BY ARA KHACHATOURIAN
For 28 years, the area that was struck by the devastating December 7 earthquake in Armenia has been called the “disaster zone.” From the ashes of the earthquake, which claimed 25,000 lives and displaced tens of thousands of others, has risen the biggest disgrace for Armenia.
As we mark the 28th anniversary of the earthquake and remember the victims and the survivors, we cannot help but reflect on the question that has become commonplace when discussing the horrifying tragedy: Why is the earthquake zone still a disaster zone?
By certain estimates, some 550 families are still homeless victims of the earthquake, living in makeshift metal containers scattered around Gyumir, Spitak, Akhourian and other rural areas that were devastated by the earthquake. While Armenia claims to be a modern bastion within the developing world, almost a generation after the tragedy there should not be one family that is shacking up in a container or still awaiting a roof over their head.
One can argue that the post-independence socio-economic realities that plagued Armenia in general, coupled with the war in Artsakh overwhelmed the Armenian government to properly prioritize the rebuilding of the earthquake zone and ensuring the safety of its residents. The fact of the matter is that despite the aforementioned realities at the time, a certain segment of the leadership and their close-knit circles were able to loot the nation’s resources and are some of the wealthiest people in the country today.
The other factor to consider is that successive administrations have not governed based from a nation-building/infrastructure-building standpoint and have advanced policies that have not only affected the earthquake zone but also the entirety of Armenia, creating high unemployment, meager wages and forcing hundreds of thousands to leave the country, while most of those who stay behind are living in sub-par economic conditions without a glimmer of hope in sight. Yet those who looted the country and others that followed when bit-by-bit the nation’s critical infrastructure was sold to the highest bidder—in most cases Russia—continue to line their pockets with ill-gotten wealth.
Since Armenia’s independence 25 years ago, we have all witnessed Yerevan become a cosmopolitan city, with bustling cafés, high-end stores and an apartment construction boom to rival any European or American capital. Yet Armenia’s second largest city with deep historic and strategic significance has seen but a fraction of that investment and remains an impoverished metropolis with grim prospects of development and no tangible government plan to get it out of its rut.
Although Gyumri is being touted as Armenia’s Silicon Valley, and an incubator for Armenia’s nascent IT industry, the fact that it sits at the epicenter (pun intended) of Armenia’s disgraced development and nation-building policy is shameful to say the least.
When queried about this disparity, politicians and other officials, who are most often dressed in their European suits and are being chauffeured around in the latest high-end cars, exclaim that “Rome wasn’t built in one day.” While it is true that developing a nation from scratch takes time, but the fact that in 25 years the earthquake zone is still a disaster zone indicates that those in charge are either complacent or incapable of confronting the challenges of governing a nation.
To mark the anniversary of the earthquake, Armenia’s new prime minister toured the “disaster zone” and pledged more housing to displaced families. It would behoove the new government to, along with instituting the much-needed promised reforms, to prioritize the rehabilitation of the earthquake zone so we can, once and for all, stop calling it a “disaster zone.”