Horse Latitudes In Yerevan

Dikran Abrahamian

14 July 2011

An Open Letter to My Friends

“In certain spots in the Atlantic Ocean, east of North America, there
are micro-climates where there is no wind and few waves. In earlier
times, when ships were caught in these still waters, horses were
thrown overboard to make the vessels lighter and easier to sail. For
that reason, these regions were called horse latitudes.”

At the outset let me state that I think I am a forward-looking person,
otherwise I can’t explain why I have made several leaps from one
profession to another and gradually improved my lot over a span of
60-plus years. There is no explanation to why I joyfully fathered a
half-a-dozen children, without fearing the financial burdens those
decisions entailed. Was it luck or was I taking calculated risks? I
think it’s the latter which has propelled me. In today’s jargon,
I would probably be tagged as an individual with positive attitude.

Why do I start with this personal confession? Because what follows
is far from being rosy and may be interpreted as the product of a
disgruntled old man who in his sunset years is disposed to view life
in dark tones. I tend to think of myself otherwise. On the other hand,
there are “surprises” which pull you to the abyss, despite attempts
to look at the brighter side of situations and events.

All the above words so as to tell you that I would like to write
about my recent trip to Artsakh and Yerevan while my impressions are
fresh and are not clouded by temptations to be politically correct
or diplomatic.

I will not bother you with details on how friendly the people were;
how wonderful the mountains and the forests felt; how the lakes and
rivers made me hum here and there or recite a line or two from favorite
poems. Likewise, I will not be a tour guide to the more attractive
natural, historic or cultural sites. Google does a better job than I.

What was I looking for? Was it residents or how patriotic they are?

Was it the land for which we have fought for millennia? By the latest
count, some 6,000 people were killed, maimed and injured to liberate
a slice of our motherland–Artsakh. What’s mind-boggling is how this
region is defended. Are the mountains and the highlands our natural
protectors? These were questions to which the people at large and
officials could not provide credible answers.

Lebanon, home of the cedars, comparable in size to Artsakh, the sea
as a natural defense on its west, a 20,000-strong army in peacetime
(prior to the tragic civil war of the ’70s) defended a little over
3-million citizens. Inflated numbers claim there are 160,000 people
in Artsakh–a jurisdiction that has no significant economy and no
tax-base to speak of. How can it defend itself? Who is providing this
crucial function? The answer would simply be speculation.

Is it any wonder that two themes dominated my conversations with
Artsakh citizens? There is talk of populating it with people from
remote areas of the former Soviet Union, i.e. Hamshens (Muslim
Armenians) families who have expressed a desire to move to Artsakh.

However no one is willing to make a move for acutely uncomfortable

Who will provide the finances for such a migration? Are the
millionaires in the inner Diaspora of Moscow or the ones in the West
to foot the bill? Why invest in such a venture when there is talk
of ceding portions of the land to Azerbaijan? Will the Hamshens be
willing to fight in case of war? Will they integrate in their new
environment? What if “transplanted” people have to be deported again
to safer regions, in case hostilities resume? Couldn’t such a project
open Pandora’s Box in already complex international negotiations and
provide Azerbaijan with new ammunition for propaganda- i.e. populating
Artsakh with non-karabaghtsis, while Azeri refugees, former residents
are “languishing” in Azerbaijan? One might add, “Why don’t the former
Armenian Karabaghtsis come back to claim the land for good?”

The other recurrent theme of my conversations was the Republic
of Armenia presidential election, scheduled within a year. It’s
not uncommon to hear, “What if a non-karabaghtsi becomes the
commander-in-chief? What will become of Artsakh?” There are no
answers. The questions betray a legitimate anxiety. Other less
frequently heard topics are the Himnatram and what a wonderful job
the Diaspora has done. One wonders whether such glowing words come
up because the listeners are from the Diaspora.

Yerevan? This is my third visit since the creation of the
Third Republic. In a couple of months there will be celebrations
commemorating the 20th anniversary of “independence”. Am I biased
and is that the reason why I use a qualifying sign? You bet I am,
and that’s because of the perspective that living as a student almost
eight consecutive years in Armenia during the ’70s and early ’80s
has supplied. That period provides me with some point of reference
to compare the present with the past.

The views I hold of the present have minimal relation with the Marxist
ideology that I profess. In the early ’60s I was in a very small
minority, within the staunchly pro-Soviet segment of the community,
that was critical of the Soviet totalitarian socio-economic system. A
number of friends and I paid dearly for our stance: we were terrorized
and I was obliged to carry a concealed weapon for personal protection.

Furthermore, during my studies in Armenia, a friend from Qamishli,
Syria, and I were denied our elected positions in various student
and compatriotic councils. We were to be expelled from Armenia for
criticizing, during a semi-public gathering with officials, the bribery
and corruption in educational institutions. A fellow Diasporan student
accused us of being involved in hagabedagan (anti-state) activities
in a subsequent “trial-by-colleagues”, i.e. by the student body of
the institution where we were studying. That was reason enough for
the Dean of Diaspora students to take action. To this day it’s not
clear whose magic wand played a role in “sparing” us from expulsion.

Why this long-winded sub-introduction following my statements about
Artsakh? It’s intended to demonstrate where my bias is rooted.

Secondly, to put at ease acquaintances in Artsakh and Yerevan who
confided in me and told some ugly stories.

