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Avetik Chalabyan: “Three keys are needed to open the door”

Avetik Chalabyan
Avetik Chalabyan

Mediamax’s interview with Avetik Chalabyan, Co-founder and Chairman of the Board of Arar Foundation

-Avetik, we know you as one of Co-founders of Repat Armenia Foundation. Now you are also the Chairman of the Board of Arar Foundation. When was Arar Foundation created and what are its goals?

- Arar Foundation was created at the beginning of 2014, by several members of “5165” Club. Unlike Repat Armenia Foundation, which had been created earlier and had one major goal - supporting repatriation to Armenia, Arar Foundation’s goals are rather broad: developing solutions, which address the most critical challenges facing Armenia and Armenians.

This overarching mission gives us an opportunity to focus on the issues that in our opinion are currently the most important ones. On the other hand, we are focusing on the challenges that are long-term, and solutions to which require dedication and consistent effort.

In our opinion, one of the most critical ones now are the security related challenges. We realize that in this region we will have security threats for a long time since the environment around us contains many dangers for the existence of our state and society. In fact, our security is much larger issue than just defending against imminent military threats. It has many elements - information, psychological, economic, etc. Yet, taking into consideration that Azerbaijan has significantly increased the tension on the frontier in the last 2 years, we concentrated most of Arar’s initial efforts on defense, although, with the time going by, our agenda will be extended to broader security and related issues too.

- We love to claim that we have the strongest army in the region and are sincerely proud of our Armed Forces on an emotional level. However sometimes it seems that apart from the emotions, our society doesn’t have the consensus understanding that the army is one of the main guarantors of Armenia 's existence, if not the most important one.

Let me start with a conceptual yet principal assertion - we have no realistic alternative other than defending the country ourselves. A certain segment of the society has a misconception that we can reach a quick peace settlement through negotiations. I know people that would even say: “Lets press the government to reach peace settlement with Azerbaijan”. A certain segment of population is even ready to leave the country to “protect” their children, especially the male ones, until the tension passes away. After that, they may “consider” returning home.

Such consumerist, even naive approaches are unrealistic. We must defend Armenia physically, since we are surrounded by neighbors that have a fairly clear objective – either to physically eliminate or to bring us to a condition where we will turn into submissive, compliant and hollow formation that will obey them in everything: amorphous formation without a future, independence and identity. Our neighbor Turkey has openly declared that they are ready to normalize relations with us only if we “ liberate” Artsakh, while Azerbaijan is even sometimes claiming that Yerevan and Zangezur are “historical Azerbaijani lands” and they still need to decide if they should leave them to Armenians or not. Even if it is partially a propaganda rhetoric, it reveals the real intentions of our neighbors, and in past they were never shy to put them in practice.

Unfortunately, at this point we still have no realistic chance to reach a reasonable agreement with our neighbors, even if we would agree to certain concessions in return for a lasting peace. They constantly put forward various maximalist demands, trying to speak from a position of strength, and if we come to terms with those demands, it will lead to a chain reaction of more concessions, eventually resulting in a loss of our country. Thus, we must admit this as a sober reality, and draw respective conclusions.

The first conclusion is that if we want to defend your country, we must have sufficient resources for it. The second is that we should use those resources wisely and productively. 
The third one is that no matter how much resource we may ever possess, we should also think about what multi-national alliances we are integrated with. We clearly see that the interests in our region are heavily contested by major powers, and in fact, any regional conflict quickly gets a global dimension, Syria being a perfect example of it. In our case, any serious conflict would be internationalized very quickly too, so having strong and reliable allies would never hurt.

Then when we return to our own resources, both human and material, the army gets them primarily from the society, and the society should think about its fundamental role in this context. In fact, we are one of the world's most militarized countries, if we compare the population and the armed forces, so the society is already contributing lot of its resources to the army. Yet no matter how much human resources our army gets, it’s not sufficient as our erstwhile neighbor has 3 times more population and has spent 7-8 times more funds on its army. Currently, because of decreasing in oil prices, Azerbaijan's military budget has been halved, and it reduces the immediate pressure on us, but even now, they will still spend 3-4 times more resources than we will, and the balance of resources will not be in our favor. Thus, we should at least work hard to ensure that the resources, which our army receives from the society, are effectively used to deter the rival. This is a necessary but not a sufficient solution, moreover if Azerbaijan’s economic resources start growing again.

In order to reach long-term peace, resources of our society, primarily the economic ones, need to grow at an accelerated rate. This will result also in an increase of human resources as almost a third of the country's population lives outside of the country. This is not even the “classic” Diaspora, but the people who have left since the declaration of Armenia’s independence in 1991. If Armenia expands economic opportunities, most of those people will come back and expand the human resource base needed for the defense.

It can be argued that the economic resources are not only society’s but also the government’s problem. Indeed, this would be true: it should be noted that economic growth is possible only in case of consolidation of the government and society’s efforts, which over time would provide a sufficient economic base for the country's defense. Therefore, it is necessary to develop a more effective, progressive political and economic system that can advance the country faster, attract more foreign investment and integrate into the regional and global markets. This is certainly the main topic for the government and the society, and it will be the focal one within the spectrum of all of our priorities in the coming years.

Apart from economic growth, the society needs to support the army with human resources, irrespective of how strong economic base it has. We see another unfortunate reality here: many people believe that the country’s protection is someone else’s responsibility. Someone else’s husband, brother, son should do this, but not theirs. Our research shows that emigration from the country has had a clear gender bias - families who emigrate from Armenia, are more likely to have male children than female.

