Monday, March 30, 2009

Armenia 2

A few more impressions of Armenia, particularly the capital Yerevan , which is home to a third of Armenians. The photo above of a photographer's display window includes a few national heroes, including Charles Aznavour.

A warm, inviting office building from the Soviet period. Smart new shopping parades are however beginning to erase the oppressive Soviet architectural legacy.

Stunning sheshbesh (backgammon) boards on sale in a Sunday morning Yerevan street market. The game is popular all over the Middle East as well. Although almost 100% Christian, Armenia felt like part of the Middle East too and there was an obvious mixing of cultures.

Banjo-playing old dude, Yerevan street market. We heard some traditional Armenian music at a restaurant, belted out by a mixed duo in traditional dress. A bit too strident and Balkan for my taste.

The cathedral-like food market in Yerevan suggests a Soviet stab at capturing the atmosphere of the east. As soon as you walk in, determined moustachioed men wielding knives, hack out slices of fruit stuffed with nuts and stuff them into your mouth: an aggressive (and effective) marketing ploy.

Laying a wreath at the memorial to the Armenian genocide. There is a nearby grove where various international figures and bodies have planted a tree in memory of the victims. Jacques Chirac, for example. However trees planted by US, UK or Israel were not to be found (there was a tree planted by the Armenian Jewish community). All these countries, and more, are wary of infuriating Turkey, but upon exiting the well-documented exhibition of the Armenian genocide, this knowledge didn't help me feel less ashamed.

Armenia is proud of its cultural heritage but as a strageically located small country with very limited resources it needs to find a more stable niche in the chaotic post-Soviet era. Conversations with locals and a bit of reading revealed a pretty sad political picture of Armenia today.

Following the (Feb 08) election result, opposition protests began in Yerevan's Freedom Square, in front of the Opera House. On March 1st, the demonstrators were violently dispersed by police and military forces and President Robert Kocharyan declared a 20-day state of emergency. This was followed by mass arrests and purges of prominent members of the opposition, as well as a de facto ban on any further anti-government protests. (Wikipedia)

Locals told us that you could distinguish the cars of the different business oligarch clans by their number plates. If they ended with 500 for example, they belonged to the oligarch who had the monopoloy on the import of concrete.. or whatever. And in fact the black SUVs of these powerful families could be seen all over Yerevan. As if to verify a story I'd been told, we pulled up at some traffic lights next to a smart black van driven by the 14 year old son of an oligarch. He fleetingly peered down his nose at our scruffy taxi before returning his attention to a pretty and heavily made up 14 year old girl. The lights changed and he left us in the dust. The police, I was told, are too scared to enforce the law against these characters.

A police car circyling a bust of Sakharov....

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