15-Year Old Independent Armenia: Pride and patience and the challenge of raising a teenager

Independence Day Celebration
Armenia has a chance to improve its image with national elections in 2007/8.
At the Diaspora-Armenia conference: "Give us a country to be proud of."
The ugly side of "progress": a resident was forcefully removed from Buzand Street.
Where a statue of the dictator once stood in "Lenin Square" . . .
"Republic Square" is now home to a giant TV monitor.
Independent Armenia’s transition from communism is embodied, unavoidably and intrusively so, exactly where its homage to socialism had stood.

On the very spot where the famous, finger-pointing statue of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin used to stand, there is now a giant-screen monitor that blaringly broadcasts much of what Komrade Lenin enwalled his people against. Music clips, sex-driven commercials advertising western-inspired consumption, and even the occasional macho movie image featuring the now-Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, play for passersby walking a square once named for the dictator but now reclaimed for the freed republic.

Aesthetically, it is far from an improvement. Metaphorically, it sums up brilliantly Armenia’s dash from Communism to Capitalism.

On Independent Armenia’s 15th anniversary, September 21, leaders and would-be future leaders sat in grandstands in front of that monitor on Republic Square to review a military parade, the unsubtle message of which was that Armenia fought to free itself and is prepared to keep the spoils of the victory.

It was not military might that earned Armenia’s independence; rather, the political weakness of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Armenia plotted its freedom and proclaimed it, but was never required to wrest it forcefully from Moscow, since the Soviet empire collapsed soon after. A decade and a half later, much hand-holding is required to keep her “independent”.

The tricolor-bunted review stand on September 21 was a platform more crowded than the single occupant podium that steadied the iron Lenin on that spot for so many decades. This Armenia is a group effort:

The President, Robert Kocharian. To his right, the likely-next president, Minister of Defense Serge Sargsian. To the president’s left, the Catholicos of All Armenians, Karekin II. Catholicos of the House Of Cilicia, Aram I, flanked His Holiness. And next to him, the President of Nagorno Karabakh Republic, Arkady Gukassian, a man whose post was earned by the weapons of war he reviewed under a brilliant Yerevan sky.

Scored by the music of military march and accessorized by salutes and flyovers and flag waving, the day was a mighty show of might. It is might that will get mightier, when next year’s State Budget increases defense spending by 22 percent, to $212 million.

Off that podium, the display played to a crowd that still needs convincing. The parade, too, was witnessed by international bodies that have condemned the manner by which this president got the right to stand there, and who do not recognize the legitimacy of the government the Armenians died to build in Karabakh.

Coming out

Independent Armenia is in its teenage years. And with mixed grace and awkwardness the debutante appears on a world stage where, if she is known at all, it is still mostly for disaster or conflict. Disfigured by history, she is veiled in the expectations of a family impatient for her coronation.

Her life is hardly a blink in the history of her ancient people; her capital, Yerevan, just celebrated its 2,778th birthday. Yet from her own villages -- where poverty underpins discontent and undermines belief in the value of democracy -- to cities afar, from where Diaspora investment awaits a deserved payoff, there is an urgency to realize Armenia’s maturity.

“Give us an Armenia we can be proud of,” French-Armenian businessman Bedros Terzian told an applauding audience during the Third Armenia-Diaspora Conference in Yerevan in September. “We need a new reference point. (That reference) could be Armenia, but not this Armenia.”

The message of disillusion was clear, and based on the response of 1,500 or so in the hall, it carried a popular sentiment.

Why not “this Armenia”?

She is an Armenia that is in her sixth year of double digit growth in Gross Domestic Product. This Armenia was recently hailed as the “Caucasian Tiger” by the World Bank, and this Armenia is often cited as the most progressive of Caucasus countries in its “transition”.

She is an Armenia to which Middle-East Diaspora are returning to live, and into which Russian Diaspora are investing.

And she is an Armenia with a dowry infused with dollars and pounds and euros and francs poured in by international aid agencies.

