Artsakh : Armenia v2.0 (I)

(First in a several part series about Artsakh)

There are a lot of complaints about the Republic of Armenia. It’s corrupt, there is no respect for the law, oligopolies control the economy, the environment is mindlessly ravaged, the people are unemployed, depressed, and looking for a one-way ticket out. There is a lot of the same in Artsakh, but it’s better.

"The Artsakh Republic is the Armenian people's pride." Yes it is.
“The Artsakh Republic is the Armenian people’s pride.” Yes it is.

Years ago one of my brothers came here then told me, “when you see it, you realize why we fought for it.” And when I saw it for the first time, driving through Berdzor, surrounded by a forest so thick it looks like a blanket of trees covering the mountains, I knew what he meant. All the geopolitical and historical arguments I’d made for Armenians’ right to govern themselves on this land went out the window; one needs to but see the majesty of these mountains to grasp why Armenians will not let this land go.

I was speaking with the driver of a dilapidated GAZelle we rented to travel to Shushi. He said he was from Stepanakert, he looked about 50. I asked him if he was originally from here because I know there were a lot of people who were displaced during the war; he affirmed that he was. He told me that he and his whole family were here when Stepanakert’s civilian population was being shelled with GRAD missiles by Azerbaijani forces from Shushi. He may have fought in the war; I didn’t ask. But I did ask whether he planned on staying or going. He responded like most people here do: “Where am I going to go? This is my home. If I go, who will stay?” This is the attitude of a guy driving a van that can climb a hill at no more than 20 MPH and who lived through the criminal bombardment of the city in which he and his family were living – and this is the attitude in Yerevan.

In Stepanakert, the streets are clean and the people mellow. A police officer stopped us because we weren’t using the crosswalk because, really, who uses crosswalks anywhere outside of California? Artsakhtsis do. He asked us to use the crosswalk and was on his way. Whereas the drivers in Yerevan seem almost like they are trying to run pedestrians over, the drivers here stop for people crossing the street. And the people crossing the street acknowledge the gesture. What is this humanity?!

The taxi drivers don’t try to gyp you as soon as they realize you’re not from there. Actually, several of them tried to refuse the 100AMD tip I tried to give them and only took it after I insisted. Another time, we asked our taxi driver to stop on the way up to Shushi so we could see the tank used in its liberation. From where the tank is situated, I could see the driver milling around in the bushes and I wondered what he was doing. When we descended, it turned out he was picking blackberries for us. Hands stained, he handed them over. Ya, really.

The men don’t all have what seems to be a male fashion accessory in Armenia: the half-dome stomach. They look stronger, like what you read about in Armenian fables – except with unfortunate Caesar-style haircuts.

There are new buildings that have been and are being built in Stepanakert and part of the apartments in each are allocated to war veterans and their families. Speaking of buildings, they have managed to rebuild the fortress at Tigranakert while unfathomably not putting a cafe next door – or inside.

And there is jingalov hats, for which there is even a song (if you don’t understand anything, don’t worry, it’s in the awesome Karabakh Armenian dialect). If this doesn’t signify an improvement on Armenia, I don’t know what does.

It’s not all perfect. There is still a war going on. I found this out when I tried taking a picture of a poster memorializing the sacrifice and strength that wrought victory that was on what turned out to be a military dormitory; three young soldiers promptly popped out of their station to tell me to tell me pictures weren’t allowed. More seriously, soldiers die regularly on the front line.

Shushi, the crown jewel of Artsakh and the Caucasus, is still mostly in ruins. Some buildings have been rebuilt but many of them are derelict and awaiting what government officials say is a final plan for what to do with the city and how to do it.

Persian mosque in Shushi.
Persian mosque in Shushi.

Some of the people I spoke with have told me that there is corruption here, too, although I’ve come to learn that corruption means different things to different people. For some, a police officer taking bribes is corruption. For others, a government official using their influence to secure financial benefits for him or herself is corruption. Nevertheless, there isn’t a general feeling that the government is embezzling all the funds in the country like there is in Armenia.

And despite the heartwarming story above, there is also emigration. The Republic of Artsakh is woefully underdeveloped and the people suffer because of it. The little that the government is able to do has been compounded with the investments of some wealthy Armenians, mostly from the Diaspora, but it hasn’t been enough to catalyze an active and vibrant economy. Agriculture is the traditional mainstay but a mixture of land mines, irrigation issues, and lack of any developed formal agriculture economy, villagers have a difficult time making ends meet.

