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

[twitter-follow screen_name=’bairamian’]

First Day

The excitement from seeing this made my hand shake and the picture blurry. (Not really but I thought that was a good story/excuse.)
The excitement from seeing this made my hand shake and the picture blurry. (Not really but I thought that was a good story/excuse.)

First impressions can change so easily. That’s why it’s important to remember them. At least to know from where you came. So here are some first impressions:

The Airport: Last time I came, it looked like a gulag processing center. Now it puts LAX to shame. OK, that means nothing because LAX is the worst airport I’ve used besides the tent that doubles as the Paris terminal for RyanAir. Nevertheless, very nice. I even had the pleasure of encountering a smiling cop who offered to help with my visa paperwork (which entailed giving me the form and telling me I needed to fill it out). The sign as you enter the customs line which says, in English and Armenian, that it’s illegal to give or take bribes was a nice touch. Gotcha, Armenian government ;).

Last time, the taxi drivers just picked up your bags and tried to coerce you into their cab. I guess someone realized that might not leave the best first impression on visitors so they scrapped that plan. This time, we took AeroTaxi which are these Cube-looking cars that have a flat rate to downtown Yerevan, about 4500 AMD (i.e. ~$11). It was the most advanced automobile I’ve ever sat in because it offered free WiFi during the ride. Ya, in the car. And the car was brand new. There was also free candy which went uneaten. Nice touch though. The drive to town still felt like a makeshift rollercoaster ride but the idea that there was WiFi in the car kept my mind occupied until we got to the destination.

Vast, welcome differences at the airport. After all, you know what they say about those first impressions.

The Road: Casinos. More of them and bigger. On the ride to Yerevan, you’re flanked by sleazy-looking casinos reminiscent of a prepubescent Atlantic City (i.e. the place New Jerseyans and New Yorkers go until they discover Las Vegas). I could take the view that these are also where residents of Armenia go to donate money to the oligarchs who they lament for taking peoples’ money. Gambling is a waste of time, money, and mind but it’s a person’s own business if they want to piss their money away. I just wish they would spend more money and make them a little more classy so that their clientele could be some of the visitors to Armenia rather than the poor suckers in the country looking to get rich with money they probably can’t spare. Maybe they will – business looks like it’s doing well.

I have to confess that as we passed Lake Yerevan and our cab driver seemed to think he was driving Formula 1, I was hoping that Shavarsh Karapetyan was somewhere near in case the race we were in ended somewhere in the water. Thankfully, his heroism wasn’t needed – not like he needed any more godlike acts on his resume.

The City: We arrived into the hustle and bustle of a typical…Wednesday night. There was so much traffic you would think the clubs had just let out. No, just people shifting (no, not shift it and don’t act like you didn’t think that) about in the poppin’ cafe hoppin’ scene. Like good Diasporans, our destination was Northern (Հյուսիսային) Avenue. To compare again to the last time, Northern Avenue was just a big hole in the ground with a bunch of cranes surrounding it and now it’s a relatively bustling place.

Side note: I’m not going to make any arguments about whether the money spent to create Northern Avenue could have been better spent elsewhere. That can easily turn into a circular argument where the question of which sort of investment is preferable is tiredly discussed and, in reality, there will be no conclusion. Rather, I’m surprised so much money was spent on such an unspectacular property. Leading from the beautiful Hraparak/Republic Square through quaint Abovian Street to the majestic Opera, Northern Avenue hardly distinguishes itself in any way for such a central feature in the city. It seems to me more a manifestation of the undying need to emulate things European – nearly every European city has one of these pedestrian shopping boulevards – than to rediscover (discover?) a uniquely Armenian design befitting the location the Avenue commands in the center of the Armenian world. Architects and urban planners can feel free to destroy my purposeful neglect of the Soviet-style grandeur of Republic Square and the Opera but I think they could still agree that at least those have some Armenian character. That said, I like the clear view of the Opera from the Avenue so, at least, +1 for that.

After settling in, dinner was at Kavkaz (I hear the name is used by many eating establishments) where I had khnkali and fried sulungi which are both apparently Georgian. I also had Adana kebab as my main dish so I didn’t feel totally bad that I was having non-Armenian foods the first night I was in Armenia. The highlight, though, was նռան օղի (pomegranate vodka). It was delicious, like candy, but without forgetting that it was a vodka.

The waiter was more pleasant than many I’d encountered in the past. I try not to think much of it when a waiter outside of the U.S. is not like the overly attentive, oftentimes annoying waiters whose smiles and attention are at the expense of them incessantly hovering over your table and trying to get you to leave (is it just me or does every waiter in the U.S. get off their shift while I’m having dinner thus forcing me to pay before they leave? Though I’m not sure how their leaving is relevant). Anyway, he cracked a few rare smiles and that was that.

By the way, how you order food is a dead giveaway that you’re not a local. I don’t fully understand it but the way locals order food is one of the most fascinating things and I haven’t been able to wrap my head around it. I was awed last time and I don’t think much has changed this time. Orders at restaurants are made as commands such as, “you will bring this, this, and this.” For someone used to the meek western style of ordering food where you have to kiss the waiter’s ass to ensure that the food’s not late and didn’t touch any otherwise covered body parts or bodily fluid, this is a shock if there ever was one. In the past few days (because it’s already been a few days), I’ve heard people talk to waiters like what you see in movies about the Deep South during the Reconstruction. Actually, no. This may be more akin to how I imagine Xerxes from 300 might order food. One guy who looked like a grandpa seated with his grandchildren told a waiter that in order not to waste his or his family’s time to bring out the food at once. Not only is this a foreign concept to me, I absolutely refuse to become accustomed to what I feel is an unjustifiably discourteous way of communicating with another person. So, I out myself as an outsider every time I order food by asking for a menu item or, if I’m feeling audacious, by saying “please.” At least my conscience can rest easy on this front. And you know what, I’m going to believe that the waiters appreciate it.

First day. Lots of good. Some of the same old. All things considered, happy to be here. There is no place like it.

By: William Bairamian

[twitter-follow screen_name=’bairamian’]