A taxi ride in Yerevan and the journey it took me on

As a tourist in Yerevan, one of the most interesting ways to get a feel for the country is to chat with taxi drivers. You will quickly discover that many are former professionals, often holders of tertiary education, men who have out survived communism, lived through unspeakable poverty, witnessed war and earthquake and are now grappling with the ‘’new’’ order in their country.

“I love Armenia, of course I do. Our land, our water, it’s ours. However, there are no jobs. We can’t provide for our families,” tells me this taxi driver while driving me from Tigran Medz to Northern Avenue just last month.

“Did you vote in the recent elections?” I ask.

“I did. I did not want to ‘sell’ my vote,” he replies with a sense of dignity underlying the frustration in his voice – the dignity of a man who has lost but is proud for having done the right thing.

“Surely, the people have a role to play in changing the current state of affairs,” I say.

“The problem, kuro jan, is that the entire country is left in the hands of a few. The people’s main struggle is to survive, make some money, find a job and often they are left with no choice but to leave.”

After this bitter sweet encounter with this stranger and his all too familiar story, I am content with the feelings he harbours for our country; but the haste with which he dismissed the notion that citizens like himself are capable of changing things for the better remains ingrained in my mind.

And then it all comes screaming back to me. Previous trips, other strangers, similar conversations. The former airport personnel now taxi driver who had so little belief in brighter prospects for himself that he was full of rage– not just for being Armenian but, it seemed at the time, for being in general. That was one scary taxi ride in 2009.

Then, the once Karabakh freedom fighter (as he claimed) turned taxi driver, whose disillusionment with everything he had once put his life on the line for was so draining I was counting the seconds to jump out of the car. Back in 2007, I didn’t know whether I should think of this man as a hero or just another unhappy person in Yerevan. I still don’t.

And the words – “this is how it is; this is how it will always be. It won’t change” – which I have heard numerous times from relatives and other acquaintances in Armenia, they come screaming back too. And it strikes me.

The majority of Armenians living in Armenia today seem to suffer from an inherent lack of faith in their own power, their own ability to make things better for themselves in their own country. Perhaps I am stating the obvious. But then again, the obvious sometimes needs to be stated.

In my last blog, I wrote that change has started in Armenia and that change is impossible to stop. It generated more interest than I expected. When one friend shared it on her Facebook, one of her friends commented: “Are we talking about an Armenian Spring?”

Many will disagree, but in all honesty I believe the world has seen enough “springs” and “colour revolutions” to understand that often they fail to bring long-term benefit to people. Some will maybe even falsely accuse me of trying to defend the status quo. They can’t be further from the truth.

I believe meaningful, long-term, sustainable change – change in the right direction, towards a democratic and just Armenia – can only be achieved through behavioural change both at the individual and national level. To achieve change in Armenia its citizens must learn to believe in their own ability to do so. To have faith in themselves, they must understand they have rights. And of course, they must be the change they want to see.

Armenian activists both in Armenia and the Diaspora have a unique opportunity and obligation today – to educate Armenia’s citizens about their rights, to set examples, to transform viewpoints, to set expectations – higher, better, more ambitious.

They say old habits die hard and it would be naïve to assume that the values many of us espouse as young Armenians – those of democracy, human rights and justice – are the values upheld by the majority of Armenian society today. To democratise Armenia as a country, we must first democratise Armenia as a society.

Change is inevitable. What is important, however, is to make sure we do it the right way, for the right results.

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Observations from Armenia

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 …