Or should the title of this entry read, “Is Armenia Aspiring to Be Something Else Other Than European?”
One morning while on the bus I began to contemplate what Armenia intends itself to be in the 21st century, that is, how does it see itself in the world or how will its identity be defined by other nations?
Armenia is wedged between three Muslim nations whose influence has long been noticeable in Armenian music and even modern spoken language. The open markets throughout Armenia are the same types where ordinary people shop in its neighboring countries, so commerce is very similar. I have not had the opportunity of mingling with either Azeris or Turks so I can’t judge whether Armenians use similar kinds of body language or even if they engage in conversation with total ambivalence or on the offensive from the start. Iranians seem to be very polite from the few conversations I have had with them and it is unfortunately seldom nowadays that I run into Armenians by happenstance who are equally as dignified. Actually, some Armenian men especially behave rather badly in public, spitting every few minutes for no apparent reason. Some start arguing with you shortly after saying hello on the street. What is this attributed to?
I think that Armenia is far from reaching a point where it would be considered among the nations of Europe socially, economically, or in terms of general governance. Certainly Armenia has embraced capitalism to the fullest extent possible, the number one sign of that being homeless people and pensioners begging on sidewalks throughout the city. New posh boutiques displaying the latest fashions that only a small percentage could ever afford or have the inclination to wear seem to open weekly, not to mention supermarkets carrying foods consumed for the most part traditionally in the West, especially in Europe. Even landmarks and newly constructed buildings are taking on a sort of neo-European sophistication. But cosmetics and fancy shopping outlets do not define a European country. Rather, it is the way society itself is forged by its own citizens.
In Armenia a minority complains about the absence of the “rule of law” and “justice.” Citizens turn to Europe to solve their domestic complaints–in 2007 nearly 600 cases were opened by Armenians with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The government agencies and ministries are all connected to the policies of the governing Republican party and President Serge Sarkisian, and thus the courts do not act independently. Only the Ombudsman seems to be able to criticize and get away with it, and he is rather good at it, but it may only be a matter of time before he is replaced. No one in the government seems to be listening to him, anyway.
Many ministries fail to do what they have been created to accomplish. For instance the Ministry of Nature Protection last year approved the destruction of the Teghut forest in the Lori region for copper ore exploration–the move will certainly destroy a good part of the environment there and cause long-term problems for the wildlife. Also in the same area toxic waste is being dumped into a river threatening the health of local residents in the process with the government turning a blind eye.
The educational system has been reduced to tatters. A friend of mine named Shahan who is originally from Beirut pulled his teenaged kids from the local public school because he complained that they weren’t learning anything, not to mention they were not accepted by the students there who communicate using “street” Armenian. Now they attend a private German school and according to what Shahan’s son explained to me, he is able to find his niche there, not to mention study properly.
Regarding the healthcare system–I wrote about my recent health problems a while back and identified some of the faults that I found. Simply walking through the hallways of some hospitals can be a frightening experience with the dim lighting, exposed electrical wiring, water-damaged walls with peeling paint, broken doors, and worn-out floors. In a tiny country which boasts a fiscal budget of $2.5 billion, what is the excuse for having state-run hospitals operating in near shambles? How much money will it take to install brighter light bulbs–perhaps florescent since they are more economical–and affix new linoleum on each floor, prioritizing on the ones that need the repairs most urgently? Construction materials are generally cheap as they come from neighboring Turkey which does not produce goods of the highest quality, but it would certainly be better to have mediocre floors and clean walls than none at all.
I don’t want to get started on the social services of Armenia, which are horrendous to put it mildly. I should just add that nothing seems to be changing in that sphere–pensioners are struggling more than ever and homelessness is an issue that may start getting out of control if urban development continues unchecked. You can see out-of-luck mothers with their children begging door to door and even in underground shopping areas, something practically nonexistent only five years ago–certainly in 2002 during my first stint at living here. I am not aware of what the current situation is like in European countries–in France the number of homeless was about 86,000 in 2004 for instance, and in 2006 there were approximately 345,000 people without homes in Germany (there aren’t official statistics available). But what is the excuse for a country in which housing was virtually guaranteed for all citizens when it was part of the Soviet Union? Why should those values change with the adoption of a free-market economic system? Armenian society is obsessed with German technology and German-made goods–perhaps Armenia wants to adopt this European power’s homeless problem as well.
European countries take pride in their adoption of democratic values and the rule of law. Their court systems are arguably the best in the world. And those who choose to defy the law do not go unpunished. But none of those things can be said about Armenia. True democracy is still a long ways off with vote bribing and beatings continuing. Petty lawlessness is evident every day, examples being motorists driving rapidly against traffic along one-way streets and people shooting off guns during arguments in the middle of the street, as I witnessed last autumn.
Illegal construction continues, as does mindless civil construction, with new roads and tunnels built that are not used as often as they should be. Sidewalks and side roads in the meantime continue to fall apart. Parks are disappearing. State funds seem to keep going to the wrong projects. Now that the global recession is just starting to show its face in Armenia, who can say how that money will be spent through the end of the year?
What does being European mean for Armenia, its leaders and citizens? To be quite honest, I don’t have the faintest idea.