By Jock O'Connell
This article appeared in the Sunday Forum section of the Sacramento Bee on August 3, 2003.
As part of the budget deal cobbled together at the State Capitol last week, the state's dozen foreign trade offices will be closed. Once various leases and contracts are wound up, California's chronically dubious stab at the business of promoting international trade will be officially over.
Or will it? Deep within a trailer bill accompanying the Budget Act lurks this paragraph: "The governor shall instruct the Secretary of Business, Transportation and Housing to establish, on a contract basis, an international trade and investment office in Yerevan, in the Republic of Armenia, to serve the region of Eastern Europe and Western Asia."
Yerevan? Now let's get this straight. After shutting down trading posts in places like London, Tokyo, Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong, the world's fifth largest economy may soon open a commercial office in the world's 114th largest economy.
Landlocked Armenia, population 3.7 million, is not merely one of the poorer and most isolated of the former Soviet republics, it's apparently still struggling to establish its credentials as a democracy. Just two weeks ago, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe called for reforms in the country's electoral process after parliamentary and presidential votes held earlier this year "failed to meet OSCE commitments for democratic elections." International observers had reported numerous instances of voter intimidation, mishandling of ballots and faulty vote counting.
But if politicians in Armenia have trouble grasping the nuances of the democratic process, some Armenian Californians evidently understand the process all too well. In this case, what they understand is that the promise of substantial campaign donations can persuade craven politicians in Sacramento to blithely traffic in the state's good name and reputation.
Unlike the soon-to-be shuttered, taxpayer-financed overseas offices, the cost of the Yerevan outpost is to be footed by private interests. Presumably, those running the office will be acting with the welfare of all Californians and Armenians in mind.
But who other than a denizen of the state Capitol would feign to believe that anyone would offer to pony up the cost of running an office in Yerevan year after year without the expectation of certain tangible benefits?
Franchising the privilege of posing as the official representative of the State of California in a distant land is not simply a dangerous precedent; it is an invitation to scandal.