Ambassador’s Speech on Civil Society in Armenia

Ambassador Yovanovitch Delivered a Speech on Civil Society in Armenia at the Yerevan State University (Photo: Isabella Zaratsyan/StateDept)
Ambassador Yovanovitch Delivered a Speech on Civil Society in Armenia at the Yerevan State University (Photo: Isabella Zaratsyan/StateDept)

Ladies and gentlemen, friends. Good afternoon and thank you for joining us today for a conversation on the role of civil society in Armenia.

You may be wondering why I – as a representative of a government – come here today to talk about the importance of civil society, in other words, the importance of people working to influence their world from outside government, the importance of people working to limit or counterbalance government.

I’m not trying to put myself out of a job.

Rather, I’ve seen through countless examples, some in distant history or remote places, some before my own eyes, that civil society and government are essential to one another, and to the success of democracy.

I think you’d all agree that the first priority of any state is to provide for the security of its citizens. A democratic state must have an effective government, to create and enforce laws, to settle disputes, to keep the peace.

But what we have seen across time and continents is that when citizens do not believe that the government is representing their interests, there cannot be genuine security.

True security is not just the absence of violence, it is the presence of opportunity. Opportunity to have a good job, but also the opportunity to participate in the political process.

Just as an economy will not flourish if government officials hold a monopoly on ideas, resources and decision-making, a country will stagnate, if government wields all the power.

Government needs civil society as a skeptic, a partner, a challenger, a training ground, and a source of innovation. Government and civil society must work in tandem, like oars on a boat. If only one oar is rowing, the boat loses direction and goes nowhere.

Modern history abounds in extreme examples of imbalance between government and civil society, from the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, where governments tried to dominate all of their societies’ activities, to failed states of the 21st century, where the absence of an effective government left competing groups to impose their aims through violence.

Today, however, the far more common problem is excessive government restriction on, and official or unofficial retaliation against, the legitimate activities of civil society.

But what do we mean when we talk about “civil society?”

We often say “civil society” interchangeably with “non-governmental organizations.” And capable and sustainable NGOs play an essential part in civil society.

But “civil society,” really describes an environment, a political environment that guarantees all citizens the right to debate issues without fear of retribution, and an information environment in which citizens can hear voices that share – or challenge – their points of view.

The participants in civil society defy any single description: large groups, small groups, or individuals; NGOs, media organizations, religious congregations, or businesses; opposition, pro-government, or neutral. Their concerns may span the nation or the globe, or they may focus on issues as humble as paving a village’s streets. But all these actors need and deserve the freedom to pursue their goals peacefully under the protection of the law.

This is a matter of principle. It’s also the smart thing to do. As an American, I have a fundamental belief that countries will emerge stronger and more prosperous if their societies are open and their governments are responsive.

And if you don’t believe me, don’t take my word for it. Look around the world. Which countries are humming with activity – economic, political, artistic? And which countries are falling into decay?

And I’d argue that the difference lies in how active civil society is. When it has freedom, civil society can move mountains. Sometimes governments like those mountains right where they are, but when civil society summons enough support to push government toward fundamental change, it is almost always a sign that the time has come for the mountain to move.

One of the best examples of such a movement comes from my own country. Within my lifetime, senseless prejudice relegated millions of Americans to second-class citizenship based on the color of their skin. This discrimination didn’t just reflect the failings of some individuals; it was enforced by laws, laws that betrayed America’s ideals and flouted its Constitution.

But even in the face of such blatant injustice, government failed to act, because change challenges entrenched economic and political interests. Change is difficult and risky. Change makes enemies.

It took a long, massive, courageous effort on the part of civil society, the Civil Rights Movement, to force America’s government to do what it should have done long before. While we haven’t completed that journey, we have come a long way in ensuring that today all Americans are blessed to enjoy the freedom and justice won at such cost by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the thousands who supported his vision.

And while we have taken up this term “civil society” fairly recently, it is not a new idea, nor can the United States or the West claim the honor of inventing it. Really, it is the norm in human history, it is the most basic way we human beings organize ourselves. And that includes Armenians.. Bboth the United States and the modern Armenian state were born of civil society.

In the 19th century, Armenians dreamed of again having their own state. They too wrote, spoke, organized, banded together in associations and parties, and opened schools to pass on Armenia’s language, literature, history and culture, before they finally had the opportunity to establish the First Republic. And for centuries before that, Armenia’s oldest civil society institution, the Armenian Church, anchored a nation often dominated by foreign powers. The Soviet model, government control of all aspects of life on behalf of one ruling party, was an aberration in the history of Armenia. And now Armenia has the opportunity to build a stable, resilient and just democracy, with power balanced between those inside and outside the government.

Although traditional media is still important, no longer can governments prevent the spread of ideas they don’t like merely by denying them space in mass media. News is no longer a one-way stream in which those with power determine what information will be shared and what ideas the people will be trusted with.

Governments that try to ration information and stifle criticism only erode their own legitimacy and undermine their own ability to reform economies, fight corruption, attract investment, create jobs, hold free elections, and manage their relations with their neighbors.

No one enjoys being criticized. As a U.S. ambassador, I know from experience that complaints will come from all sides, in the U.S. as well as in Armenia, no matter what I do. But as unpleasant as it is to be criticized, especially in public, I understand that not only do my critics have a right to speak their minds, their criticism is in fact necessary, regardless of my views or my feelings.

