Hetq talks to Bagrat Asatryan, a former MP and ex-president of Armenia’s Central Bank, on the cuts to education in the 2018 estimated budget and student unrest stemming from a bill doing away with most military deferments.
Do you believe the government’s proposed 2018 budget is realistic?
During my career, I have worked on at least twenty budget bills. All were realistic. The other side of the issue is whether the budget can resolve the problems facing the country. The current budget is far from resolving what are country needs.
Let me start at the simplest level. The leading problems facing Armenia today are emigration, terrible socio-economic situation, and a high poverty level. This budget will not bring essential change to any of these problems.
There is no plan to raise pensions. However, budgetary expenditure to the social, health and culture sectors will decrease from 47.7% of the budget in 2017 to 43.9% next year.
The main problems strangling the economy are corruption, monopolies, and the close links between business and the regime. The country’s economy will not develop until this system is removed.
Do the preconditions exist for removing the monopolies?
The 2017 elections showed that not only don’t the preconditions exist, but also the desire. We got a new prime minister last year, supposedly with new ideas. But what happened afterwards?
He participated in the April crime – the elections. I can’t describe those elections any other way, because bribes were handed out all over. It will have its repercussions on the economy. 85% of the young people in Armenia see their future abroad.
You mentioned the young people. Let’s talk about the deferment bill that gotten students up in arms. Are the student demands justified? What do you think about planned for cuts to education and the sciences?
I have a position regarding the deferment matter. Deferments cannot be done away with. The government claims it will lessen corruption risks. So why don’t they deal with the corruption, rather than removing the deferments.
They say that the level of science is dropping. That’s correct. So, let’s fix the problem. Will our science sector improve by dealing with deferments in such a manner? Such an approach won’t work. Young people must be convinced that when it comes down to choosing, preference is given to education.
Regarding the cuts to science and education, the issue angers me. Between 2008 and 2016, when this regime has been in power, education and the sciences have been neglected. They couldn’t care less about education. The sciences are the least funded sector.
Let me put it bluntly, this regime doesn’t like to read or write. The modern world follows totally different standards. When you look at the budgets of developed countries, you see the value placed on education and science.
I teach at Yerevan State University. Overall, there is no progress; starting from the lecture halls to everywhere.
Perhaps the regime needs such a poorly uneducated generation.
Yes. They need such people.
Two days ago, at the behest of the rector, some officials came to my class to check on the attendance. It angered me. How should I feel after all this?
I told my students, “You see what the regime wants? For you to remain dumb and uneducated, to be servile, to accept their 10,000-dram bribe and vote for them in the next election.”
While I never made a call to stage a boycott, and I told them that I’m required to take attendance, I also told them that if they do not fight for their rights, they will have become the prisoners of this political system.
OK, the defense ministry makes its argument regarding the military aspect of the issue. But what about the university? Shouldn’t it express its position? Yerevan State University has long since become a tool in the hands of the regime.
So, you welcome the student boycott as a form of struggle?
Naturally, what I criticize is not struggling. We were students during the Soviet era. Then, you could have been thrown in jail just for thinking. But even back then, the university was more democratic. There were principles, ideas. Today, it’s like the neighborhood ruffian is in control.
When presenting the deferment bill in parliament, the defense minister claimed that it had nothing to do with solving the demographic challenge; drafting more young men to fill the army’s ranks. What do you think?
The demographic situation is very serious. It’s a crisis. The lowest number of births were recorded in 2001-2003, when the number dropped to 30,000 annually. For comparison, in the years up to 1990, the number was around 80,000.
There’s the danger that in the next five years, the marriage numbers will drop, as well as the number of births.
After WWII there was a birth boom around the world; also in Armenia. That generation will reach retirement age in 2018.The number of pensioners will increase, putting a further strain on the budget. We’ll see a situation where the number of deaths will rise, and births will fall.
In the first nine months of this year, the birth rate dropped 7.4% compared to 2016, and deaths increased by 0,7%. We’ll reach a stage when they’ll be no natural growth in Armenia. It’s the number one consequence of the actions of this political elite.
Official stats show a population decrease in the provinces. We already have negative growth in Lori and Tavoush. There are more deaths than births. The lowest birth rate is to be found in Syunik.