AGBU Magazine Cover for November 2009


In the Armenia-Turkey border village of Margara, a thick log serves as a sort of demarcation for the neutral zone between un-neighborly neighbors into which visitors are urged not to enter. "Do not go near there. As soon as the border guards see you, they will immediately approach you. Shoot fast and go back," says Margara deputy village head Gharib Tadevosian, escorting a photojournalist.

The Armenian flag can be seen on the near-side border posts; and from a distance the Turkish crescent waves over land once belonging to the ancestors of many of Margara's 1,400 residents.

A bridge going nowhere crosses the Arax River, ending at closed gates on either side, since Turkey began its blockade of Armenia in 1993.

Margara—about 40 kilometers southwest of Yerevan—was settled in 1915 by escapees from the Armenian Genocide, reaching safe territory from Alashkert, Igdir, Surmalu and Mush in the part of Turkey now referred to by Armenians as "Western Armenia."

With little to distinguish it, the village has mostly gone unnoticed to outsiders—until August 31, when the now-famous (or infamous, depending on perspective) and controversial Armenia-Turkey Protocols were announced.

Journalists began visiting Margara, which is located a convenient distance from the Armenian capital, in early September to judge the mood of villagers whose lives—and potentially lifestyles—are expected to change should those gates on the bridge reopen.

Here, issues of geopolitical significance debated from Washington, D.C. to Baku, Azerbaijan, yield to more practical concerns. Villagers in Margara, for example, worry that prices of land will rise, leading to a sell-off and the end of their historic settlement.

"Many will sell their lands, but I won't," says Armenak Sargsian, a descendent of Mush. "This is my land and my water, and even if they pay me a million dollars, I will not give it up. I know one thing, the authorities are opening this border for their own interests."

Ofelya Tadevosian's garden ends with barbed wire at the border. She says that soon after the rumors over the opening of the border were spread, some foreigners in big cars came to the village and asked how much houses and land cost there.

"They say that when the border is open, the lands on the road will be more expensive. The prices have already risen. Houses that until recently cost $10,000, now are priced at $50,000."

In 1992 Syrian wheat came across the Margara Bridge to Armenia. President of Syria, the late Hafez al-Assad (father of current President of Syria Bashar al-Assad) gave 6,000 tons of wheat to Armenia as a sign of support.

Then in April 1993, when Armenian troops entered Kelbajar on the Nagorno Karabakh frontier, Turkey closed the border.

Now, pending decisions by the parliaments of Turkey and Armenia (and the persuasion of Russia, the United States and France), it is broadly accepted that the opening of the 328-kilometer (203-mile) border is in Armenia's near future.

(As AGBU magazine goes to press, Turkey's parliament has just begun deliberation on whether to ratify the protocols signed by each country on October 10. Armenian authorities have said their parliament will not debate ratification until after Turkey has reached its decision.)

"People are sure that the opening of the border will settle many social problems. But I am against the opening of the border, even if there are no preconditions. It is possible it would be good at the beginning, but I do not want us to take a step and then regret it some 25 years from now," says the Margara deputy village head.

The protocol debate stirred anger and raised apprehensions at home and in the Diaspora, even as it also signaled chances for growth and prosperity in Armenia.

Led by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaks), protesters crowded the streets of Yerevan, while discontented Diasporans filled sidewalks outside a famous Beverly Hills hotel during President Serge Sargsyan's peace-making tour to Armenian communities abroad. Protesters in Paris got into skirmishes with police as anger spilled over during Sargsyan's visit there.

While Dashnaks called for the resignation of Minister of Foreign Affairs Edward Nalbandian, other oppositionist parties aimed higher, demanding that Sargsyan step down, rather than lead Armenia into a relationship that, they say, betrays the souls of Armenian Genocide victims.

Dashnak opposition culminated in an October 23 release of what the political party calls a "roadmap for regime change."

"We are preparing for regime change," said ARF Supreme Council of Armenia chairman Armen Rustamian. "Regime change has a broader meaning than a resignation demand. The country has deviated from its course and everything must be changed: the president, the National Assembly, the government and all those who deal with the Turkish-Armenian protocols."

Meanwhile, a coalition of institutions, including the Armenian Apostolic Church and AGBU, supported signing the protocols, saying that they "represent a marked change from the past."

