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Welcome to the new home of Footprints

We’re please to announce the relaunch of Footprints, Hetq Online’s English-language blog.

This year will be Footprints‘ fifth anniversary. We’ll be focusing more on stories about people in your neighborhood—perhaps they’re people you’ve heard of but didn’t know much about. We will focus on the bright side of life in Armenia and Artsakh, not only in the capital but also in the regions, from Lori to Syunik, and we’ll describe sides of the Armenian experience that reveal authenticity of the soul and hearth. Expect lots of photography and short films documenting the visual cornucopia that Armenia has to offer, from rustic scenes of country life to the hustle and bustle of Yerevan’s distinctive streets. You can also browse the archives to read musings about Armenian politics, social issues and environmental protection initiatives, among several other stories related to Armenia as well as Artsakh and its citizenry. We value your suggestions, so if there’s something you’d like to know more about that hasn’t been documented here, please tell us.

Welcome back.

Mt. Ara

More ‘Progress’ in Yerevan: Parking Tickets by Mail

A few weeks ago I received a parking ticket in the mail (I’ve waited that long to report it so I could properly cool down and not sound vexed). On the ticket was a photograph of my Niva, license plate concealed, parallel-parked a good distance, I would say 50 feet, away from the Tumanyan/Nalbandyan intersection, but parked on the south side on Tumanyan Street.

It was late one Saturday morning in June when I needed to pop into the Star supermarket on the corner to use the ATM. My stay there lasted two minutes at the most before I was off to pick up my father-in-law and the marinated meat, then the rest of the clan. We were on our way to his dacha in Dzorakhpur for barbecue on the occasion of his birthday. I had parked in that very spot before and was never notified after the fact that I had committed a “violation.” That was before all these peeping Tom cameras were installed throughout central Yerevan.

080620131473
This taxi managed to park in a spot where he could be out of the camera’s view. I must have been parked just in front of his space.

Needless to say I was quite annoyed. Not only is there a no parking sign on the sidewalk, three cars are always rest curbside, as you can see in the photo, most of them being taxis or delivery trucks, or likely people on short errands. Only recently was a solid line painted in the middle of the right side of the street, starting from the stop line at the intersection and running 50 feet away from it, to indicate two separate lanes. The argument is that since that zone now technically constitutes a lane, drivers are forced to cross that solid line where cars are parked to continue on their way, which of course is not permitted, so there is a double violation. There was even a secure hyperlink printed on the notice, complete with a user name and password, where I could see a short video online of drivers struggling to maneuver around my car (not really).

So several factors exist here, all comprising a not-so-elaborate plan to make money. It took me a few days to work it all out, granted, but it doesn’t take a genius. First, as I stated above, there is no sign or painted lines for that matter indicating that the spot is a no-parking zone. Apparently motorists are simply expected to know about the illegality, as it should be obvious according to the explanation given over the phone.  Second, it isn’t necessary to have two lanes there since there is no left turn onto Nalbandyan Street for some strange reason since it’s been a two-way thoroughfare for over a year now to address traffic issues. I suppose the logic is to have a separate lane for cars turning right, but the traffic is never heavy on that part of Tumanyan Street anyway. Third, the fine is 5,000 dram, about $13.   A camera is perched on the pole aimed directly on that zone. The only ways to contest the violation is to either go to court, or make a stop at the traffic police station and have a chat with one of the chiefs responsible for recording such infringements of the law, which of course would only balloon into a full-blown argument peppered with fiery insults, pledges to take the pain away and swearing on the life of one’s own father or mother. And for only 5000 dram, no one is going to bother to waste the time to do either during a workday.

I wrote a letter explaining my case, which was never read because there is no postal or e-mail address given on the violation notice where complaints can be received. I am printing it here:

“I would like to first state that I did not intend to break the law. I was not aware that parking in that location was forbidden as there is no sign on the street sidewalk indicating as such.

Furthermore, the enclosed photo of my vehicle does not necessarily prove that I am violating a law since there is no sign posted on the sidewalk that informs motorists that they are about to violate the law. There is no visible way of knowing that a violation is being committed.

See the attached photo dated 6 August 2013, showing three vehicles parked in the exact same location. Note that there was still no sign posted.

In your letter you cite a violation of a section of an article of a law that is not readily available to read. The article was not cited in full, and there is no direct Internet link printed pointing to the article. As you well know, people are not in practice to dedicate the time to study all rules and regulations regarding traffic laws on a regular basis, assuming they even have access to them in print form.

It is clear that the Armenian Traffic Police is trying to modernize its method of enforcing traffic laws with cameras installed in strategic parts of Yerevan. Along with the cameras (the use of which are a clear invasion of privacy and are thereby unconstitutional according to Articles 23 and 33.2 of the Armenian Constitution) there must also be signage on the streets that clearly indicate where parking is not allowed.”

Essentially the violation zone was designed to reap easy cash. They’ve made things convenient for parking scoundrels by installing automated payment machines in stores across the city that function the same way as ATMs do. You can pay utility fees and buy minutes for your pay-and-go mobile phone plans as well. The coveted chess culture really comes in handy when developing strategies aimed at screwing Armenian citizens so nicely.

Rumor has it that Sashik Sargsyan, who is the notorious gangster brother of President Serge Sargsyan, sold these monitoring systems to the government, and I bet he fetched a more than fair price for them. He owns a second-floor apartment on the block between Tumanyan and Hanrapetutyan Streets, making that “territory” his own. If you look closely on the poles and the pink tuff stone paneled sides of buildings there you will notice an unusually high number of cameras affixed, most of which are pointing at his apartment building from various angles. So it seems the cameras serve a dual purpose–recording the dastardly deeds of motorists while making sure Sashik’s home is safe and secure. And of course, at the expense of public privacy and basic human rights.

