Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Comparison / Contrast

I recently completed my post-Peace Corps travels and am back in New York. While I had not planned to write about the trip itself (wanting the blog to just be about my experience in Armenia), I changed my mind partway through because the trip itself gave me more to think about with respect to my recent home away from home. 

Specifically, I visited ten countries before returning to North America (Georgia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Poland, Lithaunia, Latvia, Estonia and Russia), all but Turkey being post-Soviet or post-Communist.  Meanwhile, with its complicated history in connection with Armenia, Turkey provided some interesting comparisons also. 

So, what follows are some random observations made over the nearly three months I was on the road.  I remain mindful of my own advice that you can’t really understand a country by only seeing its capital and large cities and that is almost all that I visited.  Likewise, four days in a country like Lithuania does not even allow enough time to remember common courtesy phrases in the local language, let alone understand what people are like and what they think.  Still, some things were noteworthy to me.

Nostalgia for the Soviet years is far from universal.  Many times in Armenia, I had conversations with people about whether life was better or worse than during the Soviet era.  Many seemed to like the idea of democracy but really missed the personal economic benefits (free education and health care, jobs for everyone, etc.)  

What I saw in all three Baltic countries and in Georgia, on the other hand, were a series of museums to highlight the atrocities of the “Soviet Occupation”.  Likewise, Lviv (in Ukraine) has a museum set in a former KGB prison, illustrating the massacres carried out by the Soviet regime.

In Armenia, I recall no museum that present anything about the Soviet period at all.  Granted, the histories are different - the Baltics were forced into the Soviet Union under the guise of being “saved” from the Nazis while Armenia’s incorporation (from what I understand) followed a real rescue from being wiped out by Turkey when the two countries were at war after World War I.  Georgia was at war with Russia only a few years ago while Russian soldiers guard Armenia’s borders with Turkey and Iran.  And I can understand a hesitation on Armenia’s part to bite the hand that feeds it since it is closely allied with Russia and gets a lot of foreign aid from there.   Nevertheless, there were Armenians sent to the Gulag along with people from other countries, yet I never heard it discussed. 

As to the economic nostalgia, that is something that can’t be brought back magically.  The country was a sort of processing hub for its sister republics, which sent in the raw materials and bought the finished products.  The 1988 earthquake destroyed a lot of the operating capacity which was never replaced and the breakup of the Soviet Union removed the built-in suppliers and customers.  Having said that, I wouldn’t be surprised if Armenia eventually joins the economic union that Russia has set up with Kazakhstan and Belarus.

The levels of economic development are (literally) all over the map.  All of the former Soviet/Communist countries became democracies at roughly the same time.  Since then, circumstances for the different countries have followed varying paths (including dictators, corruption and war among other things) as have political alliances, so it can be expected that they would not all progress at the same pace. Nonetheless, the differences between the countries are pretty drastic.

Most striking to me is comparing Georgia with Armenia as they are neighbors and on friendly terms but with different allies.  Georgia has taken a more western view and Tbilisi seems to me like a Western European city.  Georgia’s activities toward reducing corruption have allowed it access to foreign aid that Armenia does not have, and in fact Armenia lost funding from Millennium Challenge because of how its 2008 elections were carried out and government response to protests afterward.  One huge difference is that Georgia is not landlocked and despite having its border with Russia closed, it can trade with its other neighbors so there are economic benefits that explain some of the difference.  But it also seemed to me that Georgia is more forward thinking than Armenia is (as I wrote about in my last post).

When I got further west, the level of development is even more striking.  Bulgaria and Romania have become part of the EU. Poland has shopping malls, an efficient transportation system, and plenty of English speakers.  As I moved further north, I got an even better indicator of the financial health – the prices were approaching expensive.  While it was still possible to get beer for far less than in the US, a pint for $1.50 in Poland compared to $3 in Estonia. 

Armenia’s geographic disadvantages (particularly lack of sea access) is certainly a factor as is the production role it played during the Soviet period as I mention above and its closed borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan.  But I can’t help thinking that it is also due to the “learned helplessness” that I have written about before.