On the issue of emigration, though, what was most impressive was that any young person I met that was college-age or a college graduate expressed little desire to go abroad and stay abroad. There is certainly an interest in seeing new places but the feeling is always that they should return to Artsakh – and they do, as many of the Artsakhtsis I met who had spent time in the United States or elsewhere had.

Frankly, the Republic of Artsakh realizes that it cannot be the Republic of Armenia. It cannot discourage investment by creating the impression that an oligarch might step in for a piece of the pie if he sees fit; it cannot completely ignore the social needs of the elderly and veterans; it cannot act like it doesn’t have youth and uninterestedly kill their desire to stay and help their homeland.  What has happened is that the Republic of Artsakh’s supposed curse – lack of international recognition of its statehood – has been a blessing because it has required it to be better – exemplary, even. When Artsakh starts setting the trend for its bigger, internationally-recognized brother to the west, don’t be surprised.

By: William Bairamian

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Cheq Zzvel?

Taxicabs are tabloids on wheels. Their drivers will tell you all sorts of stories, some true, some not. Yerevan’s taxi drivers aren’t as talkative as the ones in New York or pretty much anywhere else I’ve encountered them. They don’t seem to care much where you come from, only where you’re going. And if you’re not a local, you may be inclined, by fear or interest, to attentively watch the road as your vessel comes painfully close to running over several people during the length of your trip instead of striking up a conversation. But, like any taxi, if they talk, the information you glean, if true, can be a window to the society of which they are the transporters.

Taxi in Yerevan's Republic Square. Credit: Vigen Hakhverdyan
Taxi in Yerevan’s Republic Square. Credit: Vigen Hakhverdyan

Alas, we happened upon a jolly-looking-though-not-so-jolly young fella who, as soon as we sat in the car, started musing angrily about the people walking up and down Northern Avenue on a warm evening rather than spending their time in a park surrounded by trees and wildlife. I recently spent two weeks exploring wilderness throughout California; there wasn’t much question which side of that question I ended up on. We made a connection so now we had to talk – otherwise it’d be too awkward – so we did.

He must have noticed from my accent that I’m not from Yerevan, which isn’t hard to do. He asked me how long it had been since we’d come to Yerevan and I responded by saying, “one week.” He didn’t even flinch, immediately following up with, «դեր չեք զզվե՞լ» (“aren’t you disgusted, yet?”). It was a suggested eventuality in the form of a question. I wasn’t sure how to respond except by honestly saying that I wasn’t yet disgusted but sarcastically gave him the opportunity to tell us what was disgusting so we could become disgusted, too. He sounded off his laundry list of problems that I’d heard a thousand times. Nothing is ever new – except he was younger than the others, maybe in his 30s. I was hopeful that he was an exception, that he was the fake tabloid story. I didn’t have high hopes but I kept an open mind.

A few days later, I was speaking with a younger man, probably in his late 20s. We were doing some work together so he asked me what I was doing in Armenia and I told him that this trip was for a project but that it’d please me to move here in the future. He quipped back with the most common of the anti-Armenia retorts: «Երկիրը երկիր չի» (literally, “the country is not a country”, i.e. the country is a worthless shithole that doesn’t deserve to be lived in by anybody who has half a brain) accompanied by him emphatically telling me not to move.

If a tabloid story could be considered a thesis, it would need to be validated by a few different sources before taking it seriously. I had one corroboration that Armenia was better off dead. Another taxi ride later, I might have been convinced.

Seated for a long car ride in another taxi, just barely beyond urban Yerevan, the complaints started flowing with unhindered fury. Everything from how much Kirk Kerkorian never wants to have anything more to do with Armenia to the condition of the roads to how villagers weren’t picking all their apricots thus letting them go to waste.

It’s a national pastime, really, complaining. I’m not at all surprised so many people want to leave. If I had to listen to that my whole life, I can’t imagine I would think that living anywhere, possibly even a dog shelter, was better than Armenia.

Thesis confirmed. Mass disdain, dismissal, disgust.

But I won’t accept it. The results are not final.

I had given that first taxi driver a tip when paying him, which he thought was a mistake and commendably pointed out. I told him it wasn’t a mistake. What I didn’t tell him was that I was sure that he would eventually find a way out and that I was especially pleased that I had contributed to him leaving by giving him that extra 100 drams so he could abandon this place he disdained so much.

