Category Archives: Business

Home Renovation in Yerevan

The paper-thin linoleum floors had finally given out in my rental apartment. The material was so flimsy that it could be torn effortlessly with bare hands. In some places the floor began to buckle or literally come loose at the seams — I had to keep the vinyl together using clear tape. And although the foyer and kitchen adjoined, the flooring in each didn’t match at all–completely different colors and patterns.  I discussed the possibility of changing the floors with my landlord in the spring of 2014 with no success — he refused to consider replacing the linoleum on the grounds that 2.5 meter wide flooring was no longer available on the market (not true), and that the kids would end up destroying the replaced floor anyway. At the time I had the mindset that since the home wasn’t technically mine I would not pay to have the floor redone. That was until a few weeks ago, when a corner of the floor came up after opening both the twin front doors. That was the last straw. It was time to go floor shopping.

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But before I could go anywhere upon recommendation I asked a flooring guy over  to suggest options and give an estimate. His name is Edgar, and he recommended either ceramic tile or linoleum replacement. I chose the latter since the tile installation was not cost-effective plus the floors are actually uneven — there’s about a quarter inch step-up into the kitchen. I wasn’t about to pay umpteen dollars to even it all out.

The challenge was finding the linoleum. I wanted a light color, similar to the faux parquet beige pattern that was in the kitchen (see photo). I decided to have the flooring installed last weekend, on Saturday. Edgar insisted that we could find something at the “Knuni” home improvement market right down the street from where I live, but we only found one store that didn’t have the required length of flooring we needed, which was 9 meters. Our trek on foot led us down to Nar-Dos Street, which proved fruitless. We only found stores specializing in wood or ceramic flooring.

One shop keeper recommended that we visit some stores on Tigran Mets Street, on the block between Nar-Dos and Kristapor Streets. Some of these stores are known for selling  low-grade Iranian and Turkish home goods, like plastic storage containers, rainbow-tinted feather dusters and flimsy aluminum cookware. But, as it turned out, there are shops that sell reams of flooring of all different shades and patterns. After visiting three stores I settled on a vinyl flooring with a cappuccino colored oak wood pattern.  It was perfect — the required width of 2.5 meters, gorgeous pattern and over three-times thicker than the other flooring, which was put down as a fast and cheap short-term solution to begin with (at today’s rate, that junky flooring costs about 3,000 dram, or $6.20 a meter). The flooring I chose was manufactured by a Slovenian company called Juteks and claimed to be doggie proof, meaning that I should’t have to worry about my pet Chihuahua having occasional (okay, daily) accidents. That set me back about 57,000 dram, or $118. I remember having to wait about five minutes for the shop owner to run about attempting to make change for 60,000 dram — he didn’t have three 1,000 dram notes to give back in the till (if one even existed). He ended up taking out the cash from his own wallet.  Strange that literally nothing has changed in the last 15 years since I first stepped foot in Armenia with reliably and consistently having small change returned in a cash transaction. Somehow, it’s worse than ever.

Next came the purchase of wall boards — the decorative band made from wood or vinyl that hugs the base of the walls where they meet the floor. We found a vinyl one that supposedly matched the color of the floor perfectly, but it was sitting in a warehouse nearby. But instead of picking the boards up in the store I actually bought them from, we were sent to a different store. It took 45 minutes for the boards to arrive, only to see that not only were they the wrong color, they were not produced by the same manufacturer and I had to get my money back, which meant a trek to the shop we were just in. That fiasco led us on another search inside the labrinth-like “Knuni” market, which is essentially rows and rows of merchants selling all sorts of hardware, from power tools to door locks to wrench sets. It turned out that most resellers all depended on the same distributor and would only offer us the very same wall boards that we rejected. Miraculously, we somehow found another seller that had his own inventory and he had exactly what I was looking for. Another visit to a warehouse kept us waiting an additional 20 minutes. Both of us were completely fed up at that point, and I promised I would buy anything the guy found in there, so long as it wasn’t blue. But Edgar refused to install the flooring that afternoon claiming that he wouldn’t have been able to finish by sundown had he started work at 12:30 pm when we returned home. I didn’t understand why that was so important to him, but the job was deferred to Sunday.