Following weeks of rancor and uncertainty that resulted in a split Diaspora and a perplexed homeland, debate on the protocols reached a crescendo as the countries' foreign ministers signed them in Zurich, Switzerland.

And what started as "soccer diplomacy" in Yerevan at a match in September 2008 overshadowed the drama of the subsequent Armenia-Turkey game in Bursa on October 14 when the Armenian national team fell (expectedly) 2-0.

President Sargsyan continued to feel protocol fallout, as he was castigated in the Armenian media for shaking the hand and smiling at his host, President of Turkey Abdullah Gul, when Gul's team scored its first goal.

What should have been seen as a sportsmanly gesture was portrayed by radical oppositionists as substantiating their characterization of Sargsyan as "davatchan"—"traitor."

Crisis management and tanning salons

While planning for "normalized" relations with Turkey has dominated news and debate in Armenia, signs in nearly every area of Armenian life point to a republic comfortably adjusted to its current confining circumstance.

Before protocols claimed the spotlight of attention, energies were focused on how Armenia would weather the global financial crisis.

A visit to Yerevan by World Bank General Director Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala October 17-18 earned praise for the Sargsyan administration's crisis management.

During January-August 2009, Armenia's banking system received $672.3 million -- $363 million less than for the same period in 2008 as remittances from abroad sharply fell as expected.

Socially vulnerable families were hardest hit, but the World Bank director had particular appreciation for the government's ability to maintain social services through the worst phase of the crisis.

Generally addressing a condition that resulted in tightening of budgets and a loss of jobs, particularly for Armenia's sizeable number of migrant workers, Okonjo-Iweala said:

"Obviously, this led to a reduction in the level of tax collection and reduced the government revenues, but I must say that the Armenian government responded adequately to this."

Although the impact of the crisis was felt slowly, response to it was quick, and signs indicate that recovery is at hand.

Construction sites that went dark a year ago and remained quiet until summer have again churned to life (though still at the slow rhythm typical of Armenian building).

The pace of tourism's increase slowed, but did not fall below previous years' numbers, showing a modest but notable rise of 0.1 percent in 2009 over last year.

According to the National Statistics Service, the total number of tourists that visited Armenia in the first six months of 2009 reached 207,700, slightly more than the 207,500 of the same period in 2008. (Meanwhile, Armenians going abroad during that time decreased by 1.6 percent, to 202,800.)

And: Beginning in spring of 2010, Armavia Airlines is expected to initiate the first non-stop flights from Yerevan to North America. Following an agreement reached in November 2008 as part of the United States' "Open Skies" program, Armavia says it will offer flights to Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boston and Seattle, as well as to Canada. The airline anticipates round-trip ticket prices to start at about $1,400 for the lowest of a five-tier seating system (ranging from "simplified economy" to "first class").

There are, too, lesser but indicative signs of a society at ease despite perpetual difficulties.

Cafes—a barometer on common society spending power—are no less crowded and, in fact, new restaurants continue to open not only in Yerevan but in satellite cities.

Noticeable this year has been an outbreak of tanning parlors—a sure sign of indulgence, not to mention narcissism—where Armenians can get darker year-round for about 40 cents per minute.

And in a country that previously counted on free classical concerts for its entertainment, an October show by British hard-rock legend Uriah Heep filled Karen Demirchian Sports and Concert Complex, with fans paying up to $140 per ticket to see the band on its 40th anniversary tour.

Prices for goods continue to rise while the public continues to complain. But the public also continues to support the ongoing opening of sparkling supermarkets with imported products previously considered exotic.

Yes, thousands still suffer, especially in remote regions. But Armenia no longer relies solely on outside benevolence for aid.

Led by Viva-Cell MTS communications company, the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is gradually developing among home-based businesses that are coming to understand the value of re-investing through philanthropy.

The American Chamber of Commerce in Armenia (AmCham) has been a leader in promoting CSR in Armenia, in collaboration with the UN Global Compact Network, the British Council and the Eurasia Partnership Foundation.

Buckled up, believe it or not

Within the capital itself, progress is measured in incremental change that may seem insignificant at first glance, but in the broader view signals hope for systemic change of more substantial impact.

For example, roadwork completed this year—including overpasses and underpasses at traditional traffic tie-ups—has made the city considerably more manageable although it still suffers from an overload of vehicles.

