related neighbor, Turkey) for reintegration into the Armenian SSR. This caused violent backlash in Baku, culminating in the Baku and Sumgait pogroms in which dozens of Armenians were systematically sought out and murdered by their Azeri neighbors in a blood-bath that lasted until the Soviet Army intervened (which the Azeris cynically now commemorate as “black Friday”).

These barbarous acts, as well as similar acts of intolerance toward other minority groups in the former Soviet republic, solidified the resolve of the ethnic-Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh to declare its independence, in line with the Soviet Constitution. This, in turn, triggered a full-fledged invasion of the territory by the Azerbaijani Army, which was defeated after a bloody four-year conflict. This humiliating defeat for Azerbaijan has been manipulated by the country’s ruling elite in order to foster blind hatred against the Armenian people in what many analysts consider to be an attempt at distraction by a kleptocratic ruling family to hold on to power.

One of he more perturbing aspects about Mr. Israfilbek’s letter is the fact that he tries to justify a particularly heinous murder by saying that condemnation of the murderer’s actions is uncalled for, because Mr. Safarov was simply retaliating for childhood war trauma. In other words, in Mr. Israfilbek’s mind, the rest of the world should not concern itself, because killing any Armenian around the world is OK. His letter describes “a deadly fight,” when in reality Mr. Safarov murdered a fellow officer at a Partnership for Peace conference in his sleep. Mr. Israfilbek treats this as something akin to a commendable act because Azerbaijan found itself on the losing side of a post-Soviet secessionist conflict, even though this man was rightfully convicted of murder.

Mr. Israfilbek conveniently omits the fact that every single ethnic Armenian family living within the NK enclave lost family members in the war as well, some through well documented war crimes, and yet, by contrast, none of them have shown similar contempt for the lives of Azeris, or glorified arbitrary murderers. Furthermore, none of the 8 million or so descendants of Armenian genocide survivors have shown a similar attitude toward Turks. Why does Mr. Israfilbek believe that the law shouldn’t apply when an Azeri kills an Armenian, and yet, in the same breath call for the U.S. Congress to condemn the Nagorno-Karabakh struggle for independence as a “genocide” of Azerbaijanis?

For once, the U.S. government policy toward the region can be qualified as commendable, since the president was able to uphold American values of human rights and justice instead of strategic interests which have been sustaining Azerbaijan’s power-elite (namely, its vast oil reserves).