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I should emphasize that Edgar is great at what he does. He doesn’t have an excellent eye for detail and his logic for doing things, like stapling seams together instead of using an adhesive, was a bit odd. Luckily, a friend lent me some nail polish that perfectly matches the floor shade so I’ve been successful in concealing the staples. Now I have to be extra careful about where I step since my dog is bizarrely perfectly camouflaged. I didn’t realize she would blend right into the floor until she took her first few trepidatious steps on the virgin surface. She took a pee a couple minutes later.

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Stop the Custom’s Agreement from being Signed with Moscow

Armenian citizens should not allow the customs agreement to be signed with Russia.

Joining a still-abstract Customs Union, with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan confirmed onboard, is a disaster in the making and would the worst thing the Armenian republic ever did in its 22 year history. It would be tantamount to entering a screeching time vortex and landing in the dark ages, complete with the classic communist slogans pasted across the city walls and statues being re-erected glorifying the days of the Soviet dream. Putin’s dream is to bring it all back, under a different guise, but all the same associated nonsense.

After 4 years of negotiations with the EU on signing the Association Agreement and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, which would have entered its final phase with a formal signing ceremony in November, one man’s abrupt decision should not lock Armenia’s fate and compromise its long-term sustainability and prospects for expanding growth. The Armenian people themselves must decide their own future, not someone who places his own personal interests over those of the people he is supposedly serving.

Any citizen who has had the privilege of studying or even visiting Europe, the US and other free democratic nations, and has a concept of what living in a democratic society means, and cares about the long-term viability of Armenia for his children and future generations, and wants to see expanding growth on all levels — economic, social, cultural, educational and so forth–must not permit the agreement for Armenia to join the Customs Union to be signed. It will neutralize the Association Agreement with the EU–this has been confirmed by EU officials.

According to RFE/RL’s report:

Elmar Brok, the German chairman of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, likewise said Armenia’s Association Agreement will not be signed any time soon. “I feel very sorry because it is legally — because of certain conditions — not possible to be a full member both of the Customs Union and have an association agreement and free trade area agreement with the European Union,” he told an RFE/RL correspondent in Brussels.

It’s not too late to stop this customs agreement with Russia from going through by any means. Fatalists in Armenian families, especially anyone over the age of 50, need to be locked up in the closet. It’s time to ensure that Armenia does not squander its opportunity for tighter integration with the west and opportunities abound for Armenia’s sustainable development. It’s time to demand that the Armenian government intervenes and forces the President to go back on his promises in Moscow. Armenians need to stand up.

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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Reflections on Armenian independence unchanged

Armenian TricolorI am reposting this article about Armenian independence that I wrote exactly one year ago since I can’t emphase this message enough. I couldn’t find the words to say the same things again a bit differently. although I tried. Indeed, everything expressed herein is still relevant, and sadly, nothing has really changed to address the issues that I identify.

Twenty years ago when Armenia declared itself independent from Soviet rule it was not only claiming statehood, it was calling for a restoration of values.  The Armenian people would be able to think and create freely in a fledgling democracy that was both naïve yet highly optimistic. Many people believed that prosperity was on the horizon, jobs would be created, and a bright future awaited them. Little did they know that both war and unchecked entrepreneurship would set them back several years.  Some have never seen any kind of prosperity after independence, whether financial or spiritual.