And recent visitors to Armenia (not to mention the locals themselves) are surprised to see three changes in behavior previously thought to be decades away.

One: Drivers in Armenia, as well as front-seat passengers, are now wearing seatbelts.

Two: The habit of "jaywalking" has nearly disappeared on major Yerevan streets.

Three: Drivers are now (though not always) yielding to pedestrian traffic.

None was achieved through social evolution as much as through threat of punitive consequence.

Though a law mandating wearing seatbelts has existed in Armenia for years, it was never enforced until drivers were notified this summer that, beginning in late August, it was time to buckle up or face a fine.

Within days, what had been disregard turned to habit, in the face of 5,000 dram (about $13) fines for drivers either not wearing a belt or allowing a front-seat passenger to go unbuckled. Owners of cars caught not having seatbelts are fined about $55.

After initially rebelling against the law, taxi drivers now won't move their vehicles until the front-seat passenger is buckled in. (It is still possible, though, to find taxis that have belts, but no means of fastening them. Drivers in such cases instruct passengers in how to fold the belt underneath them, to give the appearance of observing the law.)

"It is very difficult to see a driver who doesn't wear a seatbelt on the road today," said Head of the Road Patrol Service Department of the State Police Norik Sargsian, soon after the law began being enforced.

Oddly, though, Armenia's seatbelt law does not apply to police, fire department or emergency medical technicians, the very segment apt to drive fastest and with least restriction. Authorities argue that those specialists might need to exit their seats quickly—an argument that enforces the resistance of anti-seatbelt drivers who say belts are more about imposed restraint than safety.

The success of enforcing the seatbelt law was soon followed by putting pedestrians on notice that crossing major thoroughfares anywhere except in the "zebra stripe" crosswalks would result in a fine of about $8.

The enforcement went into effect on October 1 and, within days, an awkward civility began emerging on city streets as drivers (at the threat of a fine) stopped for people in crosswalks, while those confused pedestrians froze mid-stride, uncertain of what they were seeing.

It is expected that, soon, a law prohibiting talking on cell phones while driving will begin to be enforced.

Old ways hamper new ideals

As Armenia inches closer to mirroring a new European society, at least superficially, it is far from escaping the burden of a country led by authorities empowered under the old and still-effective means of fraud and intimidation.

In anticipation of public opposition to President Sargsyan's campaign for ratification of the protocols, Yerevan police announced they would begin "taking action against" any citizen who publicly showed disrespect toward Armenia's leadership.

The threatened enforcement had no apparent connection to constitutional law and was decried by human rights activists as a blatant violation of freedom of speech.

Parandzem Torozian, mother of a Karabakh war participant killed in action, became an example of the police crackdown when, as one of several dozen participants protesting the protocols, she attempted to burn a photo of Sargsyan during a rally at the Genocide Monument.

Police moved in on the elderly woman and stopped her protest, as other demonstrators shouted at them "shame on you."

It is impudence to burn the president's photograph, no matter whether the president is Serge Sargsyan or somebody else," said Patrol Service chief Robert Melkonian as he shouted at the participants in the march. "Everything has its limit. How can one burn the photograph of the country's president at a sanctuary? This is vandalism and sacrilege."

Similarly, a protest by the Heritage oppositional party was impeded by police who ripped banners from the hands of protesters. The banners said: "Armenian officials, you are responsible for 10 million Armenians"—a rebuttal of a statement by Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian in which the PM said officials were only responsible for the three million Armenians at home.

It is still, too, a common practice for police to block roads leading to Yerevan on days when oppositionists have scheduled rallies, a clear infraction of laws guaranteeing freedom of movement.

These and other real and perceived potholes on Armenia's road map to democracy continue to raise concerns among those who would rather see the still-young republic strengthen herself domestically, before reaching out for rapprochement with enemy neighbors.

On either side of the historic argument now dominating debate, objective minds surely can see an Armenia on the move, albeit in need of caution where progress might lead her, and at what price.

(Information for this analysis was reported by staff of internet journal.)

Originally published in the November 2009 ​issue of AGBU Magazine. Archived content may appear distorted on your screen. end character

About the AGBU Magazine

AGBU Magazine is one of the most widely circulated English language Armenian magazines in the world, available in print and digital format. Each issue delivers insights and perspective on subjects and themes relating to the Armenian world, accompanied by original photography, exclusive high-profile interviews, fun facts and more.