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Armenia: Transition, Development and Identity By Onnik Krikorian Armine is twenty-two years old, and -- speaking Armenian, Russian and French -- a recent University graduate. She has long black hair, expressive eyes, and a warm smile, and is very attractive. Like other girls her age and from her background she dresses stylishly, and with taste. She shows me photographs of her friends from recent years, and talks of her life. Her mother is critically ill and requires medical treatment. Her father was killed during the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabagh. Under normal circumstances, Armine would cost $40 for two hours, but a local bar owner has brought her to my table as a `gift' in an otherwise seemingly `normal' bar on Mashtots Avenue in Yerevan, the capital of the newly independent Armenian republic. Through the pair of curtains at the side of the bar there is a sauna, pool and a bedroom, and remarks to the barman that Armine's situation is sad are answered simply. It is life, and -- like others in the country -- Armine is doing all she can in order to survive and to help her mother. Human beings - it would seem - have become commodities in a republic facing the severe problems of development and transition. Such problems have also been exaggerated in recent years by the migration of large numbers from the educated layers of Armenian society, and external influences that contradict a culture in which custom and tradition have played an important role. Experimenting with a newly found freedom -- and enjoying new access to external ideas and influences -- pirated American films [dubbed into Russian] portray life in the west as being one of extravagant excess, sex, drugs, and violence. Santa Barbara, Baywatch, and third-rate porno movies have become a new role model for those unable to remember the tragedy of earthquake, conflict and blockade. A new generation of young Armenians have instead found it easier to escape into a world of fantasy -- flocking to cafes where waitresses dress to provoke -- or to casinos, bars and saunas that now illuminate the streets at night with excessive neon facades. An Armenian Diaspora - blissful in its glossy disknowledge - chooses to interpret such developments as being indicative of an improvement in the economy, and prefers to maintain its focus upon the conflict in Karabagh and recognition of the Armenian Genocide, ignoring any similarity between the problems of transition occurring in the country with those identified years earlier in Russia. An increase in prostitution is particularly noticeable at this stage, and Katica Cekalovic -- Residential Representative of the United Nations in Armenia -- puts it simply: `A large number of the girls who have become prostitutes are refugees. They do not have citizenship and life is unbearable. Other women have been abandoned by husbands who have left the country to find work abroad. At the beginning they were sending money back, but now they no longer send anything home. Wives have been effectively abandoned, and this has become a problem. There are now many women who are the head of their families, and they have to look after their children somehow. From my own experience, when countries leave a period of authoritarian rule they attempt to immediately enter into a period of modernisation. In this new period you will discover the bad as well as the good, and I think that it would be so sad for Armenia if this results in a loss of values and the loss of culture.' Indeed, a country that once delighted in its national cuisine, - eating khoravatz [barbecue] with its hands, - now sits in restaurants eating pizza slices with knives and forks, and on Marshal Baghramian Avenue - just fifty yards from the Chinese and American Embassies - young girls sell themselves to passing drivers before returning to their families by the end of the evening. Men, in new bars and restaurants only a select few can afford, openly brag about the number of girls they are sleeping with while their wives stay at home to look after their children. In recent months there has also been an increasing reference to drugs during conversations, and visitors from the Diaspora that visit the country during the spring and summer months neglect to look below the surface of contemporary society. The reality is that to live in Armenia is difficult, and there is a wide chasm between the hospitality and innocence of the villages and the decadence of the bars and nightclubs of urban Yerevan. Corrupt officials lavishly entertain their friends while pensioners scavenge for food from waste bins. This year the United Nations Development Programme reports that there has been a deterioration in the standard of living for a majority that struggles to get by on an average monthly income of $27. Yerevan should be actively preparing for the 1700th anniversary of Christianity in the year 2001 but instead resembles an insane parody of the west, in the midst of a frantic, chaotic modernisation. The streets in central Yerevan are full of expensive shops and casinos that have few customers, and mounting social problems are inadequately dealt with. Sexually transmitted disease, prostitution and abortion is on the increase, and what national culture survived the Soviet era is now prey to the western onslaught and has all but disappeared from the heart of the city. Many students and youth are now very open in the admission that they would prefer to leave their country. The future, they feel, is between fifteen and twenty years away. One journalist, a veteran of the Karabagh conflict, acknowledges these trends and the parallels with Russia, from collapsed financial pyramid schemes and infatuation with the west, to bingo halls and casinos. He does however offer some hope for the future. Just as society in Russia stabilised, so too it will in Yerevan. But as to when such an equilibrium, resulting from the balanced co-existence of regional, internal and external influences will be reached, that is uncertain. Until then, a new elite disposes of its wealth with decadent abandon while the rest of the country struggles to get by, praying for the return of the moral and national values that will take the country into the new millenium in time for the anniversary celebrations. ------------------------------------------------------------------ Onnik Krikorian is a photojournalist currently based in Yerevan. He can be reached at his website at: http://www.freespeech.org/oneworld/photo/