Ruben Vardanian, a well-known Russian businessman of Armenian descent, said on Thursday that he is pressing ahead with the construction of a first-ever international school in Armenia fiercely resisted by local opponents of foreign-language education.
In an interview with RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am), he also offered a cautiously positive outlook for the Armenian economy.
Vardanian began building the English-language boarding school, designed for over 600 local and foreign students, in the Armenia resort town of Dilijan in April 2010. President Serzh Sarkisian was present at the official launch of the construction, underlining the Armenian government’s strong support for the project.
Shortly afterwards, the government drafted a bill allowing the existence of schools where the main language of instruction is not Armenian. The move triggered vocal protests from intellectuals, other public figures and mostly opposition politicians who consider it a threat to Armenian’s constitutional status as the country’s sole official language.
The outcry led the government to water down the bill before pushing it through parliament in the final reading last December. In particular, the government agreed to restrict to two the number of foreign-language private schools that will be allowed to operate in the country. They will have to be located in Dilijan and another resort town, Jermuk.
The changes failed to satisfy the critics who staged demonstrations outside the parliament and government buildings in Yerevan last year. Citing those protests, Vardanian said in July 2010 that he may abandon his plans to build the school.
The 43-year-old tycoon, who was born and raised in Yerevan, said on Thursday that the project remains on track and will be completed in 2013. “I think we are to blame for the fact that information about the project was not properly provided to the society,” he said. “We are simply building a private international school where not only Armenian but also foreign children will study.”
“We expect that the first students will begin their studies there in September 2013,” he said.
The Dilijan project highlights Vardanian’s growing involvement in Armenia, which has taken the form of business investments and charitable work. He currently owns a major Armenian commercial bank.
In addition, Vardanian provided most of $18 million spent on the construction of a 5.7-kilometer aerial tramway in the country’s southeastern Syunik region. The cableway, the longest in the world, went into service in October 2010.
Vardanian, who is the chairman and a leading shareholder of Troika Dialog, Russia’s second largest investment bank, also spoke of “progress” in Armenia’s economic development. The Armenian economy is slowly but steadily emerging from recession, he said.
The tycoon, whose personal fortune was estimated by “Forbes” magazine at $1.3 billion in 2008, downplayed serious problems with the rule of law in Armenia that are often cited by fellow Diaspora entrepreneurs reluctant to do business there.
He said that while the Armenian business environment is “not ideal,” challenges facing foreign investors are “surmountable” and should not deter Diaspora investments. “In reality, we are doing very little for our historical homeland,” he added in that context.
Vardanian also described the forthcoming 20th anniversary of Armenia’s independence as an important milestone. “Seriously speaking, we can definitely be proud of what has happened in the last 20 years because we won a war, we went through a horrific earthquake and economic collapse but preserved the country,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “We managed to restore a statehood that hadn’t existed for 800 years.”