Armenia today is ruled by a handful of wealthy families competing for prominence, similar to what you would find in a Hollywood film about the mafia, but without all the gory violence. The common people are subjects to the nepotistic society these leaders, or oligarchs, have created. Citizens who speak out against government decisions are cruelly suppressed by this system. Others are victims to bad policies and lose their livelihoods in the process. Civil society is weak, and initiatives to bring about change in the form of grassroots movements are often supported by outside special interest groups, mainly from the US or Europe. Narcissism has long become a virtue of the nepotists, with general disregard for law and order and respect for neighborhood peace violated day and night. Society is increasingly polarized with the dividing line between the haves and have nots all the more obvious. The social equality of Armenia’s soviet past is long gone.

Although the president is quite aware of the dire economic and societal issues that most Armenians face day to day, he either plays them down or fails to address them. For instance, he recently discounted the somber fact that entire villages have been relocating to remote parts of Russia as part of a controversial resettlement program promoted by the Russian government. Judging from the headlines in the Armenian press, it is clear that the president is often out of sync with what is transpiring in the country he supposedly rules.

Below is a list of problems that the president needs to contend with to ensure Armenia’s democratic and economic progress in the years to come:

Create jobs. In the wake of independence countless factories that were prosperous during the soviet era closed either overnight or during the course of several years. Although some like chemical plants and sugar processing facilities have reopened in recent years, Armenia’s industrial output is nowhere near what it was just before the Soviet Union began to crumble. The permanent closure of key factories in rural areas, like Sisian in the southern Syunik region and Charentsavan to the north of the capital, not to mention scores of other towns throughout the country, have resulted in a depopulation, with many people once living in small towns and villages flocking to Yerevan or leaving the country, most of them for Russia, in search of work. The president needs to create an environment whereby new factories can be built by wealthy Armenian citizens or foreign businessmen weary of doing business in Armenia. Eradicating corruption in the tax and customs departments and simplifying the business registration process would be an excellent start.

Promote small business. Yerevan mayor Karen Karapetyan made himself public enemy by sweeping traders off the streets (oddly only florists are allowed to sell roses from sidewalk stands) and destroying inconspicuous kiosks where cobblers, tailors, and cigarette sellers set up shop. Shopkeepers are harassed by taxmen and some are even forced to close for days on end while they scramble to clear up minute discrepancies found as a result of loopholes purposely left open by the tax authorities to extort bribes.  Although Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian has often talked about encouraging the growth of small businesses, he has been reluctant to disclose the details of policies his government plans to implement. Tax breaks coupled with guaranteed interest-free government loans would encourage small businesses to open and help nurture an environment of trust.

Encourage civil society. In flourishing, deep-rooted democracies dissent and opposition to government policy are tolerated, and public advocacy is allowed to function. Initiatives to promote civil society need to be implemented, mainly by immediately stopping police confrontations or crackdowns on peaceful demonstrators. Society cannot be built while oppression and fear looms overhead Armenian citizens.

Tax the wealthy and give tax breaks to the lower classes. Hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue can be generated if only oligarchs were taxed, the sums of which could be funneled to important social programs. By 2006 estimates 26.5 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Free housing could be provided to impoverished citizens still living in shacks, temporary housing, or on the street. Also, pensioners could finally receive monthly stipends that are in line with the current standard of living, which is continually on the rise with food prices often skyrocketing, especially in the period leading up to the holiday season. The government should aim to eradicate poverty nationwide, and it can easily do so if and when taxes are properly collected.

Prevent emigration and promote immigration. President Sarkisian desperately needs to draft a plan for slowing down the exodus from Armenia. That should include job creation through promoting foreign investment in the manufacturing and IT sectors, an increase in the minimum wage, and equal opportunity, particularly in government agencies. He also needs to address the relatively low birthrate, with 12 children born for every 1,000 people and on average one child born per household, according to 2011 figures. He also needs to ensure that infrastructure is modernized even in the most remote villages of the republic.  Several areas of Artsakh along with the Armenian controlled territories surrounding it must be populated, and that again can only come about with increased investment and the vital infrastructure in place.  When Armenians worldwide feel confident that the Armenian government is able to provide the means and conditions for promoting growth throughout the regions, they will begin to immigrate.