As President Sargsian observed not long ago, in Armenia, the way forward is to create “a well-developed democracy, a more active political dialogue … and persistent adaptation of European standards into all areas of our political, social and economic lives.”

Clearly, the solution is not to restrict freedom of speech or access to ideas, or to restrict the right of citizens to assemble in support of those ideas, but rather to take those ideas – even the criticisms of our opponents – seriously and debate them in public on their merits. The more information citizens have, the better decisions they make.

In political discourse around the world, people tend to polarize, to exaggerate criticisms, and to paint their opponents as not only wrong, but as corrupt or unpatriotic. But honest political discourse starts with the presumption that all of us – even those we most disagree with –are driven by a genuine love of our country.

The ideas we hear may be right, or may be wrong, but only the people of Armenia – through unfettered debate and through free and fair elections – are qualified to make that judgment.

As that great American writer Mark Twain once observed, “patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.”

During the past two and a half years I have traveled throughout Armenia, and the young people I have met are patriotic, creative, and entrepreneurial. They dream of a prosperous future in Armenia.

What happens to the young if their entrepreneurial dreams are crushed by unfair competition against politically connected businesses, or if expressing controversial ideas puts them and their families at risk of retribution? What happens if individuals can’t organize and lobby their government, or if the elections to choose their leaders don’t appear to be free and fair? What happens if they are unable to hear, and share, a variety of opinions in the media?

Empowering civil society not only holds the key to Armenia’s democracy and prosperity, it is vital to the nation’s security. And what better time to begin that empowerment than now?

The well-developed democracy and more active political dialogue that President Sargsian spoke of will require deep and difficult changes. It will require reforms to Armenia’s laws, institutions, and political culture to expand individual liberty, freedom, and responsibility.

It will require applying international best practices to the regulation and protection of NGOs, encouraging philanthropy and volunteer labor, and allowing NGOs to earn appropriate kinds of income in support of their missions and their ability to engage and partner with government.

It will require applying laws consistently to everyone, from the rich and powerful to the poor and unknown, and ensuring that peaceful, lawful assemblies will not be harassed or broken up.

It will require rules on media that harness the amazing technological advances of our age to broaden rather than narrow the range of ideas and voices available to the public, and that shield media against political pressure from any side, so that different ideas and opinions receive fair access to the airwaves.

It will require that criminals who assault journalists be caught and punished.

It will require that the government, Armenian public television, the Central Election Commission, the police, and all political parties assure that future elections meet not only international standards but also the expectations and demands of the Armenian people.

But there are responsibilities and burdens that come with the freedom to disagree and to criticize. Part of the social compact at the heart of a civil society is the obligation to do more than sit on the sidelines and complain.

If you are going to exercise your right to criticize, then you also have an obligation – to your country, your family, and your children – to get into the game, to be part of the solution, to partner with the government and to create a better future.

If NGOs, opposition political parties, and independent media have the right to criticize – and they must have that right –they also have the obligation to search for solutions in good faith with the government, just as government must open its decision making processes and encourage public debate.

And we see examples of success, here in Armenia, when civil society and government have challenged and debated each other constructively, and legislation and policy are coming out better as a result.

This past May, parliamentary hearings sought input from NGOs and the public on draft NGO Law amendments. The recommendations and proposals of NGOs led to a number of revisions and improvements to the draft, and we expect that Armenia will have a better NGO law as a result of this dialogue.

There is currently a lively debate regarding proposed hotel and parking taxes, a debate that draws in professional associations, members of parliament, local governments, tourism agencies, hotels, and small and medium enterprises. Tourism businesses fear additional burdens that could make Armenian tourism less competitive, but local governments welcome increased revenues they can invest to improve community well-being and to enhance tourism opportunities. This discussion has allowed the National Assembly to see all sides of the issue in order to make the bill as fair to all as possible.

And civil society bears another duty, namely keeping its own house in order. Corruption, favoritism, transparency, accountability, democratic governance – these issues don’t just challenge governments. Civil society has every right to demand the highest standards of government bodies and officials, but to speak with credibility, civil society must model the integrity it wishes to see in the state and must be open to criticism.

All of us are now, more and more, active participants in the sharing and evolution of ideas. And the challenge of modern politics is to compete, in a marketplace of ideas, for Armenia’s future.

I hope you will use all the tools at your disposal, new and old, from the smart phone to the community bulletin board, to participate, to debate ideas, to share your thoughts, opinions and needs, to engage in civil society and partner with government, honestly and in good faith.

You cannot live in the kind of country you want, if you do not act. Your actions can be simple, such as organizing your neighbors to clean the local park or the stairwell in your apartment building or more profound, such as advocating for a more progressive media law. But both actions build a better Armenia.

This is one of the best universities in the country, and you will one day be Armenia’s leaders. You hold the future in your hands.

So I want to close with the words of President Obama in his address to the students at Cairo University in June 2009: “…I want to particularly say this to young people of every faith, in every country – you more than anyone, have the ability to reimagine the world, to remake this world. All of us share this world for but a brief moment in time. The question is whether we spend that time focused on what pushes us apart, or whether we commit ourselves to an effort – a sustained effort – to find common ground, to focus on the future we seek for our children, and to respect the dignity of all human beings.

So with that thought, I thank you for your attention and invite questions. Thank you.