An insight on the present situation of a country that was a religious attraction in the 13th century and a center of development during the USSR.
I have been away from my hometown of Barcelona for more than half a year and recently, I have started to call home the place I now live in, Dilijan, Armenia. I remember getting the opportunity to move to Dilijan, excited, and having to look at a map to find where the country I was destined to, Armenia, even was. To be honest, I did not know much about this country before. I had a general gist of where it was located and the image of a damaged state in conflict. I knew it was once the setting of a genocide, and a part of the ongoing conflict in the Caucasus region. My interest was immediately sparked and I realised how little information we receive about the Caucasus region in Spain. I decided to start simple: its currency (the so devalued Dram) its main cities, Yerevan and Vanadzor, its history marked with blood and victory, the genocide in 1912-1914 – which is still not recognized by many countries, its independence from the USSR in 1991 and the long-lasting conflict with Azerbaijan over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh. After some research, I knew a bit more about Caucasian diamonds, and its borders, that touch Georgia, Azerbaijan, Iran and Turkey. However, theory was, once more, much easier than practice and soon came the time to experience that land – my land.
In August, my journey started by flying over the Mediterranean sea. My first contact with Armenia was a warm wave of humid air, welcoming me at the airport. While travelling from Yerevan to Dilijan, the landscape outside the bus changed several times; from fields of dry soil to huge mountains and a beautiful lake called Sevan. What surprised me were the houses, all made from the same brown and plain stone, with falling roofs and various objects or clothes hanging from the windows. In the first two weeks in Dilijan, I realised the country had changed a lot in the past century and was starting to slowly evolve. However, I did not know that I had only seen the dynamic part of Armenia.
In the middle of October, with the cold already creeping in, a group of us went to the north of Armenia for a project, specifically to Haghpat and Alaverdi, which are two cities close to the border with Georgia and Azerbaijan. In the beginning, I did not see anything that shocked me. Haghpat was a small village, with big and old houses, animals wandering around and the odd car filled with gas instead of petrol, passing from time to time.
Two moments carved their way in my memories that week. The first one is when we visited the monastery in Haghpat. Armenia is full of Orthodox churches and monasteries. It was a beautiful monastery, very humble, yet magnificent, with huge Khachkars, which are huge crosses made from blocks of stone, each one being unique, and graves around. The guide explained that between the 10th and 14th centuries, a lot of monasteries were built because Armenia was a very important pilgrimage center for the Orthodox church. It is said that Noah and his Ark run aground in Mount Ararat, when it was still part of Armenia. She talked about the past with pride, as if she was silently acknowledging the splendour, when culture and religion mixed were the pride of this tainted land. Nowadays, although these places are starting to fall apart, they are still beautiful.
The second moment was when we visited Alaverdi. We had a tour around the city and at some point the tour guide said that the average wage is around 55.000 AMD, which is 110 euros per month. I am completely aware that food, for example, is much cheaper than in Europe, but, for me, it did not justify the fact that earning this much when people barely have enough money to save. As I didn’t like such an idea, I asked one of my Armenian friends about it. He claimed that most Armenians do not want to change their situation, because they do not see themselves as poor. They have always lived that way and do not have sufficient knowledge of other countries to compare with. I started to think about it and decided to do my own research. I was not surprised to find that the government is corrupt and that is one of the main reasons why so many people are completely unaware of the seriousness of their financial situation, believing there is no way out.
Nevertheless, it would be foolish to think that the root of the problem only lies at the political level. A country in armed conflict, no doubt, has serious problems as a regional power. That lack of influence is also evident on the global scale. Armenia still struggles to be more than just one of Russia’s allies, knowing that Russia will fully support Armenia in another round of armed conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. Every Armenian knows that it is hard to demand more where you are in such a difficult position, especially when coupled with slow economic growth.
Travelling back to Dilijan, I still couldn’t wrap my head around the landscapes I had seen: titanic mountains covered with flowers of yellow, damaged Soviet sculptures, old factories. Maybe I am just looking at it from the point of view of someone that comes from a country where even though poverty is the talk of the down with the recent crisis, I could never have imagined that it could reach this level.
Armenia is not a country of economic equality, which in turn makes growth seem like a wild dream. More affluent individuals move to other countries, where they can do better business and prosper. Those are the so-called “Western Armenians”, the diaspora. Out of around 14 million Armenians all over the world, only 3 million live in Armenia. Those that have left and made a fortune, are always willing to invest in what they call “the country of the heart”, to make it more beautiful, more appealing, but never equal or better. This mentality is affecting Armenia more and more every year – it is not moving forward, but stuck in an endless time bubble, without sign of improvement, slowly decaying.
I believe that there something that could change, if we look at the root of the problem. Armenia is the 108th most unstable country in the world, and surprisingly, is ranked as being of “Low Warning”. According to the same index, its main problems are Refugees and IDPs (internally displaced persons), State Legitimacy, Factionalized Elites and External Intervention. In 2017, Armenia went down a position, to 109, and is now considered “In Warning”. Now is the time to consider making the necessary changes.
I do not want to give the impression that Armenia is doomed country, because it is definitely not. I believe it has a lot of different ways to go to that could make it more attractive, by fostering development. Economically speaking, the country is still trying to transition into a full functional market economy, while maintaining cordial relations with Europe, the Middle East and the Commonwealth of Independent States, a regional organisation made up of 15 member states and formed after the dissolution of the USSR. At the same time, there are many foundations and NGOs carrying out development and sustainability projects, which could further provide a significant boost. However, yet again, progress is easier said than done and I truly hope that the Armenian society is ready to change as well.