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Armenian Rock Star Calls For Change In Armenia

Serj Tankian addresses civil society representatives in Yerevan on August 15.
Serj Tankian addresses civil society representatives in Yerevan on August 15.
YEREVAN -- A well-known U.S. rock musician of Armenian descent says Armenia must boost the rule of law and combat corruption in order to address the country's main problems, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reports.

Serj Tankian, lead singer of the California-based band System of a Down, also criticized a controversial mining project opposed by local environmental groups.

Speaking after a solo concert in Yerevan on August 15, Tankian also emphasized his belief that Armenia has done "pretty well" since gaining independence two decades ago.

"I think we need to establish the rule of law in this country," he told a panel discussion organized by the Civilitas Foundation, a Yerevan think tank, and the local office of Counterpart International, a U.S. civic development agency.

"I think having a rule of law in the country from top to bottom will alleviate a lot of concerns, whether it's traffic tickets or taxes or wages or how many hours someone should work," Tankian said. "It's all connected to this one thing of enforcing the rule of law. And the efficiencies created by the lowering of corruption will actually really spur productivity in this country...and that will make it easier for foreign and local investment."

Tankian drew applause when he singled out the need for a strict separation of business and politics.

"In Armenia we have business and politics in the same seat," he said. "So one of them has got to get off the seat. You know, they can't be sitting in the same space, otherwise it looks like an orgy."

Tankian, who has mainly performed as a solo artist in recent years, addressed more than 200 public figures, civic activists, and young people at the end of a nearly weeklong visit to the country of his ancestors.

Meets With President, Prime Minister

The main highlight of his trip was an open-air concert late on August 14 dedicated to the inauguration in Yerevan of an information-technology education center set up by an Armenian-American businessman.

Tankian met with President Serzh Sarkisian at the new TUMO Center for Creative Technologies ahead of the concert attended by some 10,000 fans. He received a medal of honor from Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian at a separate meeting on August 12.

An Armenian government statement cited Tigran Sarkisian as praising Tankian's vocal campaign for official U.S. recognition as genocide of the mass killing of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey nearly 100 years ago.

It said the prime minister, himself a rock fan, also pointed out that Tankian's visits are important for promoting rock music in Armenia.

Teghut Mining Issue

Tankian said on August 15 that he discussed with Tigran Sarkisian plans by a mining company to develop Teghut, a massive copper and molybdenum deposit in the northern Lori region covered by a 357-hectare forest.

The Teghut project, if implemented, would lead to the destruction of some 128,000 trees. Critics say that would wreak further havoc on Armenia's green areas, which have steadily shrunk since the 1990s.

Tankian heaped praise on environmentalists campaigning against the project. "I think they are doing a great job," he said. "I fully and firmly agree with their stance. I think open-pit mining is very dangerous in this country and everywhere else. I think we'll be poisoning our lives by opening up that mine in the Teghut forest."

The outspoken singer, who is widely revered by Armenians around the world, went on to advocate Armenia's transformation into "a lot more self-sufficient" country because of its geographic location and uneasy relations with its neighbors.

He called, among other things, for more government subsidies to farmers but favored a strict ban on genetically modified agricultural products.

Tankian, 43, further cautioned that Armenians should be "patient" in expecting positive changes in their country.

"We are a 20-year-old country and, in retrospect, if you look at the whole situation, I think we are doing pretty well, despite everything that we talked about," he said. "It's a beautiful country with beautiful people. There is a lot of potential, there is a lot of energy."

Tankian was also "really excited" by the ecstatic and mostly young crowd that turned up for his concert, which was broadcast live on Armenian television. "It was something I'd never experienced before.... It was a level of high that I'd never had before," he said.