28 Oct. - 3 Nov. 1999
Issue No. 453
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Of war and exileBy Thomas Gorguissian
In recent weeks the Nagorno-Karabakh issue has been back in the news again. On 11 October, Armenian president Robert Kocharian and Azeri president Haydar Aliyev met for more than two hours on the south-western sector of the Armenian-Azeri border. It was the fourth meeting between the two leaders to discuss how to reactivate the Karabakh peace process. The US is urging both sides to complete this phase of negotiations before the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Summit in Istanbul, to be held in late November.
Press reports citing Armenian officials claim that the focus of the current talks is the "removal of obstacles" to the resumption of the peace negotiations. The participation of the self-proclaimed republic of Nagorno-Karabakh in the coming peace talks and its future status are the main disputed issues, and it is expected that there may have to be "uneasy concessions" from both sides. This is certainly what American and European mediators would like to see. Most observers agree, however, that there will be no final conclusions in the near future, but only a framework for negotiations.
Washington and other European capitals have demanded a "political solution" to the Karabakh issue from both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Armenia's prime minister Vasgen Sargsian, former minister of defence and a key player in Karabakh struggle, was recently in Washington where he had talks about the dispute with Vice President Al Gore and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. While, at the moment, there are no on-going military clashes, the current cease-fire seems fragile, and wider regional stability is clearly at risk.
Armenia last month celebrated the eighth anniversary of its independence with a military parade. Its capital Yerevan also played host for the first time to an Armenia Diaspora Conference, attended by more than 1200 participant-delegates from some 50 countries representing Armenian communities spread across five continents. The three-day conference was a good opportunity to raise the issues which concern all Armenians, both those living in the fatherland, or "hayrenik", and those abroad. The need for more cooperation was frequently voiced, as was the call for "greater realism".
Some participants described the country's economic condition as a "crisis", and pointed to the need for more rapid reform, rather than yet more external financial assistance. According to one report presented at the conference, economic aid over the last decade has totalled more than US$700 million. The main concern of those who have provided it, as with other newly independent states, is the lack of the transparency and accountability they feel is necessary to guarantee proper use of the money.
The socio-economic repercussions of post-Soviet independence, and the so-called "free market economy", are obvious in the everyday life of the citizens here. For some, the wishes and hopes born with independence are already at an end; for others, the cup is half-full, and this is merely a "transitional period".
In a bittersweet welcome to diasporan participants at the conference, and in barely veiled criticism of the authorities, the satirical weekly Vozni (Hedgehog) wrote, "The half Armenians are honoured, while full Armenians are neglected". Vozni, which describes itself as "an independent and fearless satirical paper", does not hesitate to attack the government, including the president himself at times, pointing out how they have "made the road of independence harder and the people's living miserable".
In a recent issue, the magazine published a large map of Armenia, which was divided between a number of men, each of whom has his own different interests. The caption read, "We don't have a sea, but we do have islands." For many observers, the metaphor was transparent: it is the Russian mafia, in its various Armenian versions, which plays the major role in determining the presence or absence of countless commodities and services in the average Armenian's life.
Economic conditions, however, do seem to be improving, if the impressions of visitors can be trusted -- especially those who knew Armenia in the early years after independence. But when most citizens hear you pronounce the word "better", they immediately interrupt you, shouting in your face, "Better, maybe, but for whom? That is the question."
And it's a good question. The markets are full of goods, mostly imported and expensive. The average Armenian meanwhile, usually low-paid and often unemployed (according to some sources, the unemployment rate is over 20 per cent), has to struggle to make ends meet. Life is very tough, and the formula for economic survival often tests the bounds of credibility. The capital Yerevan, meanwhile, is crammed with expensive shopping centres. The streets are full of luxury cars, and at night lights beam from nightclubs and gambling shops which crowd round almost every street corner. Many of the old cafés which served as meeting places for intellectuals have been turned into "poker" joints and "lotto" shops. Most signs, moreover, are now in English -- American English, to be precise. Armenians already spend many long hours in front of their TV sets, especially when foreign films and serials are being shown. Now, lottery shows on the national channels have their own captive audience, who are always being reminded just how lucky Armenians traditionally are.
Yet nowadays, for many Armenians, luck can mean only one thing: leaving for America, especially Los Angeles. Because this "luck" has to start somewhere, the American embassy in Yerevan is often besieged by those en route to the "dreamland". The choice is stark: either "hos"("here", in Armenian) or "Los".
Many Armenians will tell you with great confidence that they are going to America just to make money, and will then return to Hayastan -- the Armenian name for their country. Yet the flood of emigrants who leave never to return is a tragedy that is played out every day. Figures show that almost one million Armenians have left the country since independence.
When this issue was raised at the Armenia Diaspora Conference, Prime Minister Vasgen Sargsian commented, "The phenomenon is tragic, but making it out to be more tragic than it is does even greater harm." Sargsian believes that the outflow of population is not as massive as many claim, and that the press has played a negative role in exaggerating this phenomenon.
One thing is certain: Armenia is sorely in need of an economic renaissance. In his address to the Armenia Diaspora Conference, the prime minister stressed that the economy "has great potential", as he asked Armenians abroad to invest more money in their historical homeland. In return, he pledged a more favourable investment climate and tougher measures to combat corruption.
Yet even to achieve this goal strikes many as a formidable challenge, and one that will not be met overnight. As one of the diasporan participants remarked as the conference was winding up, "We will have to invest not just money, but our experience and knowledge too."