Armenian “Regime Change”? They won’t hear of it because Sargsyan really, really, had it coming

Is absence of kvas a symbol of change? -- Notes from two weeks in Armenia

A view of our countryside cabin, uphill from Vanadzor
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Two weeks in Armenia

The essential question is “where is Armenia headed?”

“We had a revolution” is heard repeatedly here. They say it proudly, with hope in their hearts. While western analysts – including this one – were wondering about it, and suspecting another “regime change,” or even a Nulandish cookie binge, just ask an Armenian “Color revolution?” and they will have none of it.

Why? Because Sargsyan really, really, had it coming. “Sargsyan was eating the country. He and his two brothers were eating the country,” my son-in-law told me. A word of explanation or background: Ashot Chobanyan, songwriter and vocalist, is the father of our grandson. We, Joanna and I, were there with our grandson to reunite him with his father and his Armenian relatives. Yes, there has been a divorce, but the father of my grandson will always be my son-in-law. That bond is forever.

Another personal source was unreserved in his optimism, expecting an Armenian renaissance. He envisions a new, better Armenia, and on the subject of cleaning out the corruption, “Pashinyan is already doing great things.” [I will shortly do another post on the anti-corruption campaign] and added that it has reached all the way down to the personal level: “The police are more polite since the revolution.”

Some Language Notes

There are news shows both in Russian and in Armenian. News shows in Russian I can render for Joanna. News in Armenian, no. There are no news shows in English — yet!

Still, a businessman in the capital assured me that being able to function in English is essential for upward mobility. One of my grandson’s cousins is majoring in English. I asked her if the businessman’s assessment was correct. She assured me it was. “Even more than Russian?” I asked. She replied “Oh everyone knows Russian. It’s no big deal.”

Still, I got the feeling that Russian is less useful (or welcome?) here than in 2010. Some reactions I got when speaking Russian: Stony silence, or “I don’t understand” (“Chem haskanoum”) or even “We are not Russians, though some think we are.” And there is a clear undertone. But when it is realized that I learned Russian to have a language in common in Armenia, I’m okay again. In the States, Armenian is taught at only two places: the University of Michigan and the Defense Language Institute, period. So what is a guy to do?

There is a more simple explanation: Russian is known by senior population because it was the official language of USSR and it was taught in all the schools. The new generation, born after 1991 is not obliged to learn Russian — but if they want to work in Russia! Moreover, there is a huge “invasion” of rural people into the cities. This part of population always had a weak knowledge of any other language except the Armenian they spoke at home.

A Health Care Note

Eric got a hairline fracture on the heel bone, jumping off a wall to escape the dog at the Botanical Gardens in Vanadzor. Cost? The rabies shots, the X-rays, and the cast and all came to less than $50. Try that in the states! I’m told there is growing medical tourism business in Armenia. Not surprised.

Post-Soviet Dilapidation

Back to the Botanical Gardens, there is a single caretaker at the front gate, with a residence and the sleeping guard dog. The greenhouses are in ruins, and weeded over. The glass is entirely gone with all the framework rusting away.  You get a pleasant stroll through placid rural paths, but the Botanical Gardens in Vanadzor essentially collapsed with the Soviet Union. One source told me Vanadzor business is down because people are leaving. Where? To the capital, or to Russia. A buyer’s market in real estate.

Personal Transport has changed

In the 90’s there was an area in the capital where independent drivers convened, and you’d have a native speaker negotiate an inter-city trip for you. Or it would be an appeal to “dear close personal friend with a car!” Seems every car here in Armenia runs on propane instead of gasoline. “It’s cheaper,” they explain. Even so, it is cheaper to go by taxi than to own a car, and personal transport is now mostly via taxis. There are no seatbelts in the back seat of an Armenian taxi. You watch the driver put on his safety belt and look unsuccessfully for yours. There isn’t one. But on the other hand for everyone’s comfort, Armenian taxis do have crucifixes and icons on windshield and dash!  The fare is 100 drams per kilometer. While I was there, the dram was 480 to the dollar.

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The roads are lined with “gas stations” still promising BENZIN, but when you go to fill up, you repressurize the steel bubble in the trunk with propane. I was told the absence of gasoline was because of the war with Azerbaijan.

Pipes, all painted white, line many of the roads. Ask what’s in them, and the answer is “Propane.” (In our 90’s visit I made an unforgettable impression, leaping up on one and walking along it. “That’s how I’ll always remember you,” said one of Eric’s Armenian uncles. Lifelong skaters have balance.)

Domestic life

Our first week this year was in a cabin on a mountainside overlooking Vanadzor, where the highlight of the trip was an evening with my son-in-law’s musical friends. We had piano-playing, guitar playing, singing, and, of course, vodka. Interesting note about what the old “command economy” could achieve: there is still a piano in every apartment. Even in our rustic cabin, there was a piano! 

Armenian men are expected to roast the horovats (meat and veggies on skewers. Do NOT call it skishkebob). Since it was raining that evening, one skilled guest did the horovats indoors on the gas stove! In the kitchen, the view was of an apricot tree right outside the window.

Our other entertainment was endless chess games! Of course an American trying to beat an Armenian at chess is like an American trying to drink with a Russian! Good luck with that! But I left feeling that my own chess game was much the better for my time in Armenia.

A charming effect of the high density housing is there is still no urban sprawl with ‘burbs stretching outwards: the rural existence is in walking distance to the main avenue of Vanadzor. And a short walk out front would put you amidst free range chickens and even cows. Roosters wake you in the early morn!

Grand Symbol of Progress

Yerevan, the completed Fountain Steps, with an art gallery at every level

In the capital city, the Fountain Steps are a huge symbol of change and progress. In the 90’s up at the top there was stone-cutting equipment, abandoned and rusting.  The Fountain Steps have been fully rebuilt/restored, and the fountains are flowing. And it is all one huge art gallery: at every level there are spaces for art. Inside, you can take a series of escalators to the top.

Reminders of the Great Earthquake

Older Armenians divide their life by the massive earthquake of 1988. The effects of it in the towns have been restored, but there are unmistakeable traces of it still. On the hillside above our cabin are the huge remains, with abandoned construction equipment, of a grand resort hotel. Now just picturesque ruins, with free range cows about, instead of a tourists. And, being Armenia, wild apricot trees!

Remains of a grand hotel ruined by the 1988 earthquake

Other signs of change

Another changing Armenia note: Vanadzor’s “Communist Cafe,” fondly remembered from the 90’s, is long gone. People called it that because of the poster of Lenin decorating the interior. It was a nice simple place where you could sip tan or kvas and solve the world’s problems. And on that note, what has happened to kvas? I happen to like kvas. I only saw it available at one place, the open air Vernissage Market in Yerevan. I had a glass.  Imagine two weeks in Armenia with only one chance for a glass of kvas!

Fortunately, there are recipes online. I can make it at home, and drink it just as in 1990s Armenia!

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