Peter Gay’s Letter from…. Armenia
As my Air France plane gently descended over Yerevan city I could see the snow and ice glittering in the moon light. After a 30 minute anxious wait my luggage eventually appeared and I was happy to see a friendly driver bearing the UNICEF badge.
Off we went into the chill -12° evening. My driver was happy to give me a potted history of the country.
Apparently Armenia was the first country to embrace Christianity some years before Rome making the Armenian Church the oldest in Christendom.
I always wondered why the Americans insist on calling white skinned people Caucasian but I was quickly put right on that, apparently the Caucasus was the cradle of the whites and ancient sites of over 6000 years history are still being discovered all over the country. When asked about the main industry my driver pointed towards the Brandy factory, apparently the Ararat brand is the best. And yes, Mount Ararat is in Armenia.
Now ensconced in my role as consultant in the reform of social services I am learning a lot about the country. Armenia is one of the poorest countries in the region and here are some of the reasons. Armenia went to war with neighbouring Azerbaijan over the Nagoro Karabakh region. You might remember this little war back in the 90s, when after the collapse of the USSR Karabakh was ceded to Azerbaijan even though it had historically been part of Armenia and has an 85% Armenian population. Armenia won that war but continues to pay a heavy price for its victory. Karabakh is now an autonomous territory, a bit like Turkish Cyprus and its recognised by no country except Armenia.
The real sting is that the border with Azerbaijan is closed and mined and the Turkish border is also closed (the Turks coming out in sympathy). Of course Armenia has its own long standing dispute with Turkey over the alleged genocide of Armenian people living in Turkey in 1915. What this means is the Armenia has only 2 borders open, with Georgia and Iran. Everything that is imported or exported must come through these 2 borders and this has had a detrimental effect on the economy. The relationship with Iran is interesting, 2 countries with apparently nothing in common are friends, perhaps a case of my enemy’s enemy……
Sadly the effect of the war and disputes with neighbours is all too apparent in the economy. Also military service is compulsory for all males from 18-20.
Very low wages, high unemployment, almost no manufacturing and a diaspora of folk living all over the world. Apparently there are more Armenians living outside the country that inside it. So, I see some parallels with our own country and some of them salutary lessons. The world has forgotten this place, it attracts almost no inward investment and its brightest and best want to emigrate.
I visited a special needs school today, a run down Soviet building with staff doing their best with children with various disabilities and none other than poverty. It was the kind of place you really wouldn’t want anyone close to you to ever have to enter.
My job is to lead the project to close these places down and to replace them with community based services. Right now it feels a bit like a big ask. Next week I travel down country to the region beside the Iranian border; its our pilot region. More of that later.
One last thought, Armenia does have one good market; gambling and drinking holidays from folk living south of the border where such things are verboten!
You can send your comments to Peter here – Peter Gay, Yerevan, January 2013