Saturday, January 24, 2004

Taking a trip down memory lane to ready material for my book has been quite an experience and very tiring in every possible way. Those dark circles under my eyes are just not going away and I guess I’m just going to have to endure and chip away at it. My plan to work on all this stuff during my hibernation period has been disrupted by mother nature who is late in delivering that snow we were all hoping for. Right now it’s 21c outside and quite hot.

Anyway, here is a letter to the PM from John Hughes I came a cross and my letter to the editor that immediately followed, but was delayed in printing by AIM (after bugging them for over a month to print it) until after the first Diaspora conference. Both could be written today since the things stated still seems to apply.

AIM - July 1999
"Letter to the Prime Minister"
By John Hughes

To: Mr.Vazgen Sarkisian, Prime Minister, Republic of Armenia

Dear Mr. Prime Minister,

Congratulations on your recent appointment, which came as little surprise to most of us. Nor will it be unexpected news to learn of your candidacy for President when that time shall come.

You could probably fill Lake Sevan with the number of letters you're getting: suggestions, demands, complaints, and the general out pouring of the politically needy clamouring to suck up to a man of your position.

Well, here's another one. Letter, I mean.

Know this right off: You can't do anything for me and I can't do anything for you.

Wait. That's not entirely true. You could do things that would make life better for some very deserving friends of mine and that would make me happy. But I can't do a dang thing for you, owing to the fact that I'm not even a citizen of your republic.

Anyway. Have you ever heard of "pothole politics"? In the rural southern United States where I grew up, it wasn't unheard of for a man to get elected because he promised to fix the "potholes" in the roads people travelled. Folks in those parts would see a road construction sign and say: "Must be election time."

The problem, though, was that too often the potholes getting fixed were only those on roads where politicians lived.

By comparison, Mr. Prime Minister, Armenia ain't a whole lot different from Alabama.

You are a man of letters, and so you understand that the reference is allegorical as well as literal.

I've dodged the potholes on the roads of your country and I know they are many.

The economy gets the blame for most, but isn't it the economic structure that is really the culprit for the economic state? Two examples:

1. In order to make up for the budget shortfall, your tax administration officers have begun to collect taxes early. They want businesses, even small mom and pop ones, to pay now for what they think they may bring in next month. Isn't there a better way?

2. I don't need to tell you how much outside humanitarian aid comes into Armenia. But, did you know that hospitals receiving goods from charitable agencies must pay taxes on donated equipment and medicines? Is that really necessary, considering that the cost eventually effects the patients -- average Armenians -- for whom the free aid was intended?

The birth of a free-market economy comes with considerable growing pains that are too complex for non-experts.

So let me ask you about a "pothole" that threatens to erode the reputation of the department you just left, the military.

Why, in a country with so much national pride, are boys running, literally, from serving in the army? And why are fathers who are themselves veterans, willing to pay bribes to keep their boys from facing conscription?

I know a young man who was working two jobs and whose mother was working as a cook and a maid just so the family could pay army officers who signed papers saying he had done his military service when in fact he hadn't. What is wrong with the Armenian army that would make it so objectionable?

And on the subject of bribes: Why do the police shake down every driver who isn't behind the wheel of a "power" car? And why do members of evaluation boards accept bribes to let kids with money into the best universities even if their grades aren't as impressive as their bank accounts? And why do physicians accept kickbacks to perform surgeries that the State supposedly is underwriting? And why do the people in airport Customs, and the officials at the motor vehicle registration department and the inspector at the tax bureau . . .

And why did only about half as many Armenians vote in the latest elections as when they first had the chance to exercise that freedom?

Because nobody is fixing potholes, Mr. Prime Minister.

In your country there is no sense of cause and effect when it comes to voting.

Don't misunderstand me. I am not on some ethical high horse here, certainly not when in my own country national policy is shaped by lobbyists who use votes like money.

But at least here I have a sense that, however corrupt, the system is fundamentally designed for the comfort of life for average people like me. I don't like paying taxes, but I like having functioning public utilities.

And I like the opportunity to change the way my government works. I see the connection. Your people need to see the same.

You could show them.

One of the first things I was told about how things work in Armenia was that no matter who sits in the President's chair, the man really in charge was the Minister of Defence. That was you. And the widely held belief was not a reflection of the Office, but of the Man.

Now that you are Prime Minister, there's no reason to believe that the balance of power has shifted, but only that it now comes from a more logical base.

I know Armenians who are eager for a leader who'll fix potholes.

More significantly, I know too many Armenians who are tired of seeing the potholes fixed only on the streets where powerful people live, while common folk endure a significantly bumpier ride.

No one is to blame for the conditions in Armenia. Too much happened too fast.

But someone should be accountable if things don't improve.

If you are the man I've heard about, you are willing to accept that responsibility.

John Hughes


Letter to the Editor.

John Hughes’s letter to the Prime Minister sure hit home. As an Armenian-American living in Armenia and Karabagh I can only say that during John’s stay in Armenia he sure saw everything. He didn’t hold back any punches and really told it like it is (as sad as that may be). Unfortunately, such letters in the past from those that don’t provide material support have seamed to have little effect (who remembers the Human Rights Watch letter to Kocharian in January? Has anything really changed?). With the Armenian government still desperately looking to the Diaspora for its blind support of our struggling nation, let John’s letter be an indication of what blind support has caused. World Bank stipulates that certain conditions be met in order to receive loans which up until now amount $500 million with an additional $240 million in the next three years. Future generations must one day try to repay these loans. Sargsian indicated in a speech to the National Assembly that all Armenians with resources around the world will be “called to Armenia, just as the army recruited its commanding officers with such a call back in 1990.” Sarkisian refereed to the upcoming Armenia-Diaspora Conference in September as the opportunity to make such a call for participation. I would hope that those bold enough to answer this calling will stand as one and cease the opportunity to stipulate their conditions, asking for a certain amount of equality and fairness be created for the people.

Ara Manoogian
Artstakh, Marduni

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