This means that these families think that they can remove their boys from the country to avoid the resolving everyone’s problem. This is deplorable, because we all have to bear equal responsibility for defending the country, nobody will do it instead of us. My own sons who were born in Russia will return to Armenia to serve in the army, and so should others do. Otherwise, we will lose our country that we paid such a big price for, and we cannot blame anyone except us this time.

- Won’t we limit certain political liberties by declaring the country’s physical defense our main goal? In other words, won’t that lead to forming an “army state”?

- I think that opposing democracy and security is quite artificial; in fact, the most secure countries in the world are the most democratic ones at the same time.

Consider Switzerland, one of the most democratic countries in the world. It effectively doesn’t have a centralized government, and most of the laws are passed by referendums. At the same time, the country is one of the most secure ones in the world; the majority of Swiss male population is armed with combat weapons they receive after service together with permit to keep them at home. The same can be said about Israel, which combines highly developed democratic system with one of the most efficient and dynamic armies in the region.

The same can happen in Armenia. However, we shouldn’t have an “army state” where army substitutes the state. I believe that even the most militarized people in Armenia don’t want that. We need a powerful army, a strong state and a healthy society. Only a society that is healthy, free and devoted to democratic values can have a strong army and a strong state in the modern world.

- Israeli army is also one of the most technologically advanced in the world. Can we somehow use that experience in Armenia?

- True, Israeli army’s experience is one of the most applicable examples for us. Israel saw 10 wars in the 68 years of its existence. Yet even in those conditions, Israel has had a continuous economic development, and the country’s population grew 7 times since inception, mostly owing to people repatriating to the historic homeland. Today Israeli economy’s nominal value exceeds Armenian 25 times, which is an evidence that a country can still develop while having a big army and the threat of war even from within the country (two of the ten mentioned wars, Intifadas, occurred within the country).

The first stepping-stone for such a development is a healthy society and its aspiration for progress. In 70 years, Israel had phases when economic growth slowed down, but great economic leaps took place when the wars ended. By the way, those leaps often originated from the army. In particular, Israeli government realized very quickly that with neighbors that have population exceeding Israel’s 10 times and more (e.g. Egypt) it cannot deter them with the sheer numbers or even higher combat efficiency of its own army. Instead, it betted heavily on accelerated technological progress, and the army became the main driver of that progress.

The army solved several problems at once in this area. First, it has several units that worked on the army’s technological issues and trained technology specialists for the country’s economy. It is no coincidence that many specialists, trained at the army special units later become founders of Israel’s various startup companies.

On the other hand, the army has become a customer for the country’s private companies. This is an important decision, which Armenia should make as well. When army solves its own technological problems, like in Israel, it often has a choice - to buy solutions abroad or experiment and take certain risks, and solve those problems within the country.

In our opinion, it’s important to find a long-term balanced solution in Armenia too. The army should take certain risks to support the companies within the country. The army has to accept that this can lead to mistakes or losses in some cases. Yet if we don’t do that, our companies will never learn to come with solutions for the army. Conversely, they will become one of the key elements in the defense of our country the moment they learn to provide such solutions.

- What is the “key” that can open the “door” and explain people that when we say “army” or “defense” we mean our children’s future? What are the steps that will help to deliver that idea to people?

- I think that it should be not just one but three keys, and we should use all three of them to open the door. Government holds the first key, army - the second, and society - the third.

The government should give the society confidence in their own abilities, and consciously take the path of reforms in the country. Only real reforms can inspire the main segment of society, including those living abroad, to have confidence in future. In essence, by defending the country we defend our future and want to be sure that it will be prosperous, attractive and promising for our children. None of us wants to defend an uncertain, dark and dull future. This key to confidence is in the hands of the country government, and in my opinion, it is poorly used at present.

Army holds the second key, and I would like to differentiate the army from the government, because army is the part of the state, stationed on the borders and facing the rival every day. Army also has to implement fundamental reforms, which should aim to increase personal efficiency and safety of every soldier and officer. We shouldn’t bear losses where we can avoid them. Losses are impossible to avoid completely in a state of war, but when we analyze the broader picture, we realize that number of losses can be decreased by different means. These pertain to army’s technological development and realization of direct contact with the enemy through advanced technological solutions, increase of servicemen’s vigilance and personal efficiency, which will allow to avoid losses caused by even accidental shots fired by the rival. These means also include improvement of moral and psychological environment.

Unfortunately, some losses that we bear are not combat casualties. It is true that the number of non-combat losses has been decreasing recently, but we should strive to bring it to the bare minimum, so that parents whose children join army know that their sons are in safe hands.

The society holds the third key, and it should not always be in the position of demanding and criticizing. The society ought to participate in the reforms as well. Experience shows that the society’s participation allows the state and army to speed up the reform process. The society’s participation also allows challenging more resources to the army, as not everything can be done through the limited means of the budget in our circumstances.

In this sense, Arar Foundation, as a societal institution, directs the resources of its supporters to address specific issues of the army. We offer innovative solutions and often finance their pilot testing, and if they work, the army starts channeling larger resources in rolling them out, and that becomes a mutually beneficial mechanism to move the army reforms. There are other institutions beside our foundation, which also support the army. This is a way, in which the society can engage more actively, and if that comes not only as criticism but also as direct support, the public can demand much more from the state, from the army leadership, and from individual military units. In a way, the engagement gives a greater voice to speak.

We really don’t live in peaceful conditions, and that makes us reevaluate our lifestyles too. We can’t spend all day in cafes and offices in Yerevan, while someone else at Tavush or Artsakh borders protects our safety without our participation. It simply doesn’t work this way. Not every one of us has to be on the border, but we should participate in defending Armenia if we believe it is the homeland for our children. Our experience already shows that there are many ways, and everyone can have a meaningful contribution.

Ara Tadevosyan talked to Avetik Chalabyan

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