by Julia Hakobyan
In 1989, when the grip of communism had just about lost its hold, a 28-year-old Armenian engineer/ economist decided to start his own business in Yerevan.
He established contacts with Russian manufacturers and started importing wood and construction material from Russia. Then, with his brother, he opened a store in the center of Yerevan, selling clothes and electronics out of a basement.
In the coming years the business would survive the collapse of a political system, the floundering of a new one, an energy crisis, and blocked borders restricting import/export.
But on the site of that first business, and no longer a hybrid electronics/ clothes shop, stands a testament to Garegin Nushikian's radical (16 years ago) idea.
At the corner of Terian and Sayat Nova, Edelweiss is one of Armenia's most elite (i.e., expensive) clothing boutique, standing next to a perfumery of equal distinction owned by Nushikian and only a short walk from Nushikian's Paplavok restaurant/night club, famous among locals and tourists for jazz of the same high quality as the clothes and the perfume.
Like good jazz, Nushikian felt the rhythm of the times in the late 1980s. In addition to his engineering degree, he got a (Soviet-provided) degree in economics, just in time to use it to become one of the new republic's first capitalists.
"The time was dictating what to do, and time proved whatever we did was right," says the 44-year-old businessman. "My business survived probably due to my economic education, business acumen and of course good fortune."
Nushikian's early businesses ranged from importing food from Russia, to bartering Leninakan (Gyumri) made clothing irons for Siberian wood.
The beginning of the 1990s was not an easy time for shaping a future in Armenia. The concept of private business and open-market economy was brand new language for the country's nascent entrepreneurs. And the language of war and blockade politics had a louder voice.
"We can conjecture endlessly where our country could be if not for the Karabakh war and what if the blockade would not have strangled our economy," Nushikian says. "But I think we should stop hypothesizing and think instead what we can do now."
Today Nushikian is number 139 on Armenia's list of highest tax-payers. He and his wife, a physician, and their 16-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son live above Edelweiss—above Dupont cigarette lighters that sell for $1,000 and Givenchy suits for $5,000.
The "Nushikian Association" established in 1992, includes a network of perfume shops called "Bourmunk", which are official agents—as opposed to many counterfeit dealers in Yerevan—for such brands as Chanel, Antonio Piug, Fendi. The association also includes the "Croissant" bakery, an outdoor advertising studio, Nushikian Avia (travel) Agency, and a restaurant called "Paradise."
However Nushikian's most popular spot in Yerevan is Paplavok (the Russian word for fishing float) where local and international jazz players attract Yerevan's "see and be seen" crowd. It is a favored spot of President Robert Kocharian, who is known for his passion for jazz. It is also the infamous spot where, in 2001, a Kocharian bodyguard beat a man to death in the restroom, while the president hosted entertainer Charles Aznavour.
Paplavok has been around since the 1960s and was known as a meeting place of intellectuals. But by the 1990s it had become a run-down retreat for winos. In 1997, Nushikian joined with other investors and bought it, rebuilt it, and filled it with jazz on the edge of the man-made lake that gives the music venue a distinct character.
Pianist Levon Malkhasian, widely regarded as the godfather of Armenian jazz, was the first to play at Paplavok, and, ever since, while dozens of clubs have opened and closed, jazz has been a nightly treat at Nushikian's place.
In 1998 Nushikian and Malkhasian founded JazzArt, a studio for organizing jazz concerts. The same year they produced Armenia's first Jazz Festival, which, over the years has attracted musicians from the USA, Russia, France, including world famous jazzman Chick Corea.
It is an unhappy reality that business success in Yerevan comes with skepticism, from a society hardly distinguishing gain from ill gain. But Nushikian's reputation emerges clean from public scrutiny and speculation. Still, he is neither comfortable, nor forthcoming with information when issues such as personal wealth or business revenue are raised. Like fellow businessmen wanting to avoid an accounting shakedown, he does not reveal details that might attract the attention of tax authorities.
He is, however, the rare Armenian businessman who has not entered politics as a shield for protecting his interests, or as a means for advancing them.
Parliament is heavily weighted with businessmen whose financial viability can hardly be put aside when the role of lawmaker comes calling. Nushikian could no doubt muster enough support to acquire a seat in the National Assembly. He prefers, instead, his seat at Paplavok.
"It is not that I am apolitical," he says, adding that he starts every morning reading newspapers and follows local and international politics. "I just believe that each person should do what he can. Unfortunately not all think like that and this is the reason why some of the people who hold political or economic leverage today do not have either professionalism, or education."
Nushikian says he is satisfied with the lifestyle he has managed in Yerevan. At the same time, however, he believes businessmen abroad have opportunities and advantages that are not realized here.
"I never wanted to leave Armenia even in the worst times," he says. "And of course I do not think about leaving now, when the country has been changing for the better each year. Those who say it is not true that conditions are improving are either pessimists or ill-wishers. To not see the economic progress is only a matter of preconceived prejudices."
For 16 years—for as long as he has been a father—Garegin Nushikian has been a player in that growing economy. He had an idea at an opportune time, and now wants to see his children benefit from a business culture he has helped shape.
"I want my children to grow up in a rich, powerful country," he says. "I am very concerned that some traditions are being devalued in our country. But I hope that the problems the country has now are typical for this transition period."
And with transition, comes occasional disorder, like appropriately placed discordant notes that round out a jazz melody.
"It is impossible to unambiguously say that I like all that is being done in Armenia," Nushikian says. "I like the new construction, but I don't like it that people are being evicted from their homes. I like it that here businessmen produce local products, but don't like it that the monopolies make competition impossible. I like that people can buy good cars, but hate seeing how they throw bottles or cigarette packs from the windows of those cars . . ."
Nushikian says he wishes for a cultural revival in Armenia—and it is part of his interests in sponsoring the jazz festivals. And he would like to see more trust and optimism among people, and less hostility between citizens and politicians.
"I want people, especially the youth, to believe in themselves," says the man who believed in his own idea, "and to believe that Armenia is also a country where they can make dreams into reality."