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Yerevan’s Digital Billboards – Are They Really Necessary?

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About six weeks ago a mounting stand for a digital billboard was fixed on the corner directly across the building in which I live adjacent to the printing house, at the intersection of Vartanants and Hanrapetutyan Streets. It was supposed to be installed across the street but someone came by and complained that it would block their windows, and remarkably whoever was in charge listened, then they hauled the thing away. Last week the LED  screens were installed, and yesterday the blinding advertisements for luxury ski resorts, casinos and expensive furniture stores began, in the heart of a middle-class neighborhood.

I have become so numb to such buffoonery that I’m not even trying to understand the logic in installing this billboard and others like it in the first place. But I wanted to get an estimate for what such a billboard would ordinarily cost and I found a web site that provides instant quotes.

I’m not very good with guessing measurements but to my eyes the billboard measures about 3 x 3 meters.  The screen seems to be high-resolution, judging from the picture quality and brightness, which brings the price at around $18,600. The stand seems to be constructed of some heavy duty metal, perhaps iron–the site estimates it to cost around $11,800. Then there’s shipping and installation to take into consideration, about $800 and $1800, respectively. At 7 cents per kilowatt, the current price of electricity that is scheduled to increase incidentally, the monthly operational cost is just over $103. Altogether, including other fees such as connectivity, the total expenditure comes to around $56,640, and again, this is according to the data that I fed into the calculator, it’s not meant to be an accurate figure.

Some alternative, more constructive ways to put that $56,640 to use:

1. Subsidize low income housing for two newlywed couples. In more remote parts of the city like Sepastia, Nor Nork or even Avan, Soviet-era apartments could be found for $25,000, maybe even less. Give them another few thousand to furnish the place properly and inspire them to be good citizens in the process. Or, find housing for families living in crammed quarters like sardines in the Erebuni hostels. The homeless, naturally, could also benefit from proper living conditions and mental rehabilitation.

2. Renovate one or two schools in dire need of repairs, especially in rural areas of Armenia far from the capital. Many still have broken windows, improper heating, dysfunctional lavatories. State-subsidized hospitals are also in need of funds–the shabby, unhygienic maternity ward where my child was born in Zeytun comes immediately to mind.

3. Build additional playgrounds, especially soccer fields, and thereby encourage children to be more active in playing sports. While your at it, might as well start a physical education campaign to get kids off their asses and exercise properly.

4. Increase the wages of the invisible street sweepers who are out there at 4 o’clock in the morning each day. Who knows what they make–it can’t be much more than a hundred bucks a month, realistically half that.

5. Install new, clean public toilets, especially in areas heavily frequented by tourists, like Republic Square and the Vernisage. If Armenia aspires to be European, it needs to act like it and properly cater to so many of its guests from Italy, France, etc.

The list goes on. I could sit here all night and think of more useful ways to spend that fifty grand, and I’m sure anyone reading this will have some other useful suggestion in mind. Installing digital billboards is not the answer to demonstrating progress. It comes from smaller, tangible things that are not easily noticed but make a huge impact on the community. That’s how society expands and transforms.

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Yerevan Municipal Elections Over; Long Live Democracy in Armenia

A polling station in Yerevan
A polling station in Yerevan

The Yerevan municipal elections were held on May 5, complete with reported violations and harassment and subsequent criticisms. The ruling Republican Party of Armenia secured 58 percent of the vote and thus will determine the next mayor of Yerevan, who’s most definitely incumbent Taron Markarian. Prosperous Armenia Party and the Barev Yerevan movement garnered 20 percent and 8.7 percent, respectively. Voter turnout was 53.5 percent. All other opposition parties/ blocks were shut out.

Many political parties that are in opposition to the government or still on the fence were putting their faith in these elections, hoping that democracy would work in their favor this time around and system-wide reform would begin in Yerevan. Onlookers from thousands of miles away will be eager to see the election results and make their judgments about political successes and failures accordingly.

Despite past monitoring efforts by European structures like the OSCE and the pretense of transparency, it has been very easy to falsify the vote –not to mention essential in order to retain power–in nearly every election. Not only are games played at the polling stations–forging signatures on voter lists, ballot stuffing, bribing, carousel voting, harassment and so forth, numbers are undoubtedly being conjured behind closed doors at the Central Election Commission (CEC). Naturally, this cannot be proven for certain since the CEC ultimately reports to the president, just as all state bodies do.

In other words, the conclusion that the candidate or party that acquires the most votes is the real winner is a naïve sentiment for the simple fact that democracy and the rule of law are not allowed to function properly so long as the president of Armenia does not value that system of governance. And I don’t only mean Serge Sargsyan–his two predecessors also behaved essentially as dictators. The president has complete control over all governmental agencies and institutions, and ultimately he has the final say as to how something will play out. If governmental corruption for instance is to be stamped out, he must have the will to do it, not only the prime minister, who clearly doesn’t or else is powerless to do so. The judiciary likewise reports to the president; it can act independently in low-profile cases where private interests are not at stake. When the president wishes for a ruling to be made one way or another, the judge holding the verdict is obliged to carry out his wishes, or be dismissed.

