Just recently I returned from a three week trip to Armenia. It was my sixth visit in 11 years – some for work purposes, some for pleasure – the most recent one falling in the latter category. Whatever the occasion, I have treated each and every one of those visits as an opportunity to observe life around me, how things work (and don’t), people, their attitudes, viewpoints and behaviour. This trip was no different.
I saw many things in Armenia this time around. Perhaps every time I visit, I am a little bit more mature. Or perhaps every time I visit, Armenia is a bit more mature. I think this time at least, it was both.
I must admit, a few things I would have preferred to not see. The beggars on the streets – almost entirely non-existent on my more recent trips – they’re back. Not in large numbers but I encountered a few. I helped some, more out of a desire to get rid of them and I avoided others. It was more unpleasant than painful seeing them. With every visit you become able to take the emotion out of certain things, I was reminded.
I saw materialism – not a new phenomenon but something I think I had refused to see before, or I should say, to consider as an almost defining characteristic of a considerable part of Armenians living in Yerevan today. A café around Opera House called ‘Café Rich’, a men’s apparel shop on Northern Avenue called ‘Billionaire’ not to mention all the luxury brands that have mushroomed all over Yerevan. It felt like some of these names expressed aspirations unattainable for most of Yerevan’s residents.
In other names I saw the urge to embrace the foreign, the not-Armenian. Whether it was Santa Fe café or the luxurious Moskvichka supermarket (which means a woman from Moscow, we discovered), I couldn’t help but think that on some level these as well represented aspirations – aspirations to leave and be in those ‘better-off’ places. Perhaps I am wrong. I certainly hope so. Perhaps they are simply signs that more than ever Yerevan is embracing the world around it after seven decades of living behind an Iron Curtain.
On the second day after our arrival, sipping coffee and catching up with a friend outside Marriott Hotel on Republic Square, I saw a group of about 20 young women marching with posters and chanting slogans against non-combat deaths in the Army. They were not too loud but their voices could be heard. They passed by quickly but it was impossible to not notice them. They were like a cool breeze on a very warm summer afternoon. Instant, unexpected and very refreshing.
I follow developments in Armenia closely and I have proudly followed the emergence of civic activism in Armenia in recent years. Encountering some of those activists was one of the best experiences I had on this trip.
Perhaps from that point onwards, it was impossible to not see the change happening in Armenia. But the change I saw this time was not simply in the sheer number of new cafés, restaurants, shops and buildings. I was grateful for seeing young activists at work, for seeing less ‘chi gareli’ (i.e. it’s not possible – a common response you could get in Armenia as a customer asking for something) and a more positive attitude to getting things done, as well as a new level of professionalism.
On the day we left Yerevan, a young Army doctor died after he was beaten severely by the bodyguards of an oligarch at the Harsanakar Restaurant Complex. The reaction to this incident – although not large in scale – was nevertheless impressive. Candle light vigils outside the restaurant, protests outside the oligarch’s resident. Yet again a handful of activists and yet again they were impossible to not notice even as I was following their acts all the way from Sydney.
Change has started in Armenia and change is impossible to stop or reverse. We can influence the speed with which change is achieved and shape its course but we can’t stand in its way. It is up to all of us, in whichever part of the world we live in, to decide what role we would like to play in the wave of change our homeland is experiencing. More on this later …