People still see movies in theaters. I am an avid moviegoer and really prefer seeing movies in a theater.  To my knowledge, Armenia has two theaters (one in Yerevan and one in Gyumri) and almost all of the movies are shown dubbed in Russian (film festival entries being an exception).  Considering how easy and cheap it is to get pirated DVDs in Armenia (10 movies on one DVD for about $1.25) it is not surprising that people don't buy a ticket for a theater.  As a result, during my two years there I had to content myself with watching movies on my laptop.

As I traveled around though, I saw that this was (thankfully) not universal.  Starting with Georgia, I started to see multiplexes that were showing movies I wanted to see.  Some (Georgia, Russia) dub all the movies into the local language, so I was out of luck.  But the other countries either have subtitles for all foreign movies or offer a choice of dubbed or subtitled.

What I was not expecting was that some movies are released overseas before they are in the US.  The new James Bond movie was playing in Russia while I was there, but since most movies in Russia are dubbed (I only knew of one in Moscow that was subtitled and I had seen it already) I didn't bother.  Luckily, Canada was my next stop.    

Armenia really is like a little Russia.  Yes, the churches are different, the cultural heritage such as dance is different and I actually saw people reading books in Russia while commuting instead of just gazing off into space or napping.  But then there is a lot of the day-to-day stuff that is very similar in the two countries.

My hostel in St. Petersburg did not provide breakfast, so just after arriving I went to a grocery store to buy things for the next morning.  As I entered, I had a flashback – the store had a confusing layout, an entire wall of candy and another of vodka; eggs cold be bought individually; the “refrigerated” beverage cases were not plugged in, so all of the soda was warm, etc, etc.  The only difference from an Armenian store was that I had to pay if I wanted a bag (in Armenia you get one even when you say you don’t want it).  This was quite a difference from the supermarket in Tallinn I had gone to the day before, which was nicer than most supermarkets I had been to in New York.

While I didn’t ride in one in the Russian cities I visited, there were marshutnis everywhere.  The “dress code” for women is the same in both countries while for men it was only similar (Russian men didn’t seem as fond of logos and pointy shoes as their Armenian counterparts).  Sunflower seeds are bought in bulk and consumed as a walking snack.  Music videos (often barely better than soft-core porn) are playing on TVs in every café and bar. I saw a distinct shade of blue paint everywhere (I don’t know if the Soviets bought way too much years ago and are still burning through it or if it is still manufactured somewhere with only Russia and Armenia buying it).

It all made me a wee bit nostalgic.

Turkey seems to be a big believer in solar energy.  After leaving Georgia, I headed to the northeastern corner of Turkey (or “Western Armenia” as I often heard it called and at one point I was able to see across the border into Armenia).   From there, I took a train/bus combo to Istanbul, affording me the opportunity to see a lot of the countryside - at least the northern part.  And one thing I noticed early on was the proliferation of solar panels on houses.  It seemed that every single house had a small panel on its roof which likely its primary power source.  

Armenia has few natural resources (no oil or natural gas, and while there are some minerals to mine such as copper and uranium, they don't produce enough to be a principal supplier) and not a lot of industry. From the beginning of my time there, I thought that solar energy would make sense for Armenia to harvest and maybe export as it has two necessary ingredients – loads of open space and abundant sunshine.  Unfortunately, setting up solar farms would require a lot of capital, and those likely to invest it (foreign companies and the already-rich oligarchs) would likely yield little benefit to the country.

But what had not occurred to me until passing through Turkey is that it could be an answer to Armenia’s basic need to keep its population warm.  As it stands now, they rely on a nuclear power plant (of the same vintage that melted down in Japan recently and which is also sitting in an earthquake-prone region) and gas imports from Russia.  With respect to gas, the price is subsidized so that the general public can afford it – yet many still can’t.  It seems to me that, instead of fortifying or replacing the nuclear plant or spending to subsidize gas, it would be more logical to give everyone a solar panel.  Obviously an over-simplified answer, but I think it bears consideration.

Customer service is not overrated.  I bought my train and bus tickets as I went along and the experiences offered a sharp contrast as to how customers are valued in each country.