The State Department of the United States has spent at least $1.7 billion on Armenia through its US Agency for International Development. And is ready to spend nearly $300 million more, if Armenia keeps a promise to hold fair national elections next May and in 2008. From the Americans alone, that’s some $600 per each officially-counted citizen of Armenia. (Officials at USAID in Yerevan declined a chance to comment to AGBU on whether the agency felt it had gotten its money’s worth.)

And it is this Armenia where, at least in the capital, construction work on nearly every city-center block has provided jobs for previously unemployed, and promises a sparkling new image by the time this teenager becomes an adult.

Here, in this Armenia, hospitals and clinics from ophthalmology to urology provide health care previously available only in the West. Here, too, young adults can educate themselves in universities (American University of Armenia, French University, and others) modeled after institutions where honest marks are given for honest work and degrees are earned rather than bought.

A middle class is emerging, if slowly, in this Armenia. Count the number of late-model imported automobiles that clog Yerevan streets. Witness the crowds that greeted the opening of Terranova fashion shop this summer where European design is sold for European prices. Try to find a vacancy in pricy Lake Sevan hotels at summer’s peak, or in a restaurant on holidays. Check the rocketing trend in real estate prices.

Why not this Armenia, where the revived Church of the oldest Christian nation must build new structures to accommodate its reclaimed flock; where sons of socialist scientists are exporting intellectual property to a world once unreachable; where international artists are reconnecting through creativity unleashed, often turning hardship into muse?

Proud? Why not “this Armenia”?

Because, for too many, the door to personal independence has been blown shut by the wind of political change that has been a windfall for the privileged minority. And because community progress has been hijacked by only a few, who have made a doormat of democracy and feed at a bottomless trough of personal gain. And because those who could have stood on the shoulders of giants have instead trampled on the spirits of the weak in order to attain unearned prestige.

To make room for 21st Century Yerevan’s facelift, for example, hundreds were displaced, “bought out” for prices a fraction the true value of their property, and for settlements that cannot buy equivalent homes even in remote parts of the city. When the dispossessed appealed to courts for protection of their rights, this Armenia’s justice system found in favor of the developers every time in the more than 100 cases, citing the “good of the State”. The developers, it should be noted, are Members of Parliament and/or oligarchs connected to the ruling regime.

Why not “this Armenia”?

Because in this Armenia, no national election has been conducted without well-documented wide-spread fraud, and occasional violence.

This Armenia’s growing pains have been felt most by the disenfranchised citizen whose voice has been silenced by apathy, or who has given up and given in to the common mantra: “Eh, this is Armenia”.

Take a better look . . .

It happens often here, in discussions that range from health care to sport, that revisionist history turns socialism into something better than it was, and perspective on independence is brutalized by unrealistic nostalgia. And it happens just as often, that locals are very willing to complain, criticize, oppose, with neither a foundation for their discontent, nor suggestion of a remedy.

Teenage Armenia defines the “half full/half empty” metaphor. Blinded rosy forecasts or bleak unqualified alarm may be snapshots of Independent Armenia, but perspective is needed for a complete portrait.

This inexperienced but no longer innocent republic has already gone farther on less than might have been rightly predicted, had there been time to forecast events, rather than the immediate need only to survive them.

Armenia was breech-birthed into independence while still grieving deaths in Spitak, and while future death incubated in the tempers of “Free Karabakh” patriots and their enemies. Then, no sooner had the tricolor of independence been hoisted, than there was no longer electricity to light its mast.

In its infant years, Independent Armenia faced more catastrophe than securely established democracies might face in a century. But the challenge wasn’t finished . . .

When the graves had been covered, when the war had been fought to a victorious standstill, and when the lights were turned back on and ready to illuminate a new millennium and a symbolic resumption, madmen slaughtered Armenian leadership while the world watched.

Under the weight of natural disaster (earthquake), man-made destruction (war), political depravity (energy blockade) and manifest evil (terrorism), this Armenia could have folded into herself and succumbed with dignity intact as a sympathetic victim of too much calamity.

She didn’t.

She has survived to face the challenge of an imperfect nation, as liable to praise as to condemnation. She has earned both. She is, in that way, normal.