By Patrick Azadian
“Can you spare some change?” I was asked by a middle-aged woman as I was about to walk into a supermarket right before midnight when Armenia was celebrating its independence last September.
The fact that she asked me for money was not a surprise; there are always people waiting at the entrance of stores waiting for customers to come in or out with some change, but the sight of a helpless little girl snuggled next to this woman was unexpected. Such a sight is common in many cities around the world. It should be nothing unusual for someone who has lived in LA and Santa Monica, travelled to New York, San Francisco, Mexico City, Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo where the homeless and the panhandlers are much more visible and aggressive.
But I was in Armenia and it was Independence Day. At best, some people may consider my sentiments as romantic, at worst, it may seem chauvinist.
“If the US can have poor and homeless, why can’t Armenia?” I am often asked.
The question always sounds like a justification or a polite way of blaming the victims caught in the vicious cycle of poverty.
We rarely hear we can do better; we must do better, and here is a vision and plan to do better.
I had to make a withdrawal from the ATM machine before walking into the supermarket, which gave me just enough time to process my feelings associated with the encounter. Urban norms dictated that I should just leave the woman and the child alone or give money and walk away. But, I returned for a conversation.
“Is she your daughter?” I asked the woman.
“Yes, she is. I have an older boy at home,” she replied.
“Does your daughter go to school?”
“Yes, she does. I know what I am doing is wrong, but we need money for food. I need to buy her a hat for winter,” she replied calmly. “I don’t always bring her with me; I did not want to leave her alone at home,” she continued, trying to anticipate my next question.
But I had stopped talking. I reminded myself, no one dreams of growing up to have a child and becoming a ‘beggar.’ I entered the store and wandered around aimlessly for a while and walked back out to the mother and child again.
“What is her name?” I asked the mother.
The little girl snuggled even tighter into her mother’s embrace, shoving her little head into her chest.
“Anyuk,” her mom said with a smile…
* * *
Not having lived in Soviet Armenia, there are times that I feel if I had lived during those times, I would have longed for those ‘dignified but non-free’ days. What I didn’t expect was that the Soviet nostalgia would hit me on the night of Armenia’s independence day.
I grew up in a family that was not fond of Soviet rule of Armenia. Having said that, my family members never showed hostility toward Soviet Armenia. They celebrated Soviet Armenia’s achievements, they listened to Radio Yerevan. In the mid-seventies, before the Iranian revolutionaries had succeeded in promising the people that life could even be better, my father always played tunes of Armenia’s Raisa Mkrtchyan, Bella Darbinyan and Ruben Matevosyan in our shiny, brick-colored Volkswagen to shield us from the world that he considered foreign to our roots when traveling through the streets of Tehran. My family celebrated Soviet Armenian achievements because they believed that it was the Armenian part that was responsible for the success and not the Soviet.
Throughout my childhood and teenagehood, my extended family members never missed an opportunity to give me reasons to be proud of my heritage. Soviet Armenia’s achievements always came in handy. But it didn’t always work; and sometimes it backfired.
“Armenia [Soviet] has great achievements,” my aunt told me once out of the blue. “Did you know that we have more scientists per our total population that any other country in the world? And did you know that there are no beggars in Armenia?”
“First, Armenia is not a real country,” I remember replying “and second, that’s thanks to the Soviets and not our own achievement.”
My aunt was furious.
“Patrik, who has filled your head with all this nonsense?! Armenia is a country and it would even have more achievements, if it wasn’t Soviet! It’s not because of the Soviets, oh, no!” she said.
“If it’s a real country, why aren’t we living there?” I asked. I had felt a tinge of insult because she had implied I could not think for myself but I had no time for a protracted mini cold war with my aunt.
I had annoyed her enough already. I was sure, she’d express her disappointment to my parents about my worldview. But she had also made a case for Armenia, albeit Soviet: “there were no beggars in Armenia.”
Independence arrived and we now have beggars, homeless, child malnutrition, poverty levels as high as 30 percent (latest official numbers hover around 23%), public residential yards that have turned into parking lots, advertising billboards that feed us (and the kids) the type of unfiltered consumerism that even the ‘degenerate West’ has abandoned long ago, disappearing villages, massage parlors at almost every street corner whose neon lights promise more than just a massage while wasting precious human potential and gambling bars at every turn ready to suck the last drop of money from people. But it’s not all bad news; some boys drive Range Rovers and most girls manage to get nose jobs. Congratulations people, we are now free.
And the Soviets are gone for good and not because there aren’t enough people here who would welcome them back, but because there are enough Russians who have already tasted the forbidden fruits of capitalism and consumerism. There may be some of them who want the ‘union’ back but this time it won’t be under the banner of brotherhood and proletarian solidarity. And they won’t finance any more metros either. We are now free to succeed or fail on our own merit.
We hear all sorts of excuses for the persisting social and economic injustices in Armenia. From the tired old song of war and economic blockade, to the fact that we are a relatively new independent country, to the defeatist reasoning that every country has an economic underclass or the diasporan protectionist approach that it’s not really Diapsora’s responsibility to save Armenia, to the talk on the limited resources or the demeaning statements that imply the population is lazy and loves ‘Soviet-style’ hand-outs, point out to the possibility than some of us are better in making excuses than having a unified vision for the future.
We rarely hear we can do a lot better.
We can do better does not mean everyone needs to become a tycoon. Not everyone wants to be or has the skills to be an entrepreneur or a businessperson. There has to be a dignified place in our society for people who do not have the skills to become supermarket chain owners or bankers, a dignified place for skilled and unskilled workers, artists, teachers, social workers, scientists and university graduates in a variety of fields. The ‘free republic’ has to serve the public, if it doesn’t, it ceases to be res-public or a ‘matter of the public’ and it will continue to be a playground for the elite and the re-branded oligarchs with the majority of the local population serving as cheap labor.
Up until the Velvet Revolution, the path taken by all post-Soviet administrations in independent Armenia had been to embrace a brutal version of capitalism, combined with monopolies, corruption and nullification of the democratic process. The Velvet Revolution may be able to eliminate new monopolies and corruption, but by relying on the forces of the market and delivering free elections alone, it is unlikely to eliminate the pre-existing unfair advantages gained in the past by some in this new ‘free market’ (we are told there are no more oligarchs in Armenia but only businesspeople), and second, the new order will only succeed in creating a society where the small privileged class will gain its privileges more on merit than monopolies and corruption.
It is unlikely that relying on the forces of the free market and embracing neoliberal policies alone will eliminate the gap between the privileged and the economic underclass. This divide will continue to deepen the alienation of the ordinary citizens from the state; the economic gap will persist as a catalyst for migration out of Armenia and dash the aspirations of the people in post-revolution period.
Vulnerable kids like Anyuk have already started with a disadvantage. Where will Anyuk be in 15 years from now? I’d like to think that Independent Armenia will become a state, a community where she and her generation can reach their full potential as human beings.
Armenia’s path to prosperity has to start with a vision unique to its human potential inside and outside of Armenia, where kids like Anyuk are not considered as collateral damage to our lack of foresight and planning (somewhere along the road, we also need to understand and define what ‘prosperity’ means to the different layers of Armenian society). Nevertheless, by just announcing Armenia to be open for business and continuing the grotesque tradition of developing a numbness to poverty, inequality and economic injustice is neither a sign of progress nor a proof that we live in a developed society.