These are only a handful of issues that loom over Armenia’s destiny.  There are just as many if not more challenges related to Armenian foreign policy that must be addressed, the most important being the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which seems to be floating in an eternal stalemate.

In his Independence Day remarks, President Sarkisian hailed the new generation of the republic recognizing its “concerns and demands” of a better society.  He also stated that “… in the next twenty years we will be able to build a country which will come close to our ideals. I believe in that because I believe in our collective power.”

Now the pressure is on the president. He alone can muster the support of both an apathetic public and the oligarchic society backing him by making the right policy decisions that would benefit all, not just a select few. That is a difficult balancing act, but the means to accomplish such a feat simply need implementing and the vision to do so. Having said that, it is up to Armenian society as a collective whole to ensure he aspires to the same ideals to which he alludes, the same that all citizens expect to live by.

Armenia’s History Continues to be Destroyed

The Mashdots market
The Mashdots market

Yesterday I learned that the market at the end of Mashdots Street, which is a historical landmark, was slated to be demolished. But today on News.am, I saw a photo of the rear of the building completely destroyed. The photo and story were published late Monday morning (on Independence day of the First Republic). Hetq reported that Yerevan Mayor Taron Markarian said the recent work undergone was not authorized.

Two weeks ago while walking by the building I noticed that a steel fence had been erected around the entrance of the building. I thought that meant it was going to be restored since there are renovation projects of building exteriors citywide. Turns out that the building was sold to the oligarch and Republican member of parliament, Samvel Alexanyan who is infamous for controlling a monopoly on sugar and flour imports, gouging consumers, and selling inferior vodka as genuine at high prices in his City Yerevan supermarkets, which are popping up all over the place. He wants to convert the market into yet another gigantic supermarket and destroy it in the process (he says otherwise). People are already starting to protest the demolition but it will take a lot of mobilization to stop him from completely taking the market down, although the Ministry of Culture insists that somehow the architecture will be preserved. Sounds a bit empty considering that half the building is gone.

Questions begged to be asked: Who approved the sale of a historical landmark and who was consulted before the building was sold? Did the transaction occur in secret? If not, was there any movement to stop the sale in the first place? Why weren’t concerned citizens investigating the reason for the market’s closure, especially the sellers? Who else knew about what was planned for the market, and why wasn’t it discussed beforehand? Why didn’t the press break the news sooner, long before the building was damaged beyond repair?

All sorts of unique architecture across Yerevan are being dismantled without warning. Several years ago the Youth Sports complex and guest house that was situated at the top of Abovyan Street on the hill there was dismantled to construct a luxury hotel, which was never built because the developer went bust apparently. About two years ago a new hotel project was announced by the Armenian government with the backing of a Japanese investment firm on the same site. Although the area has been cleared, nothing is being built on the location. About 95 percent of Old Yerevan in the city center has already been wiped off the face of the earth and there’s no telling when the remaining buildings — all architectural masterpieces — will be raised.

In Armenia, there is no system of checks and balances, and there doesn’t seem to be anyone with any ethical standards working in government. Even when citizens do catch word about something about to go drastically wrong, they don’t talk about it until it’s too late. Then these same people complain that the country is not a country, the laws don’t work, etc. There needs to be accountability. No one, no matter how wealthy or “powerful” they are, should be allowed to touch any historical landmark without the public being informed beforehand. In this case, since the Ministry of Culture is making promises about the market’s final transformation not being as bad as it seems, Minister Hasmik Poghosyan, a Republican, is complicit in letting the sale go through (so is Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian, yet another Republican for that matter).

Petty carelessness, whimsical power wielding, and defeatism are bringing the downfall upon the Republic of Armenia. This is applicable to virtually all large-scale business projects sponsored by the government or those with close ties to it. If those in power continue to do whatever they wish without being held accountable for their actions, Armenian citizens will have no one to blame but themselves.