by John Hughes
Signs of life changing are as simple as the changed signs on sidewalks, where cafes and restaurants invite residents and visitors to breakfast. Until very recently, only hotels and one restaurant, Artbridge, were open for breakfast. Now, others have followed the trend common in the UK and North America—opening their doors as early as 8 a.m. Tiny-cupped Armenian coffee now shares the menu with the brewed variety. Iced tea is available in flavors that include pomegranate, and while service still remains stuck somewhere in transition, it now comes with a 10 percent charge to the bill.
During the hours between dawn and near dawn in the city there is a steady flood of traffic hardly imagined in the days when petrol was hoarded, if available at all. Now, a ride across town is a fight against traffic and building sites. And if taxi drivers here, as universally, are considered unofficial ambassadors of common society, draw your own conclusions about life in Yerevan based on the following experience.
On an October Friday evening while the work week wound into the weekend, a taxi was hailed in the city center. The driver asked the destination. Told that the trip would be through the center of the city, the cabbie refused the job. Too much traffic. The fare would have been 1,000 drams (about $3) and the stunned would-be passengers recalled a day when rides to Gyumri could be bought for a single pack of foreign cigarettes.
There is movement in Armenia now, where once there was imposed complacency. And more often than not, today's movement is the rotation of a building crane heaving supplies upward. Slabs of concrete and bars of reinforcement iron obscure the Yerevan skyline with evidence of free-market growth. It is, too, the movement of nearby villagers reaching the city with their fruits and vegetables, looking for their portion of the promised trickle-down from double-digit economic growth that remains more myth than reality outside the capital.
Progress, or at least change, is more obvious in the last three to five years in Armenia than in the entire previous decade, dating back to the awful days of the energy crisis when survival was itself success.
Schoolchildren now have mobile phones. Surely still a minority phenomenon, and surely an arguable definition of progress, such noticeable trends are nonetheless indicative of fundamental social change. These children popping open cell phones as soon as class is dismissed are themselves more expensive dependents than their parents were. For example, one popular private school here was among those that raised tuition fees this year. Costs rose from 45,000 to 50,000 drams (about $135 to about $150) per month.
Look to the streets, too. Certainly the Hummers and the Mercedes Benzes and the BMWs and the Lexuses still get the attention their owners crave. But while they may rule the streets, they don't own them, going bumper to bumper with less expensive but more prevalent models that, too, indicate movement in the middle of society as well as at the top.
Armenia's first drive-in theater recently opened in Yerevan. What could be more middle-class—especially considering that bowling alleys have already flourished?
A country famous for being old can't seem to get enough of anything new. What it can't import, it copies, whether television game shows or architecture, or the corrupting slang of hip hop, adapted to the revered language of Mashtots and newly inflicted upon this Armenia as surely as it was once a novelty in New York's Bronx or in California's Compton.
The way Armenia (as it is reflected mostly by Yerevan) looks, sounds, smells and indeed even feels, is changing. The embraceable innocence that was the romanticized struggle to survive has yielded to the less cuddly imperative to get ahead—as if years of thrift were mere preparation for binge consumption. At a new hypermarket here, shoppers can buy an inflatable two-person boat for about $450 on the same aisle as imported boxer shorts specially made, and awkwardly translated, for "fat men."
And if they want to resist the need for "fat men" clothes, Yerevanians have a choice of several new health clubs, where they can work off consumption for about $45 a month.
While locals feel change in the growing prices of goods and services and in the physical appearance brought by building, the Diaspora, too, has a changed homeland to return to. Many will feel it first in their wallets. To illustrate:
If you visited here, as thousands did in 2001, you paid a 10,000-dram exit tax at Zvartnots International Airport. If you leave here today, you will still pay 10,000 drams. But six years ago, the dollar-equivalent price was about $17. In 2007, the dollar equivalent is about $31.
CHANGE BEGETS CHANGE
The famous Armenian hospitality is now found after entering coded security doors, and while tables still hold the national cuisine, the tasty treats might well have been delivered by any number of catering services thriving in the capital. The dishes of dolma or ghapama might, too, share place with shrimp from Vietnam (frozen and $48 per kilo) or fruits from South America and wines from France for those who can afford the indulgence.
Outside the home, residents now can get fast food from new take-outs offering a service that previously had no tradition and certainly no market. Among the latest is "Quick Bite: for people on the run." Armenians on the run? This is not your grandmother's Yerevan.
Such changes, many observe, are brought by a healthy Gross Domestic Product. And Armenia's economic growth has become practically a commodity itself, with the phrase "double-digit GDP" turned into jingo for politicians who use it to justify the need for maintaining the governing status quo.
Critics say that while the figures provide bragging rights, they do not represent a solid foundation for building a future. About 27 percent of the GDP is based on construction. Another 19 percent is private remittances sent from abroad.
Those figures add up to an economy that is nearly 50 percent (46) based on non-sustainable factors, leading one independent economist to call the economic makeup a "soap bubble," and Armenia's newest opposition politician Levon Ter-Petrossian to call it "fiction."
Whether the source is food for thought for the analyst or fodder for propaganda for the politician, it is undeniable that the Armenia about to elect its next leader is economically far advanced from when it elected its first, or second or third.
Evidence of a city alive is seen, too, from the vantage point of a common kitchen window.
From Mashtots Boulevard facing Republic Square, 16 construction cranes fill the field of vision. More would be seen through that window; however, an eight-story building that didn't exist six months ago and a 12-story put up in the last year obscure the view. And this is only one viewpoint in a city overcome by construction.
For perhaps a more significant evaluation of whether substantial change is occurring, look past the blue tarps and through the dust of new construction to see inside buildings that have not been touched for years, where now many families have at least the means to renovate, even if they can't afford to buy what they call "elite" properties going up around them. These new buildings rise where old homes stood. And the ugly side of progress is not yet forgotten by average citizens who were displaced to accommodate the building boom that may prove profitable for the country, but is understandably painful for those who were bought out at unfair prices to make it happen.
The same oligarch authorities who paid bargain-basement prices to buy out residents are accused of further abuse. This autumn, prices of cooking oil, wheat and butter rose inexplicably by up to 40 percent, effectively negating any advantages gained from increased pension payments promised by Prime Minister Serge Sargsian.
And even those untouched by the leveling of homes to build new ones wonder when they will benefit from the heralded double-digit growth. While luxury homes rise around them, residents in the center of Yerevan still do not have 24-hour water service. Rubbish piles up as surely as in single-digit growth days and wild dogs flourish, making trips to those garbage piles a threat. Services expected in societies that grow collectively from their wealth are absent here, where there is plenty of boasting over growth but few signs of it being applied for the comfort of the general public.
City officials anticipate that, by 2020, there will be 40 more people per hectare [1 hectare=2.47 acres] in Yerevan than exist now, yet even now public utilities are strained with no apparent accommodation for the increase. For example: Buildings rise next to other buildings in interior yards where there is already no access for fire engines, nor has there been noticeable attention paid to improving emergency services though the need is obvious.
In ways that are both encouraging and confounding, this Armenia is figuratively and literally rising. To see it through its capital is to see a nation on the move—if perhaps without a foreseeable destination.
And if you haven't seen it in a while, you won't recognize it the next time.