When Being ‘Politically Correct’ About Karabakh Backfires

Sarsang Reservoir in Drmbon, Nagorno-Karabakh
Sarsang Reservoir in Drmbon, Nagorno-Karabakh

This morning I read an interesting, although lackluster, article supposedly about tourism in Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) that was published by AFP on July 21, written by Mariam Hartutyunyan. There are some questionable, even disappointing points made in the article that I thought should be addressed. Below are quotes from the article and my responses.

“Seized from Azerbaijan by Armenian-backed separatists in a brutal war that claimed an estimated 30,000 lives as the Soviet Union disintegrated in the early 1990s, Nagorny Karabakh remains frozen between war and peace.”

Although Azerbaijan declared independence from the Soviet Union on October 18, 1991, only seven weeks passed before Nagorno-Karabakh itself in a referendum, with the disapproval of the Azeri minority, chose a path of complete sovereignty. This was an extremely volatile time as anyone who reads history knows. I also disagree with the phrase “Armenian-backed separatists,” since the Armenian side in the conflict did indeed comprise an organized army with separate regimens, although volunteer soldiers took part in the defense struggle. And nothing was “seized,” the control of lands shifted due to war and the demand for self-governance. I also have a problem with “Nagorny Karabakh remains frozen between war and peace,” as it is quite clear that nothing but peace prevails throughout Karabakh, although there are skirmishes along the line of contact between Azerbaijan and Armenia (Karabakh itself by and large is protected by a buffer zone). It is the peace process itself that remains frozen. So the terminology is a bit dubious despite the attempt in maintaining objectivity.

“Nagorny Karabakh is still recognised as part of Azerbaijan by the United Nations, but its population is almost completely ethnic Armenian after the Azerbaijani community fled in the wake of the war.”

What other ethic populations are there in Nagorno-Karabakh today? The statement “almost completely ethnic Armenian” is a bit strange. Unless the reporter can provide evidence that proves otherwise, which she doesn’t, it’s likely an assumption. Has she traveled to places where Greeks, Assyrians, and Kurds continue to live, for instance? It would be revealing to know if they’re still there.

“Soldiers along the heavily fortified frontline exchange gunfire almost daily, with both sides blaming each other for violating the ceasefire. So far this year some 20 soldiers from both sides have been killed.”

Again, this is occurring along the border between the Republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan. There is also no clear evidence reported that gunfire is exchanged “almost daily.” That does not mean I am suggesting it happens infrequently.

“In fact, it is impossible to escape the grim reminders of the region’s brutal conflict, which often saw neighbour turn on neighbour and the entire 600,000-strong Azerbaijani population of Nagorny Karabakh and seven surrounding districts forced to flee.”

Unless I am mistaken, there have never been more than 200,000 people living in Nagorno-Karabakh with the overwhelming majority of the population having been ethnically Armenian. That would mean that more than 400,000 Azeris lived in what is largely a mountainous, inaccessible territory of “seven surrounding districts”–based on what I have seen with my own eyes–with the exception of Agdam (she claims 50,000 Azeris lived there) and some territory to its east. This number seems unlikely and probably hard to prove, but the damage is done. She does not cite a Soviet-era census source to back her claim, which is essential in professional journalism, especially in such a volatile discussion where complete objectivity is obviously difficult to maintain. The “grim reminders” she alludes to unfortunately are quite blatant in Shushi and Agdam.

“But for those willing to risk the journey, tour operators argue that there is plenty to attract tourists to Nagorny Karabakh–a spectacular highland area of rugged mountains and thickly forested hills.”

There is nothing risky or frightening about traveling through the Lachin corridor (unless someone drives too fast along the serpentine road). It is completely protected by Armenian forces. And there are no imminent dangers in traveling throughout Karabakh, either (with the exception of the minefields along the border, of course). The reporter must have realized this as she traveled to and around the region. “Take the long journey” rather than “risk the journey” would have been more appropriate. And why do tour operators “argue” that tourists have good reason to visit the area? “Believe,” “insist,” “are convinced” are better alternatives.

“Despite the region’s uncertain future, tourists like Andrey Hoynowski from Poland say they will be recommending a visit to their friends back home and that the added attention might even help Karabakh move on.

Karabakh has clearly moved on, it does not need “help” in doing so. The reporter herself alluded to this fact in other parts of her article. The problem is that the world community has not by failing to accept Nagorno-Karabakh’s legitimacy as a sovereign nation even 18 years since the ceasefire was declared. Peace is maintained in Artsakh by the will of the Armenian people living there, and so does its obvious determination to progress and grow economically.

The people of Nagorno-Karabakh are some of the most self-confident, secure individuals I have ever met anywhere. I will go so far as to say that I have not encountered another society where insecurities are virtually invisible on faces and demonstrated body language. This is quite evident when you stroll down the streets of Stepanakert and see how people interact with one another. And when you converse with people, you will find only resilience and determination in their voice. They as proud citizens of their nation, “self-proclaimed” in the eyes of the world, are cultured, mature and inspirational figures. Moving on is not a matter of aspiration, it is indeed an unwavering, luminous reality and has been for two decades.

So it’s a disheartening article, especially coming from an Armenian journalist. The terminology was arguably subjective against Armenia in some of the parts I mentioned, which is a real shame. Even the headline reeks of negativity. Karabakh deserves much better publicity than this, especially 18 years after the ceasefire. The tone of the article seems to suggest it happened only yesterday, with people struggling to find their place in the world. Nothing can be farther from the truth.

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.