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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.

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Onnik Krikorian is a photojournalist currently based in Yerevan.
He can be reached at his website at:
    http://www.freespeech.org/oneworld/photo/

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