Saturday, December 3, 2011

We Are the 99%

Old habits are hard to break and I read the New York Times online every day while I am here.  While I have not read too many of the specific articles, it is impossible to miss the Occupy Wall Street movement and the tagline of “We Are the 99%”.  It is also impossible to miss the fact that similar protests have started in other cities around the world.  Armenia, however, has not picked up on it.  

There have been protest rallies ongoing in Yerevan for the past several months, arranged by the opposition parties of the government, but those have been aimed at partisan issues rather than income inequality.  But income inequality is definitely here.  While I have seen all along how pronounced it is when you compare Yerevan to the rest of the country, I also see it within Gyumri.  This was highlighted to me when I recently saw a video ad for a hotel that just opened here. 

Not only is the place over-the-top enough to make Donald Trump proud, but it is owned by the mayor of the city.  As I have mentioned many times, there are residents in the city who are still living in “temporary” housing that they moved into after the earthquake 23 years ago, many do not have running water, streets remain unpaved, streets are unlit, people gather around trees as they are pruned to take home firewood and unemployment is upwards of 70%.  But at the same time, a five-star hotel opens.  And while it is well known that the mayor owns it (and, naturally, paid for it himself) someone pointed out to me that the construction timetable pretty much matched that of the new city hall and the stonework and many fixtures inside are conveniently the same in both buildings.  Curious.

While there have been no “Occupy Gyumri” protests, I have heard that the online news outlets have been full of reader commentary critical of the hotel for the reasons cited above.  And reality seems to have arrived in one respect – while the initial room rates started at 50,000 dram per night, I am told that there have been very few guests since the hotel opened a couple of months ago and yesterday I was told that the starting rate is now 20,000 dram.

Behind the building you can see some of the “temporary” domiks or other run down houses.   

Domiks behind the hotel which you can see on the right
This is partly because there are no such things as “rich” neighborhoods here.  When the country separated itself from the Soviet Union, everyone was given the homes they were in, free and clear.  The earthquake had destroyed many of those buildings and some people were able to rebuild their houses (quite a few of which I call “Mansionyans”) on their properties, which may be next to the domiks their neighbors have not been able to afford to move out from.  


Adjacent to the house above
This article from 2005 about the disappearing middle class in Armenia is still relevant.  The article was written after the second post-independence presidential election (and that president was replaced in the last cycle) but the themes are consistent with what I hear on a daily basis. 

So where to Peace Corps volunteers fit into this? We receive a monthly living allowance that is intended for us to live at a level consistent with the communities in which we live.  Excluding rent – to make matters comparable for the home ownership I mentioned; I read recently that 89% of Armenians own their homes outright - we receive between 117,000 and 129,000 dram per month. Depending on the exchange rate, this comes to about $300 – 350 per month and the variation in the amount over the course of the year is because we get extra funds in colder months to cover higher utility costs.  This amount is not much different than the average monthly salary in Armenia of about 115,000 dram (although salaries, unlike our allowances, don’t increase in the colder months).  The average excluding Yerevan is about 95,000 dram, putting us somewhat above that average; nonetheless, I have heard anecdotes from other volunteers who were asked how much we get and were then asked “How do you live on that?”

While some of us have personal savings we can draw from, Peace Corps discourages that.  A big part of being effective here is fitting in with your community and living more lavishly than everyone else could easily prevent that (and, believe me, people notice everything we do and buy).  There is a perception that everyone from the US is rich and periodically I am asked for money from strangers on the street.  To counteract that perception, and to allow integration with ordinary citizens, we become the 99%.  

I do dip into my savings when I go to Yerevan and want to treat myself to a dinner nicer than a kebab, but I live within my Peace Corps allowance while at home in Gyumri.  The bulk of the PCVs in Armenia are living likewise and it does make you appreciate how most people here live.  I normally cook for myself instead of eating out.  I have gotten quite adept at finding ways to save money such as buying groceries in the market by the kilo instead of packaged (tea, flour, rice, etc) which is significantly less expensive.  I have gotten good at repairing my socks instead of replacing them (never mind that I can’t really find any that I like anyway).  What “luxuries” I have treated myself to lately include a vacuum cleaner and a blender, and even with those I am not spending more than I get. 

While people here pay a lot of attention to how they dress, I do notice people wearing the same things multiple days in a week.  This is probably a combination of not spending a lot of money in absolute terms on clothing and the pain-in-the-ass factor of line drying in cold weather (both of which I relate to).  That may also explain why so many people here wear black all the time.

Food prices also have been rising lately.  While pricing changes based on supply and demand are a byproduct of a market economy, it is hard to separate how much is pure economics versus manipulation (when you go into capitalism and market economics, oligopolies are another byproduct).  This is all fine academically, but when you see people foregoing food because it is beyond their means it gives you a much different perspective.  And after egg prices doubled at the end of last year the government started talking about regulating food prices.  Again, old habits die hard.

The one exception, or “luxury”, that I allow myself is to run my heating more than the average person does. As my second winter here sets in, I notice that people do not normally turn on their heat before November 1 no matter what.  Regardless of the fact that this year has been much colder so far and the cold started much earlier, people just bundle up and endure it until the time comes to fire up the heaters.  So as to do this reasonably, I do as most people do: I spend most of my time in the room with my gas heater and stay in much of the time. 

In the first few years of independence, things were much worse.  After the earthquake in 1988, Armenia’s nuclear power plant (which produces about 40% of Armenia's electricity) was shut.  Closure of the borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan created energy shortages and the government decided to reopen it in 1993.  During that time, various nations donated kerosene heaters and areas, such as Gyumri, were virtually deforested as people cut down trees for firewood.  Family libraries were decimated for the same reason.  Now, people tend to have wood stoves, gas heaters, electric heaters or some combination of the above.  But gas, electricity and wood cost money and many people factor warmth into the equation with food and clothing as to how to spend the relatively little amount they have each month.

Matters are even worse in schools, many of which do not have heat at all.  Most of my fellow volunteers who work in schools post pictures of their students on Facebook at some point, and virtually every picture I see shows kids in coats, scarves, hats and gloves in the classrooms.  

Darryn teaching technology
As a result of all of this, one might expect frustration from the inequality to eventually boil up.  And while I do hear people grumble about it, the same way people grumble about corruption, many seem to accept it as part of life.  I chalk this up to another byproduct of the Soviet era and I am reminded of a famous line from Animal Farm, which, as I pointed out in my last post, I recently re-read:  “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.” 

But others take a different approach.  While the younger generation in the US is staging protests, this survey  seems to indicate that the younger generation here is simply planning to leave – maybe to go to the US.