What struck me on my belated return to Armenia was the growing chasm between those who have money and those who don’t. A tourist who keeps to the relatively well-trodden area around the centre of Yerevan and the tourist attractions on the outskirts of town will not get any idea of this very pronounced and very real divide. Yerevan is full of vanity projects. Rich benefactors, both from the Diaspora and from the oligarch class, the latter ostensibly seeking to redeem their excesses, will sponsor or build almost anything, as long as their name remains indelibly connected to it.
Some might say that such "naming rights" are a small price to pay for the greater public good, and in many cases, where such projects have a real benefit to the majority of the people, they have a point. However, that is not often the case. The typical Armenian man on the street is more concerned with where the daily bread is coming from than viewing modern art in the air conditioned confines of a museum aimed at a very small sub-section of society. The fatalistic attitude of most, which, in many ways is anathema to progressive state-building, is to take what they can today, and worry about tomorrow if it comes.
In many places, this ostentatious show of wealth goes beyond the unedifying and more into the realms of a deliberate display of strength and power. Why else would the oligarchs build multi-million dollar walled compounds and mansions in the hills overlooking Yerevan’s poorest districts? These ornate villas and so-called palaces often exhibit the hallmarks of those who have much more money than sense, or indeed, taste.
Of more concern than the vanity of the wealthy (and their blatant tax evasion) is the misdirection of the funds that actually do make it into the public purse. Huge sums of money were spent building a new cathedral – St Gregory the Illuminator – in the heart of Yerevan while many of Armenia’s priceless architectural treasures, such as the monastery of Sanahin in distant Lori province, is left to further deteriorate, despite its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The interior of the country, especially, is crying out for investment and renovation. Half-built apartment blocks and factories blight the otherwise beautiful landscape, rusting and collapsing in on themselves since Soviet funding for their development dried up with independence in 1991. Those that were operational when Armenia achieved independence were often asset stripped by their senior managers, making themselves wealthy and leaving Armenia with a rotting, dysfunctional industrial infrastructure.
All these negative thoughts came to me while sitting on a bench under a shady tree at Sanahin’s ancient monastic complex, with moss, weeds and vines clogging its medieval roof, with a thick black column of pollutants snaking its way skyward from the city of Alaverdi far below. Even at distance, the abandoned industrial hulks in their dark brown and orange competed with the verdant greens of the landscape as the dominant colour.
This is the other side of Armenia that the tourist board would rather you not see, but is almost impossible to avoid for all except the most myopic traveller. That said, my journey through Armenia, up to Lori province was punctuated by interactions with the local populace that were all the more remarkable for their genuine warmth and humility. It seems the more impoverished the wallet, the more wealthy the heart and soul. Perhaps there is hope for my homeland yet.
© Hishyeness 2010