On my previous two visits I had returned home depressed. This time, I
was not–probably because I was “immunized” against what to expect. I
feel re-energized … to tell and retell what’s happening in the
Motherland, until somebody listens for the sake of our land(s),
for the sake of our people(s) in Artsakh, in Armenia and in Diaspora.

It’s a no-brainer to any social studies student that a country
without a sound and independent economy of whatever type (capitalist,
welfare state, managed economy) there can’t be political independence,
especially when the levers of production and distribution are owned and
managed by foreign investors. The main sectors of Armenian economy are
now owned by foreigners. There is no need to elaborate on the oligarchs
collaborating with foreign interests and about whom people–the
homemaker, taxi driver, server in the restaurant, reporter, editor,
publisher, educator, doctor, professor and academician–have little
positive to say. The country is in worse economic shape than many
Third World countries I visited in the late ’60s and the early ’70s.

There is much talk about construction and beautification but it’s
limited to Yerevan and primarily to its centre. There is a semblance
of clusters of residential mini-skyscrapers. Try to rent an apartment
in this putative high-rises? No way! How can a family with a monthly
income of $150 to $200 dollars afford the exorbitant rents? These
buildings are in areas from where people were forcibly vacated and
were offered peanuts in compensation. How did the price of older
apartments, close to the centre, which were priced at $15,000 to
$20,000 ten years ago now fetch $100,000 to $150,000?

Yes, the new buildings have provided a modern look to the city.

Outwardly, they are comparable to downtown apartments in small cities
in the West. But at what cost? In addition to cheating previous
owners of the lands and in erecting new buildings on the same lands,
the developers have compromised the eco-system. German experts have
condemned the constructions as non-eco friendly. It appears that
Alexander Tamanyan, the principal architect of the “old” city, knew
a thing or two about the movements of air and pollution. The present
architects, nearly a century later, display utter ignorance in favor
of beauty.

Let’s be fair. The highways converging to the city centre have made a
difference in normalizing traffic and providing much needed arteries
to various outlying neighborhoods. Moreover, they have made it easier
for the innumerable BMWs, SUVs and the sleek, new Mercedes look-alike
Volgas to maneuver. Who owns them though? Most are bought through
borrowed money at 10-12%, adding a further burden on a country drowned
in debt.

What about culture? It was off-season and thus concerts, the
opera and other cultural activities were not on. To compensate,
I listened to street violin players, to piano, and to guitar-based
groups at the cafe-restaurants around the Opera House and along
the Teryan Boulevard. I thought it would be pleasurable during late
evenings–following days of 41, 43, 45 degree Celsius. I wish I had
not ventured. I heard more Russian songs than during the Soviet era.

Mind you, I like all types of music and all kinds of songs,
irrespective of language, but the dominance of one particular language
irked me, to say the least. And to add insult to injury the melodies
did not resemble the popular Russian music. They were fake-jazz. Who
do the performers think they are kidding?

I can’t refrain from commenting on the servers. They were
eye-catching, sensuous beauties who lacked the basic skills of trained
professionals. Having once been a server myself in the mountain
resorts of Lebanon and a “flying-waiter” in the Middle East Airlines,
I couldn’t help noticing a lack of decency and common courtesy. Am
I exaggerating? A relative told me that they were very low-paid,
untrained employees, and I had been too demanding in my expectations.

Some people made the remark that I should have attended the gala-dinner
at Harsnaqar Restaurant, following the 3rd International Medical
Congress of Armenia closing ceremonies, instead of rabiz places to
observe a high quality service and not be disappointed. May be they
were right, but there is a but… Having heard that the said restaurant
allegedly belonged to an oligarch, and it would have cost 25,000 drams
per person (around CDN$65) to attend, I couldn’t bring myself to the
notion of further enriching a crook. For the same reason, I regret
staying at Aviatrans Hotel. I should add though, the employees at
that lodge were excellent.

Another point to ponder about: Doesn’t rabiz music, behaviour,
“culture” represent the average Joe in any society, and isn’t the
“common” citizen a part of the majority in any country? I was
interested in that!

I repeat my initial expression of regret for another reason. The
centre of evening enjoyment and unfortunately one of the best parts
of Yerevan, is not for families. I write in no disrespect to people
in the villages and towns surrounding the city. Poverty and lack
of employment has driven the young to Yerevan. What better trade is
there without monetary capital than exposing one’s flesh? That’s what
I observed around me in the cafe-restaurants.

Incidentally, I noticed the monument dedicated to the victims of the
Jewish Holocaust at the Teryan park. Though small in construction,
it was very tastefully done and awe-inspiring. But I could not figure
out why it was positioned in a location dedicated to the poet? Why the
late human rights activist Sakharov had his own square with a bust,
but just a corner was devoted to a whole people subjected to holocaust?

I didn’t visit Dzidzernagapert and other significant commemorative
markers anew. Moreover, the majority, like the monuments at Sardarabad
and Musa Ler were erected during the Soviet period and I had paid my
respects, time and again, in the past.

Yerevan is floating in horse latitudes. There is a palpable stagnant
atmosphere in politics. Nothing moves. While people in Karabagh are
“concerned” in the identity of the next president, in Yerevan they
complain about how long they have to “support” their brothers in the
Artsakh highlands. Overall, it appears they are tired of unending
protests that have led matters nowhere. A minority is hopeful that
the proposed “dialogue” between the government and the opposition
may lead to some “accommodation”.

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