Notes From Hairenik
January 27, 2005
The following is a reprint of a column that appeared in the Armenian Weekly in early January, 2004. The topic is still timely, as very little if not anything has changed after one year in terms of continuing violations of city ordinances. Illegal structures continue to be built and the parks have simply become continuous cafés, with unidentifiable borders separating one from the next. Although technically legal, the construction of the Northern Boulevard in downtown Yerevan has uprooted the several hectare-wide plot of land once defining Old Yerevan, its residents relocated to destinations unknown. Apathy regarding these blind construction trends continues in the form of the 'vochinch' mentality, and thus the madness of lawlessness thrives.

There is a frightening trend among members of the elite in Armenia to demonstrate their wealth through the medium of construction. This trend has increased substantially in the last two years, reflected in the amount of modern, or rather, non-Armenian architectural buildings being erected.

It appears that members of the elite are competing with one another in the “mine is bigger than yours” mentality, resulting in a mismatch of grotesque, tasteless business, restaurant, and café structures being constructed without regard for architectural planning, greenery, or city ordinances.

The result is the total destruction of viable city plots and parks, namely the “circle” park, a long narrow green area that traces the curve of Khanjian and Moscovian Streets. For example, a gigantic structure surrounded by large ionic columns, suspiciously influenced just slightly by the Taj Mahal, was erected mid-2002 called Ancient Rome. This café -- which is truly an eyesore as are many others and does not in any way symbolize progress but rather regression -- is presumably owned by government-linked businessmen. This presumption is not alarming, as several governmental officials, political party leaders, and Armenian businessmen purportedly own such ostentatious establishments.

But the fact that such tasteless and over-the-top buildings are being constructed, without any regard for architectural design and aesthetics, is not the only problem. Governmental officials cannot afford to finance such projects if they are, in fact, doing so. Their salaries range from only $200-800 per month, which suggests, as revealed by income declarations of governmental and parliamentary officials, that they are earning secondary withheld and improperly substantiated incomes. Yet many citizens realize what is happening.

As a result, these citywide parks are virtually disappearing, as trees as well as common park spaces are being dug up to make way for cafes, many of which include illegally constructed permanent structures. In many instances, cafés are expanding or new cafés are built illegally encompassing more than the 20 square meters they are allotted by law.

Former mayor of Yerevan Robert Nazaryan was quoted as saying that “I can be blamed for not fighting against those illegalities. Yes, I failed to do that.”

By contrast, I had the opportunity over the weekend -- with a good friend and his wife -- to visit the town of Nor Kharbert, located just outside Yerevan city limits. The town consists mainly of small private homes, a large kindergarten and primary school, and an orphanage. Incidentally, much of the town’s renovation has been financed by Diasporan Armenians, mostly from France, who are ancestrally linked to the city of Kharbert in Eastern Turkey.

We visited a family that had suffered a serious setback during 2003 to wish them a happy new year. The head of the family, named Vardan for the purposes of this column, has been obliged for two years now to work in construction in Russia, where purportedly 2 million Armenians now live to earn a better living, making it the largest Diasporan community. His son cannot presently work mainly because of medical problems. While Vardan was away, he agreed to permit his relatives to put up his home as collateral on a personal loan. When the relatives defaulted, Vardan lost his home and all his possessions.

As a result, he and his family are living with a neighbor, who has graciously taken them in. Although their situation is grave to say the least and their supplies are limited, they invited us to have a meal with them and celebrate the new year.

So we see another example of the rise in disparity between the rich and the poor. On one hand, we see construction being made simply for sake of demonstrating the wealth of the elite. On the other hand, we see a family struggling to make ends meet and able to maintain optimism for the year ahead, even after losing their home with no fault of their own.

And yet, these problems and hardships are ignored or simply not comprehended when most Diasporan Armenians visit or even live in Armenia. Rather, pointless and, indeed, wasteful construction is regarded as progress and demonstrates a rise in the nation’s economy, while the gap between the rich and poor increases at an alarming rate.

After leaving my rose-colored eyeglasses behind before returning to Armenia, I cannot help but not be very optimistic for the new year. Unless a concerted effort is made in attempting to balance social equality, things may not improve anytime soon.

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