He, or any of the people I have met, could have talked about better things. There are great things going on, too: Ayb High School, Luys Foundation, AYF Youth Corps, Civilnet, Green Bean, urbanlabEVN, Tumo Center for Creative Technologies, Dilijan International School of Armenia, Gyumri Information Technologies Center, ONEArmenia. And a plethora of others. If not talk about these things, perhaps the scenery, or the food, or that hundreds of children can run around soaking random people with water throughout the country, unattended by their parents, with nary a worry about their safety. We can talk about these things but we choose to focus on self-pity instead.

Young people who are supposed to compose the vivacious, sprightly, hopeful core of any country are repeating the same tired aphorisms of their parents. After many years of reflecting on this malaise, there is not one thing that I can point to that I consider valid: not that there are no jobs, not that the government is corrupt, not that the prices have gone up, not that the trash is not being collected. These problems aren’t exclusive to Armenia, it’s just that Armenians think that they are. What’s more, there is no interest by most in solving the problems. Somehow, invariably, the onus is always upon somebody else to figure things out and make them better. If that doesn’t happen, time to head for the hills (of Glendale).

Fact is, in Glendale, and whatever other place refugees (because that’s what people who leave a place they no longer feel at home are called) from Armenia settle outside of Armenia, this mentality hardly changes. The complaints remain. The nuclear physicist lamenting that he’s driving a taxi in Yerevan will be doing the same lamenting in Santa Monica except to someone who has a harder time understanding him.

America wasn’t perfect. People did shit. When there were no jobs, they created them. When the government was corrupt (I only wrote that in the past tense for effect), they organized and demanded accountability. When the prices went up, they toughed it out (side note: inflation is a well-known concept in this thing called economics and every time that the prices go up in Armenia, it’s not a governmental conspiracy, it might just happen, you know, just like that. That’s why I can’t buy a Double-Double for 50 cents as portrayed in those goddamn posters they have at every In-N-Out surely put there to mock you). When the trash wasn’t picked up, they threw it in the Hudson River and thus created the largest landfill in human history and called it New Jersey – and they even started living on it!

I’m only using America’s example because that’s the one with which I’m most familiar. But there are others. When English people realized how much England sucked, they didn’t relocate to Spain (although they decided to lay claim to a rock named Gibraltar just to piss them off), they conquered most of the world so they could create the most important city on earth and vacation in exotic places like India, Kenya, and the Americas without having to get a visa. When the Japanese realized they were living on a rocky strip of land that was useless in every way a normal country would need to operate, they started inventing things like samurai, Toyota, and sushi and are now able to buy whatever they want. Even Canadians, who long ago had to helplessly reconcile being an American territory, somehow resist the urge to join the mainland and keep working on being the most socialist state of the Union.

There is surely someone reading this and thinking that it’s so easy for me, a Diasporan, to so freely criticize the decisions of these suffering people from my comfortable Diasporan life (lol). First, I’m commentating on this as an interested party. That is, I live in Glendale and that is where at least 50% of emigrants from Armenia end up so I definitely have a chicken in this fight. Second, I’m commenting as an observer and a student of politics, history, and societies. Armenians need to realize that their problems are not unique and they are not the worst in the world and that if they’re going to leave Armenia en masse, they should be honest about the real reason they are doing so: they do not love the country. Until they’re in Glendale, of course, which is when the bitching starts about America and reminiscing starts about the wonderfulness of Garabi Leech, Opera, and Cascade. Which is kind of like belittling and cursing your spouse until you get a divorce then, when you’re with your new partner, extolling your ex’s virtues.

Let’s put it all out on the table: when one loves something (a nation, perhaps) or someone, they commit to them, come hell or high water, in sickness and in health, for richer, for poorer, till death does them part. If hell, sickness, and poverty dissuade you from your love, then it wasn’t love to begin with and it’s not love once you leave and profess it.

I hate to air dirty laundry but this is one of those things. Our nation has been overcome by naysayers and it needs to stop. The eternally depressed and depressing don’t get a pass because they think their life (and I guess no one else’s) blows a fat one.

The people who live here in Armenia who are working so hard to make this place better should not have to be subjected to the incessant morass of the depressed masses. Their work is already difficult. The young people who are optimistic about their country shouldn’t have their beliefs tested by the half-witted uninterested at such a young age. These people have to deal with unemployment, corruption, rising prices, sporadic trash cleanup. The last thing they need is someone telling them all the things that are going wrong in the country. After all, they must know – they are the ones trying to make it better.

Instead of asking if we are yet disgusted of this country, let’s ask another question: Բողոքելո՛ւց դեր չեք զզվե՞լ:

By: William Bairamian

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