Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Reflections of the Way Life Used to Be

So, my time is done and I have left Armenia.  Before I summarize my thoughts on the Peace Corps experience (that will be my next post) I thought it was time for some overall observations about Armenia.

I understand that it is a very complex society (as all certainly are).  I also understand that my two years in Armenia really amount to an extended tourist type view since there was always the knowledge that my time in country was limited and I could be in a bubble of Americans fairly often. The things I heard from Armenians were limited because (1) I never reached the level of language proficiency to eavesdrop on what people were really talking about or to have true in-depth conversations with people about issues; (2) for the most part people were careful about what they said to me because they didn't want to offend a guest in their country, or they thought I was a spy; and (3) unless you live through the things that people in Armenia (or - again - any other country), you can't really get it.

Having said all of that, there are benefits to being an outsider, having an (almost entirely) objective opinion and having spent two years observing.  So, this is intended to be a recap of those things that struck me as how Armenia can be its own worst enemy with respect to realizing its potential (to borrow some corporate-speak).

A big issue for many Armenians is how trapped they can become in their own history at the expense of the future.  That history is a tragic one full of empires fighting over the territory that they once ruled and genocide that the world has yet to fully recognize.  But the solution to the biggest issues that currently exist for the country to survive (the stalemate with Azerbaijan which is tied with the border closing with Turkey) seems to move further away over time.

As an example, the hatred that I sensed when talking to young people in Armenia (about Azeris and/or Turks) is troubling. More troubling is that - unlike their parents and grandparents - many have never even met anyone from those countries.  Instead, they are taught that they are bad people who wish them ill and who are not separate from the government of their countries (whose policies, in my opinion, you can justifiably take issue with). As this generation gets older, they will theoretically move into positions that might influence how the country moves forward so these attitudes seem counterproductive to me. Most will agree that the border with Turkey needs to re-open but quite a few young people I have spoken to think that Turkey must not only recognize the genocide and apologize but also make reparations. [For its part, Turkey has other conditions it wants addressed also and to the extent they involve Karabagh that is an entirely different can of worms - but I digress.]

Which brings me to the subject of Ararat.  You can see Ararat (weather permitting) from many points in Armenia and it is part of the national psyche.  One of the regions in named for it.  The stamps in your passport depict it.  Someone told me that the typical design of Armenian churches pays homage to it.  There are products carrying the name as their brand (including one of the major brandy factories). Many Armenian homes (and, I hear, the homes of those in the diaspora) have pictures of it on their walls.

But Ararat is not in Armenia - it is in Turkey. Once - years ago - Armenia covered parts of what is today Turkey, SyriaLebanonIranIraq, Azerbaijan as well as the current area.  Since then, the Persians, the Ottomans, the Russians (and later the Soviets) and many others have fought over and conquered and ruled the lands of ancient Armenia.  In the most recent imperial era, what is now the Republic of Armenia did not include the land where Ararat is. What is now the Republic of Armenia was part of the Russian empire while the area that includes Ararat was part of the Ottoman empire.  Armenia (the current country) then became independent for a short period after WWI and almost got the area including Ararat during the peace negotiations.  That fell apart when its then-war with Turkey was settled by a treaty involving Russia and Armenia then becoming part of the Soviet Union (that treaty called for rejecting the borders proposed by Woodrow Wilson).

For the past 21 years Armenia has been independent again and Ararat is still within Turkey's borders yet some do not seem to accept that.  At the time we arrived two years ago, Armenia was wrapping up a national tourism campaign focused on something like "Noah's Journey" and how he landed on Ararat (no one seemed to acknowledge that the campaign essentially directed tourists to Turkey).  During training, I heard someone in a cultural session state "You have the maps, but we have Ararat!" A young man recently told me that Armenia lost Ararat to Turkey at the time of the genocide.  Also recently, I heard an anecdote whereby a young Armenian woman said (during a presentation that mentioned that Ararat is the highest mountain in Turkey) that "everyone knows that Ararat belongs to Armenia." Whether they are learning that in school or think that a moral claim overrides internationally recognized borders is unclear to me.

In any event, this focus on historical matters rather than the practical matter of reopening the border seems self-defeating.  Armenian merchants already buy a lot of goods from Turkey but they must travel through Georgia, adding time and cost. Likewise, any exports become more expensive and (with respect to exports of produce) impractical.  I am not saying that they need to "get over it" and not push for recognition of the genocide - but it seems to me that focusing too much the way they do is not good for the country long-term.

Another issue that I have written about before is the distrust for one another.  A good analogy to me is sports.  In the Olympics this year, Armenia had 25 athletes - none in team sports.  People have told me that team sports (other than soccer) are not that prevalent because people don't work well together.  The Soviet system nominally promoted a communal mindset, but its legacy really seems to be every man for himself. That attitude manifests itself, among other ways, in the rampant corruption but also in the apathy toward trying to change things through civil society.  As I often pointed out to people, trying to change things may not succeed, but if nothing is done, I can guarantee that nothing will change.  And to get things to change, people need to work together.

I also believe that Armenia needs to examine how it does things and thereby wean itself from the charity on which its organizations depend.  Yes - I know - that is easier said than done and it is an extremely simplified view.  But foreign aid from the US and Russia (as well as from the diaspora) pays for a lot of projects that the government could probably find a way to fund themselves.  I have seen quite a few projects on which PCVs have worked to get a grant to purchase a handful of computers for a school - maybe five for a school with hundreds of students, or textbooks, blackboards or renovating a bathroom.  Meanwhile, there was a news report about a full-size replica of Noah's Arc to be built as a tourist attraction in Yerevan.  It seems to me that the spending priorities need to be reexamined (not to mention the Ararat thing again...)

Tourism is a good example of an industry that Armenia could build out but (in my view) misses the target. While the country has beautiful scenery, delicious food, wonderful people and historic monasteries all over the place, the tourism infrastructure severely lacking.  The roads are terrible, the hotels are overpriced, information about public transportation is either not published or is in Russian only (the trains) or Armenian only (buses). There are language barriers.  Flights into and out of Yerevan are widely seen as too expensive. There is no central tourist office in Yerevan - it was closed the year before last because only budget travelers were coming in and they only seemed to want to attract more "luxury" tourism. Then there is the "Noah's Journey" type thinking about the country promoting itself.

The MO for tourism seems to be in the "if you build it, they will come" category. The big draw that opened lately (the tramway at Tatev monastery - the longest in the world!) is a five hour drive (over terrible roads) from Yerevan with few services nearby, so the trip may need to be done as a day trip. As a result, many tourists going there seem to be diasporan Armenians who probably would have gone anyway.  As PCVs, some of us worked with local areas to develop tourist infrastructure, but there is nothing done on a national level to coordinate it.  Every man for himself.

Overall, the idea of being self-sufficient in any respect seems to be in jeopardy.  Based on conversations I had with people during my time there, it seems to me that they would probably join a new Soviet Union if Russia presented the opportunity. There were some interesting articles recently speaking about Armenia's history since independence (politically and economically) that indicate the tough choices that the country needs to make.  As Peace Corps volunteers, we work at a grass-roots level to try to effect change when they really need to be tackled at the national level.  But one thing you notice as you travel around Armenia is that there is not much grass.

In conversations with Armenians, I notice frustration with the rate of change in the country (similar to people in the US who are frustrated that Obama didn't wave a magic wand and solve the issue most important to them).  I point out that the country is only 20 years old and has only had its current constitution for 16 years and ask if they would trust their country to a teenager.  In the lifespan of a country, 20 years is nothing, but the question is whether neglect will lead to an untimely demise.