BY MARIA TITIZIAN
Anyone who visits, volunteers, works or lives in Armenia understands that it is a country of extremes. This is not a revelation, we all know it, have spoken about it, discussed and written about it. If we were to be honest, we would admit that beauty and ugliness exist in incomprehensible harmony. The natural landscape is both magnificent and unforgiving. Gorgeous scenery provides an unlikely backdrop for the industrial devastation and desolate, abandoned villages. There are polluted rivers winding their way through spectacular mountain ranges. There are rusting cars and random scrap metal left on roadsides by idyllic villages. There are beautiful historic buildings dwarfed by modern interpretations of architectural design that do not garner respect or adulation.
As human beings, I would argue that in general, we are pretty intelligent (World Chess Champions) but sometimes we can be stupid (leasing lands to neighboring countries for grazing), we are overly cautious while being wildly reckless, we love and hate with the same intensity, we can feel joy and in the next second experience despair, we can be fiercely loyal yet we criticize, betray, disengage and walk away (“I’m not stepping foot in Armenia as long as there is corruption,” a direct quote from a Facebook comment), we are brutally honest and just as brutally deceptive, our compassion can be life altering while our indifference can be soul crushing. Whether it is the rugged landscape of the country, the geography or historical voyage of this nation that has shaped certain national characteristics, we are not only a country but a people of extremes. We feel the intensity of these extremes in Armenia because there are just more of us living in a condensed space simultaneously.
This past week has reflected some of these extremes for me in Armenia. I often tell people that while the daily stress of modern, industrial nations is not pervasive here, we are often exhausted by the range of human emotions we can feel over the course of one single day in Armenia. From joy to hatred, from peace to upheaval, from the logical to the irrational sometimes I feel like I’m from Mars.
Here is a round-up of what we heard and read these past several weeks.
While many brave young men gave their lives during the war in Artsakh to guarantee the inalienable right to self-determination for the people of Artsakh, to secure historic Armenian lands and protect the very viability of this nation, the government of Syunik Marz is allegedly preparing to lease thousands of hectares of pastures for grazing to Iran. While the country’s government claims that negotiations are ongoing, documents in the press attest to another reality. The Ministry of Territorial Administration has said that issues raised in those documents still require “final solutions on an interstate level, and if necessary go through legally prescribed procedures.”. I believe a campaign to have the Marzpet of Syunik Suren Khatchatryan, (longtime ally and strongman for Serge Sargsyan removed from office is long overdue.
We were informed by the media that two public washrooms were installed in the country, paid for through funds from the state budget at a cost of $170,000 USD each. When asked about it, Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan told reporters that the public restrooms were a public-private venture aimed at encouraging eco-tourism in the country (www.emedia.am). I don’t understand what washrooms installed on the grounds St. Gregory the Illuminator Church in the heart of Yerevan has to do with eco-tourism, hopefully the Prime Minister will explain this at a later date. It was also reported by the media that since 2009 the President’s office has spent some 40 million AMD ($100,000 US) on curtains (www.civilnet.am). Perhaps these are not outlandish figures. I assume it’s normal for state budget funds to be spent on expenditures such as public washrooms and curtains and the like. What I don’t understand is how we can justify frivolous spending behavior when 40 percent of the population lives in poverty and has no hope of breaking that cycle, particularly in the regions where employment opportunities are scant.
There is the ongoing drama surrounding the potential entry into the market of the international grocery chain Carrefour in the new Dalma Mall in Yerevan. For months everyone was talking about how a major supermarket chain would be good for competition in the country and offer more of a variety for consumers. Now it appears it might not happen after all because Member of Parliament, Samvel Aleksanyan, who owns the Yerevan City grocery chain, is poised to open a Yerevan City in Dalma Mall instead. In the grand scheme of things in Armenia, it makes sense; Aleksanyan is undoubtedly not keen to contend with some serious competition and has enough political leverage to thwart any attempt by Carrefour to get a footing in Armenia’s market.
Of course there is the continuing saga of the presidential election campaign.
The country was shocked to learn that two suspects had been detained in connection with the assassination attempt on presidential candidate Paryur Hayrikyan. There is justification for the surprise because of the prevailing impunity and because most criminal cases (especially ones with political implications) in Armenia are not always solved and definitely not so quickly as this one appears to be, especially since the alleged shooters have admitted their role in the crime. Another surprise announcement was that Hayrikyan has decided to apply to the Constitutional Court to request a postponement of the election by two weeks (something which is guaranteed by the country’s constitution to a candidate if he or she facing insurmountable challenges to continuing the campaign) after initially saying that he wouldn’t. This has left the mass media disheartened because that means another two weeks of trying to fill up airtime or column space about the elections, something which has been next to impossible to do. The sympathetic mood toward Hayrikyan is now shifting in the opposite direction.
Presidential candidate Andreas Ghugasyan’s hunger strike is now in its third week and there is serious concern for his health. The Central Electoral Commission, in a statement, urged Ghugasyan to end his hunger strike. Presidential candidate Aram Harutyunyan (National Accord Party), after a symbolic 24 hour hunger strike, has withdrawn from the race.
Presidential candidate President Serzh Sarkisian during a visit to Shirak Marz made a reprehensible statement that has been the source of much analysis, commentary and outright disgust. Responding to a reporter’s question about what he saw as his chances in Shirak Marz taking into consideration that the region usually votes for opposition candidates, President Sargsyan said, “I have always had supporters in Shirak and I believe I will again. What are you talking about chances? If I want, I can ensure 90, 80, 70 or 60 percent of the vote, we can get as much as we want….”
In the midst of this sometimes perplexing state of existence, we went to see a musical at the Chamber Theater by a group of extremely talented young actors about the upcoming elections. It should come as no surprise that we were laughing hysterically one minute and grieving at the insanity of our reality at the next.