Q: Yerevan is not that well known globally, nor is Armenia generally. Do you think there is a knowledge gap about what the city has to offer businesses and how do you intend to raise its profile?
A: It is true that Yerevan and Armenia are little known. But I am positive that we have a lot to say. I don’t know whether you know that Yerevan is 50 years older than Rome and Babylon. It is one thing to say that Yerevan is 2794 years old and another to say that it is a contemporary of such famous cities as Rome and Babylon. Moreover, one of our districts, Shengavit, is more than 6000 years old. It is one of the more extraordinary areas in this region.
Armenia itself is the first Christian state; Noah moored his arc to Mount Ararat during the floods. I agree that we do not communicate in the right ways and we are little heard of. So, what should we do about it? We should use all possible information channels.
The streaming of information nowadays provides great opportunities. Take the Armenian diaspora, for example. There are two and a half times as many Armenians living outside the country. They have their own friends, colleagues and, of course, information channels, be they diplomatic, diasporan or internet. What the City Hall wants to do about this issue is to boost the brand awareness of Yerevan. We want to communicate a range of information, including our history, business and investments. To do this we have created a new department that will be responsible for this work. We will be using the services, support and help of certain organisations to do all this.
It is a fact that if we are little heard of, we are little known about. If we are little known about, then we are little trusted. Everything stems from that.
Q: What do you feel are the city's unique selling points as an investment destination?
A: Taking into account the current situation, Yerevan is a very profitable market to invest in. I would say it is a good time to invest as it is such a fallow market. Which sectors are best to invest in? Almost all sectors connected with municipal services. It is the aim of the City Hall team to create the utmost open and fair business environment. We want to give the sectors that have business logic to private companies, or to create public-private partnerships. These sectors include medicine, hotel business, public transport and waste management.
Moreover, we are ready to pass the management of our state-owned enterprises to potential investors and partners where there is also business logic. For example, YerCityLight, City Funeral Bureau, the underground and City Landscape Gardening planting services. We are more than sure that this will bring a stream of investments, reduce the risk of corruption, develop these sectors and produce savings in our budget. Very often we spend the budget on these sectors not as correctly or optimally as we should.
These cost savings will let us invest more into those sectors where there is no business logic, for example, road building, landscape gardening and the provision of urban amenities. We are currently implementing this policy intensively. Our main task is to gain investors' trust so in the near future we can pass our companies over to them.
The new department, which I mentioned earlier, is called the Department of City Development and Investment Projects Support. Its main task is the creation of a transparent business environment. We are ready to support our investors and assist them any time they encounter artificial barriers to business development, whether from a state body, a monopoly or whoever.
To sum up: in my opinion Yerevan today is really interesting for businesses, especially foreign ones because the norms of profitability are very different from those in more established countries. Municipal management is different from business management because it is difficult to prioritise. Kindergartens are a priority, road building is a priority. The solution to one problem could come at the expense of solving another one. All the problems require a solution now.
Q: What are its weaknesses and what your priority areas for improvement to make the city more attractive for foreign investors?
A: The fact that we are not trusted is our major weakness. This is due to multiple factors, primarily the lack of awareness about us. Business is an environment where money is invested when there is stability and confidence in the deal.
So our first challenge is to make the world aware of us. Then we must create the right business environment. We have publicly announced that we intend to eradicate corruption in the City Hall. I think the public is already receiving the right signals about the sincerity of our intentions.
Gaining permits and other documents has been massively simplified. We cut out a lot of bureaucracy to make City Hall work better. Next, we have to create an atmosphere in which our team will be motivated to work towards the same goal. This is the problem that we have to solve first of all. If we do not, there is the risk that deals will be done illegally. It is very important for us to know that we are trusted and this trust should also involve recognition and openness. I am more than positive that we will be successful in achieving this.
Q: The region in which Armenia sits is one that is underexploited in terms of business development, trade volumes and foreign investment, yet in many ways is fragmented culturally and economically. Do you feel that regional integration is essential to Yerevan's success, and to what extent is closer integration possible or even desirable?
A: I consider regional co-operation to be both necessary and desirable. In our region, there are four countries, two of which we do not have any diplomatic relations with and this is not good. Our regional leaders’ understanding of this necessity is not at the appropriate level.
Are we doing everything to create an environment of regional co-operation? I don’t think so. Nonetheless, I think that very often we do much more than our neighbouring countries, but it's not enough. We all have to be consistent and should never tire of dealing with it. Co-operation is essential in all spheres.
Armenia is a small country and its market is so small that producers should focus not only on internal consumers, but also on external ones in order to secure a critical mass of sales. In which fields could there be co-operation? Various ones, such as energy or medicine. In the field of medicine, we should regionally agree on creating smaller specialised clinics rather than bigger ones with multiple specialisations because the market is small.
When I negotiate with potential investors in the field of medicine, I tell them that they shouldn’t think of Yerevan just as a city with a population of 1.2 million, but they should also take into account the neighbouring countries of Iran, Georgia and the south of Russia. To tackle this issue, the governments, the municipalities and the businesses need to have the courage to start negotiations.
Before I became the mayor, I headed the gas company of Armenia and before that the electrical networks company and we were determined to start trade with Turkey and even with Azerbaijan. I hope you know about the political problems with our neighbours. They seem to have more complexes and to be more closed than us in trying to solve this problem.
Does this mean that we should feel disappointed and discontinue the attempts? Of course not. Does this mean that we should do it at the expense of our dignity? Of course not. It is God’s will for neighbours to live in friendship and to reach a compromise. One cannot avoid it, one does not choose neighbours. We need to find an acceptable way of communicating.