The CEC is no exception to the rule. The head of the commission also caters to the whims, or rather the shrewd planning, of the president. In other words, the “official results” of the elections cannot be taken at face value as being legitimate and a just expression of will by the people. The doctrine of legitimacy is prescribed by the president of Armenia alone.

Sunday’s vote was falsified again simply because the authorities could get away with it, as was made quite obvious in February’s presidential elections, while managing to gain praise from Russia, Europe and the United States in the aftermath.

And when communities in the Diaspora continue to ignore violations of democratic values by blindly embracing the outcome of the vote (or remaining indifferent), despite any blatant flaws that were revealed, the Armenian citizenry is let down knowing that its compatriots based abroad are unsupportive of its plight.

Until the Armenian nation fully embraces democracy, the same free and fair elections that Western nations covet as the purest demonstration of freedom cannot be held. The determination is necessary, along with the much-needed collective consensus on the vote from the Diaspora.  This time around, it is vital for Armenian communities worldwide, which have expressed their concern and support for Armenia’s freedom, to carefully read about the violations that were reported by the Armenian press throughout the day (notable news sources include Hetq Online, RFE/RL, A1+ and Civilnet).

One hundred observers from the Diaspora were purportedly monitoring the municipal elections. Their crucial findings will need to be considered quite carefully in determining whether democracy in Armenia can indeed flourish, as it should.

Why I Love Election Time

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Two days ago the Yerevan municipality was repairing the roadway through the courtyard behind the apartment building where I live. Huge potholes ran along the pavement making both driving and walking troublesome. They also installed brand new lighting on the walls of the tunnel leading into the courtyard, making the evening stroll back there less ominous.

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But repairs are being made in other parts of my neighborhood, too. Here’s a photo of a commonly traveled shortcut between two garages up the street that has been completely repaired, the exposed rocks, concrete and broken asphalt covered over.

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The area in front of my rented garage (above photo), which was laden with potholes and strewn trash thanks to the location of the garbage bins, has also been redone. The ugly metal cans have been replaced with new, heavy-duty plastic bins that have folding lids, so the broken styrofoam and cellophane bags won’t fly around any longer when a gust of wind blows. The walls have also been patched up since this was taken.

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Critics will cynically argue that city hall is making all sorts of cosmetic repairs around town, like changing the curbstones (which I do think is a needless expense), as a way of vote buying. But I don’t see it that way. Rather, I see my tax money being put to good use. I want the taxes I paid to be spent on improving my community. This is work the Yerevan municipality should have been doing anyway, regardless of whether elections were around the corner. It’s definitely a good thing.

I really hope the upcoming Yerevan municipal elections are held democratically without vote rigging, intimidation, ballot stuffing, etc. But I’m not putting my hopes on that. I will, however, commend the great work the current administration is doing for my community, albeit four years plus late. At least it’s finally getting done. And I hope it continues, regardless of who’s in charge a few weeks from now.

Barevolution in the Rain

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Despite the strange weather, rain for five minutes and muted sunshine for ten more, a sizable crowd gathered in Liberty Square to hear Raffi. The sound system was a lot better today and his voice boomed throughout the square, lambasting his critics while acknowledging recent “mistakes,” poor judgement or however you want to describe it. He seemed more strong willed than ever before.

I was most impressed with the remarks his wife Armenouhi made. I wasn’t aware on that tumultuous night of April 9 she had been knocked down by the riot police and momentarily lost conscious, and when she came to she realized one of her shoes was missing, so she marched about barefoot for the rest of the evening. The tears that many saw in her eyes were not from pain, but for the policemen, who are essentially very young men as was made obvious in a recent photostory on Hetq and who were simply following orders, against their own will. I also cannot fault them for essentially doing their job, although no certainly one deserved to be bashed around and thrown to the ground. Having said that, there clearly were policemen, especially those in plain clothing, who were particularly cruel and unjustifiably callous in the way they handled the student protesters earlier in the day as amateur video footage revealed so candidly.

A week from now on April 9 a summit is planned at the Ani Hotel where political organizations, intellectuals and civil groups will devise a plan about how to move forward. It’s a step in the right direction.

He didn’t touch upon his curious trip to Moscow on Thursday, not that he would, but that’s not actually important. What matters is that this movement continues to gather strength, despite the pitfalls it inevitably faces yet manages to rebound each and every time. That seems to be what’s happening, although I have read and heard from many in the last several weeks that “Raffi’s not a leader.” Naturally, no one could ever expand upon that or give an example of what a leader in Armenia should be. Like him or not, he clearly is one, and conscious Armenian citizens have faith in him. They are counting on him to deliver an Armenia that is full of promise, one where the rule of law functions and equal opportunity exists for all. What right does anyone have to discourage them?

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The Turning Point?

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At tonight’s rally there were noticeably fewer people in attendance, perhaps a few thousand at the most. While walking through the crowd I discerned just how much people have become frustrated. Many kept demanding that change be made now rather than later, and asking “How?” whenever Raffi said that they would be victorious. The continuing comments transformed into mild heckling, and after a speech of about 30 minutes Raffi announced that on their way to Tsitsernakabert they would walk past the presidential palace on Baghramyan Street.
Continue reading The Turning Point?