Things That Worry Me

In the lens of the revolution of the muslim world, I am growing increasingly concerned about Armenia’s current state. There are several major problems facing the country, none of which seem to have imminent solutions.

Currently, inflation is digging its teeth into the purchasing power of Armenians. Figures for January put inflation at 2.8%, which is about what the US normally sees in a year. Food prices are particularly worrisome. The price of wheat is expected to skyrocket this year. Russia experienced a major drought last year, so they are not exporting wheat. Armenia relies on Russia for wheat imports. Armenia consumes around 650,000 tons of wheat annually, of which only about 115,000 tons are produced in Armenia. They will have to find a new importer, and prices are likely to be higher.

Another major economic problem for the common Armenian is paying for heating. Gas provides the most warmth, but its price is out of reach for many. There was a lot of concern here as gas rates were set to revert back to market rates (after the expiration of a buddy-buddy subsidy from Russia). That would mean a jump from $180 per 1,000 cubic meters to $300 per 1,000 cubic meters. However, I just read that the Armenian president’s current trip to Russia resulted in an agreement not to raise rates. It’s good news for Armenians and Armenia (more below), as they already suffered through a nearly 40% increase in the cost of gas last year.

Finally, the lack of jobs is crippling. Nothing else, in my opinion, factors in to Armenians’ desire to leave their own country more than the lack of jobs does. Why are there no jobs? I don’t think I’m well-versed enough to give a complete answer. It’s a complex situation. Their 2 major borders are closed. Just getting things from point A to point B is a problem. They lack natural resources like we have back home. The political and legislative environment maybe isn’t suitable for foreign direct investment. Armenia continues to rank low in ease of doing business type surveys. Regardless of the reasons for lack of jobs, it means that Armenians have trouble paying for things, there are less tax revenues, and, most importantly, a deficit of hope.

Okay, I hate politics. I might not know what I’m talking about here. But the political situation in Armenia is not great. The 2008 elections that brought Serzh Sargsyan to the President’s office were tainted. Many Armenians still hold that he should not be the president. In fact, due to the crappy economic situation, there is quite a bit of dissatisfaction with the political regime right now. There was recently a demonstration in Yerevan, led by former president Ter-Petrosian, that called for snap elections to oust the current cast.

Another major problem in the political area is corruption. It is hard for me to see corruption, as I am just a dude in Vardenis. But it definitely happens and is a major, major barrier to the development of the country. Take, for example, the Millennium Challenge Corporation. This is a foreign aid agency created by US congress some years ago to foster development in countries of need. Armenia had a compact starting in 2006 worth $236 million. But due to poor governance (corruption) and violence associated with the tainted 2008 elections, the program was descoped down to $180 million. Guess where the extra money probably went? Funny you should ask, because Georgia, our progressive, open, western-thinking northern neighbor, had a similar $295 million pact signed in 2005. In 2008, MCC agreed to amend the compact, increasing it to $395 million. Way to go, Armenia. In my mind, it resembles something like Leon Lett.

The biggest political problem though, is the region. There is a ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. NK is currently a little slice of “independence” within Azeri borders. It’s a country that no one recognizes as a country. It is an ethnically Armenian area, which voted for independence right when the Soviet Union was collapsing. That led to a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which Armenia kind of won. There are now Armenian-occupied territories (like, right next to where I live) between NK and the Armenian border. So if we consider NK to be Armenia (which it pretty much is as far as I understand), Armenia occupies around 15% of Azeri territory. So the Azeris are pissed about this. The 2 sides can’t agree to a solution for NK. Azerbaijan is oil-rich right now, so they are increasing military spending. This year it will be $3 billion, or more than the entire Armenian state budget. And the war rhetoric has been heating up lately. There are constant violations of the ceasefire, as soldiers near the border are sniped and killed by both sides.

