Sunday, August 8, 2004

Out and About in Yerevan (August 2004)

In Yerevan, one does not need to make an appointment to meet people. A night stroll in the city center and you could meet up at least several acquaintances and friends. I experienced this first hand when one evening while walking around an area where there was an open-air concert I met four people whom I was not planning to meet (not that I didn’t want to meet them) within the span of 15 minutes. Of course this is a seasonal phenomenon where during the summer months the city is full of people from all over the world. Of course one of my main problems is that having lived in many countries my circle of acquaintances is bound to be larger.

Trying to take refuge from the ‘barrage of meetings’ is not an easy task. One needs to avoid all the public spaces, caf├ęs, restaurants and to be on the safe side avoid the city center altogether. But of course not being able to live within the confines of an apartment 24 hours a day I had to accept the risks of venturing outside at night.

Going out in Yerevan has been an expensive pastime. Compared to two years ago prices have gone up in almost every domain (either that or my spending power has gone really low). Whereas in the past I would spend an average of 3,000 AMD/person (approximately six USD) for a dinner at an average restaurant (average not for a local but for spoiled Diasporan like me) now the same outing would cost no less than 5,000 AMD (10 USD). This made me wonder if the purchasing power or ability of the people has gone up as well. In my subsequent ‘investigations’ I found out that in average most people’s income have remained constant and that had an adverse consequence on the purchasing power of the ‘Average Armen/ouhi’

Perhaps as a manifestation of the development that the country in general, and Yerevan in specific, was witnessing is that the number of homeless people has been more visible (not having statistics I cannot claim that the number has increased, it’s just that they are more visible now). Here I need to make a distinction between organized beggars and homeless people. For anyone visiting Armenia, a familiar sight in the capital’s main square. Several years back a study was conducted by several students at the State University to examine this phenomenon. Some of the oral reports I’ve heard was that most—if not all—of the beggars in the city center are organized and the city mapped out into turfs of operation. One of the striking observations at the time was that every morning the beggars would take up position in their pre-assigned corners of the city. A car (usually a Mercedes-Benz) would then make regular and frequent rounds in between these spots to make sure that everything was in order and that unauthorized begging would not take place. Some people have even witnessed gang-style fights between the beggar-pimps to assert their authority in a certain zone. By contrast one could tell that a person is a genuine homeless because of the passiveness of their actions. First of all they don’t beg for money, they usually try to scavenge for food and other useful material that they can get their hands on in the various garbage dumps in the city. One morning, while visiting a friend in one of the main neighborhoods of the city I even witnessed a community of homeless people who set up base near a huge ‘cache’ of garbage. Being early morning one of them was awakening from his night sleep on a run-down sofa (most probably dumped there as well) and sitting in the sofa he was surrounded by garbage. Smoking an already half smoked cigarette he was gazing over the garbage perhaps trying to identify the new garbage from the ones he had already ‘processed.’

I met up with a local friend who is from a typical soviet Armenian intellectual family (one definition of such families is that they didn’t speak Armenian during soviet times rather were Russophone and had more things in common with intellectuals from other Soviet republics than with their own nation). In our conversations, my friend presented her view of things about the economic condition of the country. Combining her academic background as a sociologist as well as her practical experience for working an international NGO she provided her insight about the situation in the country. The conversations usually ‘analyzed’ the new breed of Armenia’s ‘businessmen’ and their monopoly over basic commodities (sugar, gas, etc). These people—with picturesque nicknames—collectively own or control most of the country’s economy. Although some of them have accumulated their wealth through legitimate businesses most of the remaining benefited from their personal ties with those people who at the start of the country’s independence were ‘privatizing’ various government owned factories. Moreover the strength of these oligarchs is based on their close association with government officials (some of them really high ranking) who also provide the ‘perfect’ atmosphere to eliminate (not physically although that option is not completely excluded) any competition. Of course on the bright side—if one could call it as such—these oligarchs do take care of a large group of people who are mostly their extended families, the families of those directly working with them as well as the communities where they grew up. My hope was that ‘businessmen’ in Armenia would not always remain impermeable to the concept of fair-game and eventually not run out of business those who do try to import fuel or sugar through other channels (of course through legitimate means).

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