When buying my ticket to leave Armenia, I had to go to the train station instead of buying online.  As a matter of fact, the only information online was in Russian and, while Google Chrome is very handy to get around that issue, it does not help if you have a question.  There are two ticket windows in Yerevan which are only open for a few hours a day and both close for lunch at the same time (and if you are waiting just before then, you are SOL for an hour).  You must pay with cash as credit cards are not widely used in Armenia.  After fighting my way to the window (each of which has a separate line) and buying my ticket, I asked the clerk about buying an ongoing ticket from Tbilisi to Batumi (since I believed the systems to be coordinated). I was given an incorrect answer that led to an hour wasted on a follow up visit.

On the other hand, after arriving in Georgia at midnight, I was able to buy an onward ticket as at least one window is open all night.  The clerk spoke English and presented me with all of my options before selling me the ticket. I was able to pay with a credit card. 

In Warsaw, there is a separate office to buy tickets for international travel.  You take a number and can sit while you wait your turn. Someone offered me water while I waited.  The (smiling) clerk answered all of my questions and told me to take a piece of candy from the dish at her window.  I completed the purchase ready to recommend traveling through Poland if only to experience how pleasant the transaction was.

Granted, train travel is not common in Armenia except for travel to Batumi during the summer, so it may not be the best example.  But from my prior experiences during my two years, it was indicative.

The longer things go on, the harder it will be to resolve the genocide issue with Turkey.  While in Lviv, I met a young man from Turkey at the hostel in which I was staying.  After explaining where I was coming from and what Peace Corps does, I went and opened Pandora’s box by asking something I had wondered about for a while – what to students in Turkey learn about the Armenian Genocide?

His answer was interesting, both because of what he said and by how the force of his answer increased the longer he talked.  In a nutshell, what he learned is that there were groups of Armenians who had anti-government feelings and acted upon them (for the sake of clarity, let’s use the word “insurgents”).  Therefore, for the sake of national security, the insurgency had to be stopped, particularly because it was wartime.  He acknowledged that people were killed but turned it around on me with respect to US actions in the current day.  In addition, he said he believed that the number of people that Armenia claims to have been killed has been exaggerated.  He ended by stating that there was no genocide – it was a security issue. 

By that point, I realized that what I observed in Armenia (with respect to how children are educated about Turkey and Azerbaijan) is also happening in Turkey – a lack of critical examination in favor of intractable statements of fact.  And as people so educated grow into positions of policy-making, the issue is likely to continue and become more bitter.

From what I have read and understand, I believe that there was in fact what is termed “genocide” but that neither what the Armenians or Turks learn is the whole truth of the matter.  But I wonder if any real discussion will ever be able to take place.

Sisters are Doin’ It for Themselves.  I have written a lot about the role of women in Armenian society and how different it was from the US.  Well, it is different from the other former Soviet/Communist countries also. 

In the countries I visited, I saw women driving buses and trams, and women working as police officers, street cleaners and bartenders.  I saw women smoking casually in restaurants.  I saw pairs of women enjoying a drink together in a café.  I saw women driving.  On the occasions that I went to a gym, there were women there at the same time.

One amusing thing I had not seen in Armenia, though, was the art of flirting as negotiation.  Several times (coincidentally having to do with trying to get a better seat on a bus or train when seats were reserved) I saw a bleached-blond use the same tactic.  She lowered her head and looked upward; she batted her eyelashes; she spoke in a voice that was almost cooing.  She didn’t ask someone if she could have the seat but instead made a case as to why she should have it.  And sometimes it worked (although I found it amusing when a guy called bullshit on the tactic). 

There are plenty of Armenian restaurants around that have no Armenian employees and menu items I do not recognize.  I suppose it gets into the differences between Western and Eastern Armenian, but c’mon – no khorovats?  

Overall, I am glad that I eased my way on the transition from Armenia to the US.  It gave me an interesting perspective and opened my eyes to a lot of things, such as how superficial a tourist visit can be.  Also, by going to more developed countries, I was able to re-acclimate to the First World amenities that I now enjoy again and lessen the culture shock.  But that is the topic of my next (and last) post, so I won't get ahead of myself.