So that is Armenia’s direct problem, but there are so many other indirect ones. The Caucasus are such an interesting place because of the dynamics between the countries. It is like a group of bitchy high school girls who are friends with each other. Each country likes one of the other ones, despises another, and has issues with one of the major regional powers (Russia, Turkey, Iran). Armenia hates Azerbaijan, is cool with Georgia and Iran, loves Russia, and loathes Turkey. Azerbaijan hates Armenia, is okay with Georgia, is good with Iran (Azeris make up 25% of the Iranian population, crazy huh?), loves Turkey, and is suspicious of Russia. Georgia is okay with Armenia and Azerbaijan, but despises Russia. Simple, right?

I think it’s one of the things we don’t experience in America much…the border relations. Sure, we have Mexico and Canada, but for the most part we are pretty isolated.

This problem area is the first you notice when you come to Armenia. Why is there so much garbage everywhere? Why am I having a hard time seeing the end of the street in Yerevan? Why are there trees coming out of the water in Lake Sevan? The simple answer is the level of environmental protection that should be required just doesn’t exist yet. There are no rules or societal taboos about littering. Burning your garbage is seen as being proactive. Recycling is minimal at best. Smog is a major issue in Yerevan. Unless you are there after a rainstorm, don’t bet on seeing the beautiful nearby Mt. Ararats, or the Turkish Mt. Aragats (where Noah’s ship supposedly struck ground). Much of the environment has been raped. The Soviet era was especially hard on the environment. Lake Sevan was drained, then developed, and now is being raised. That beautiful strategy means that you can commonly see buildings, trees, and other things protruding out of the water. The shore is mostly non-existent, as the lakeside looks more like a floodplain than somewhere you would want to take a dip.

Deforestation has been a major problem since independence. When there were no lights, no gas, no heat, people turned to firewood to survive. The countryside has never recovered. And now, gas prices force many villagers to burn firewood. For example, my family in Solak. That’s why the news that gas prices won’t increase is a blessing to forests all over Armenia. As you know, deforestation drastically changes the natural habitat. Native critters lose their homes and soil erosion becomes rampant, not to mention there are fewer ways to clean that dirty Yerevan air.

There are also some major industrial impacts to the environment in Armenia. For instance, a uranium mine in the south is being discussed. As Americans, its proximity to Iran should worry you. For Armenians, everything else about it should worry them. But as I stated in the economic portion, the lack of jobs makes any endeavor, any foreign investment, extremely enticing. Another is the aging Metsamor nuclear power plant near Yerevan. This thing has been sanctioned by international bodies and recommended shut down. It keeps on chugging, just like those 35 year old Ladas everywhere, despite potential disaster. Due to its danger, PC won’t post volunteers within a 30km radius. People who work at the plant are known to have dangerously high levels of radiation, but continue to work because they have no other choice.

There are many other issues that I either don’t know about or haven’t gotten in to here.

So, Armenia is a fragile place. I get the feeling that it is a pressure cooker. Something will happen soon. Peace and prosperity seem unreachable at times. But why do I write about all this? As a volunteer living in this country, I have become attached. I see the big picture every day, but can’t do much about it. All I can do is try to touch a few lives and help Vardenis in some way. I know I am not a player in the major issues Armenia faces. It’s important for me to realize that underneath every smile I meet on the streets, all of these problems weigh heavily on the souls of Armenians. They are an ancient people who have been through a lot, so maybe they are better at dealing with it. But I have to know they are there. Armenia, as much as I enjoy it and think of it as a great place, has many serious issues. And I know deep down that I will fly home next summer to the land of milk and honey; these problems aren’t truly mine and never will be. So I feel for them. I guess I also think about it because I know I have to prepare myself mentally to get sent home early in case something happens. There was a time when I wouldn’t have minded getting sent home. But now, it would sting in a way that I don’t want to know. That’s why I think about these things.


2 Responses to “Things That Worry Me”

  1. Nancy Says:

    Bless you, Kevin! You have such a good heart!

  2. Emma Says:

    Kevin. I know this feeling exactly. With my postmate/lifeline leaving in just a few short months I have started to think about what that would be like…..too sad. Love you, buddy. Keep up the good work 🙂

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