For many in Armenia, the IT sector is like an oasis in the desert, attracting the best talent and providing conditions that others envy. In this op-ed Benyamin Poghosyan says that given the current disillusionment with the existing political forces, the leaders of the IT sector should seriously think about entering politics to create the Armenia of their vision.
Armenia still is reeling from the disastrous outcomes of the 2020 Karabakh war. External observers may believe that the state and society have overcome the crisis as the incumbent Prime Minister's party received 54 percent votes during the June 2021 early parliamentary elections. The visitors to Yerevan see the cafes, restaurants, clubs, and taverns full of people who seemingly enjoy their life, while during the weekends, you are lucky to find a place in the parking lots of the shopping malls. A construction boom continues in Yerevan, and if in the early 2000s it was concentrated mainly in the downtown, now cranes are an inseparable part of sights in all Yerevan districts. The future of Nagorno Karabakh does not occupy the center stage in the public and political discourse anymore. It is the Armenia – Turkey normalization process, the restoration of communications with Azerbaijan and Turkey, its potential benefits and challenges, and the process of Armenia – Azerbaijan borders' delimitation and demarcation that are among the most discussed topics. Thus, at first glance, it seems that the Armenian society has accepted the results of the defeat in the 2020 war, and the de facto loss of Nagorno Karabakh. It may appear that Armenia has concentrated its focus on adapting to the new balance of power in the region and on gaining economic benefits from the relations with victorious Azerbaijan and Turkey.
However, despite the shiny nightlife in Yerevan, and the shopping sprees on Black Friday and Cyber Monday, which have entered Armenian shopping culture in the last years, the majority of the population firmly believes that something is wrong with Armenia, and that the country has lost its sense of destination. People do not understand where the country is going and why, but there is a widespread feeling that either Armenia is going nowhere, or is moving toward another disaster. Meanwhile, in the local elections, held between October and December 2021, the incumbent Prime Minister continued to lose popularity, while the main opposition parties have not gained much.
It is a clear sign of two intertwined processes – stagnation and a growing level of disappointment and indifference towards politics in general. Many are unhappy with the outcomes of the 2020 war and the current trajectory of the state, but they have very little faith that politics or political processes may change anything. They do not like the government, and they do not like the opposition. This situation breeds apathy as a large part of society cuts itself off from politics, and resentment is confined to the "evening kitchen discussions." People do not believe in anyone and concentrate their efforts on their daily lives – I can do nothing to change anything, so let me spend my efforts and resources to solve the problems of my family and friends. This is the prevailing feeling as Armenia faces two-digit inflation, and the average citizen strives to pay for food and utilities.
This is not a new phenomenon, neither in Armenia nor abroad. Many societies pass-through this mixed feeling of stagnation and apathy. Something similar we may see happening in neighboring Georgia, as society is fed up with the Georgian Dream and United National Movement, and the growing resentment breeds more apathy instead of more protests. However, as political theory tells us, no situation can persist forever, and usually, if people do not like the government or opposition parties, new political movements – "a third force", will emerge sooner or later. The discussions about this “inevitable but yet mysterious third force” have started appearing also in Armenia.
Furthermore, perhaps the crucial issue is whether society waits for an organized force, or a person – a messiah? Since 1991 Armenian politics have been focused on the quest for a Messiah, a person with a magic stick - usually on white horse - who will come, push out the incumbent bad guys, and solve all problems. In the 1996 presidential elections, the candidate for this wizard role was Vazgen Manukyan against Levon Ter Petrosyan; in 2003, it was Stepan Demirchyan fighting against Robert Kocharyan; in 2008 elections, Levon Ter Petrosyan himself was transformed from a bad guy into a Messiah to fight against Robert Kocharyan and Serzh Sargsyan; and in 2013 Raffi Hovhannisyan was a hopeful wizard too. All these attempts failed, and perhaps these failures were the main reason for the astonishingly high popularity of Nikol Pashinyan immediately after he came to power. For the first time in the post - 1991 Armenian history, a messiah had emerged, and won. The last three and half years have almost ruined this image of Messiah of Nikol Pashinyan, albeit some 25-30 percent of the population still believes in this magical aura.
The 30 years of the political history of independent Armenia tells us thus that society will soon start its quest for a new wizard. Among the candidates is Ruben Vardanyan, the Russian – Armenian billionaire and philanthropist. In the last decade, he realized several large-scale projects in Armenia – The FAST and Idea foundations, Aurora humanitarian initiative, UWC international School in Dilijan, the Tatev monastery Ropeway. Immediately after the 2020 war, Vardanyan launched a new movement – The future Armenian - and entered politics through the newly established party, "The country to live". Most probably, some other candidates for the role of the next Messiah may also emerge soon. However, if history teaches us anything, it is that one person, regardless of his or her capabilities and capacities, is not able to transform the country and overcome the crisis. Such a personified approach blurs the lines between the leader and the state. The leader identifies himself with the state deepening the crisis instead of solving it. Society needs an organized force to overcome apathy and stagnation. Many may argue that this sounds fine in theory, but in practice, Armenia lacks such organized forces; therefore, it is doomed to navigate between unsuccessful and often tragic attempts of different messiahs to save the country.
However, the situation in Armenia is not hopeless, and here the IT sector may play a decisive role in overcoming this vicious circle. In the last decade, the term IT growth started to become a synonym for the development of Armenia. If in the mid-2000s, the construction boom was the primary driver of two-digit GDP growth in Armenia, after the 2008 world financial crisis, IT started to emerge as the critical sector of the Armenian economy. As for now, the most prominent feature of the IT sector in Armenia is that it is like an oasis in the desert. It pulls the most talented into its orbit by offering the best salaries, but it still operates as a separate entity with few connections and influence outside its boundaries. One may argue that state-building is not an IT problem, and it is state institutions and political parties who should think about the state. However, we disagree with this assumption. If a country fails, it impacts all sectors. The defeat of Armenia in the 2020 Karabakh war and the colossal human and material losses impact everyone and every sector, including IT.
Given the growing mix of apathy, disappointment, and resentment, as well as demand for a new political force that has no connections either with Pashinyan or Kocharyan-Sargsyan, and for new leaders who have not discredited themselves either through rampant corruption or perceived incompetence, IT has capacities and capabilities to overcome the quest for new messiahs and push forward for institutionalized changes in the society. As the IT sector becomes a magnet and pulls Armenia's most talented to its orbit, its leaders may seriously think about entering into politics to create the Armenia of their vision.