Armenia: Bright outlook

30 Sep 2019 by Tom Otley
Armenia's capital, Yerevan. Credit: Vistavision/iStock

Following a velvet revolution in 2018 and an increase in foreign investment, there is cause for optimism in Armenia 

Wherever you are in Yerevan, Mount Ararat is watching you. Shimmering on the horizon, snow-capped even in summer, it is more than 17,000 feet high and only 60km away, yet is unreachable from the city. Lost to Turkey in 1921, when national borders shifted, it is now totem-like to the millions of diaspora Armenians, a symbol of the sadness of this historic yet, to the rest of the world, almost forgotten nation.

For those living in Armenia’s capital today, however, it is less of a concern. Yes, the mountain is ever-present, and features on the country’s coat of arms (along with Noah’s Ark, a reference to the Biblical boat’s resting place), but in reality it is further away than the powerful lenses of photographers seem to suggest. In proper perspective, Ararat is present, but distant, and appropriately, today’s Armenians are focused on closer realities.

There are reasons to be optimistic for Armenia. So far this year, foreign direct investment has risen by 20 per cent, foreign investment in general has increased by 26 per cent, and the number of tourists is up 12.3 per cent.

The Economist declared Armenia “Country of the Year” for 2018, a period that saw a peaceful Velvet Revolution when former journalist Nikol Pashinyan challenged President Serzh Sargsyan when he tried to “do a Putin” and avoid limits to his term by making himself “executive prime minister”. People took to the streets to protest, Sargsyan backed down, Pashinyan took power, and then won 70 per cent of the vote in the subsequent election in December. Instrumental in that process was President Armen Sarkissian, who encouraged dialogue between the two sides and is now a vocal spokesperson for the country’s potential.

Interviewed in the Financial Times in June this year, Sarkissian declared Armenia “one of the new start-ups of the 21st century”. After it was previously dubbed a “Caucasian Tiger” by the World Bank back in 2007, Armenians might perhaps take this with a pinch of salt, but Sarkissian believes the 20th century was a century of natural resources and that the 21st will be one of human resources.

Since Armenia lacks oil, coal and gas (although it still does have copper, molybdenum and some gold), it is probably best to concentrate on the human element. With a population of only three million (although the diaspora is between seven and eight million), it is a finite resource, but Sarkissian’s theory is that “small countries such as Armenia, Israel, Singapore and Ireland, often the victims of bigger powers in previous centuries, are well positioned to thrive in our own times because they are so adaptable”.

It has certainly proved so in the past, even if that adaptability has been forced upon it. Many countries are ancient in the sense that people have lived on a particular territory for millennia, but Armenia is unusual in having been known as such for at least 2,500 years. Classicists will know that the famous retreat of the Ten Thousand in Xenophon’s Anabasis takes place across the Armenian plateau, and its location by Mount Ararat and between two continents means that everyone from the Greeks, Persians, Muslims, Mongols and Mamluks have subjected it to periods of domination under their conquests and empires.

These troubles lasted into the modern age. The Armenian genocide of 1890-1920, during which more than a million of its people perished, is still disputed by its much larger neighbour Turkey. As recently as last year, Umit Yalcin, ambassador for Turkey to the UK, wrote to the Financial Times about its coverage, calling its use of the word genocide “unacceptable and obviously disputable from a variety of standpoints, including legal and historical”.

Armenia’s western border with Turkey is closed, and as a result Turkish Airlines doesn’t make the short hop between Istanbul and Yerevan. In fact, a lack of air connections in general is a problem. There are daily flights to Yerevan’s Zvartnots International airport with Aeroflot via Moscow, and Flydubai via Dubai, but other major carriers (Qatar Airways, Air France and Austrian Airlines) offer only a few flights each week. There is a strong rumour that Ryanair and Wizz Air are planning to launch services, and this will certainly help, because at the moment it does take determination to reach Armenia.

Coming home

During my trip, by far the largest proportion of visitors I spoke to were the families of those who had reluctantly left for the likes of the US and Russia during the late eighties and early nineties. Fluent in Armenian either because their childhood had been spent there or it was still the first language of their parents, many of them were thinking of returning and were on extended trips to learn more and to see for themselves the recent positive changes in the country. If this reverse brain drain could happen, then Sarkissian’s vision of a Singapore of the region would look even brighter.

When I joined a morning trip to Lake Sevan, about an hour’s drive north of Yerevan city centre, the tour bus had a sizeable proportion of such visitors. Interestingly, among the myriad other nationalities on the bus were two Scottish students who, while exploring the country, were staying with a family from the Philippines, part of a small but growing population here. Armenia is a popular destination for Filipinos living and working in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait. The visa rules of those places means that these workers (and many other nationalities) are required to leave the country to renew their visas.

Many still simply cross the border and return the same day, but others turn it into a short holiday, and Armenia, a short flight from the Gulf and with a Christian population, is a popular choice. While here, they take a tour, enjoy the monasteries, and also the weather after the heat of the Gulf. Many marvel at snow on the ground, having never experienced it. Some have made Armenia their home.

In addition, the country has welcomed more than 20,000 Syrians of Armenian heritage since Syria descended into civil war in 2011. Whether people are choosing to live here or are being forced to, it is hoped that this new generation of residents will help to power Armenia into a more successful period than it has known for centuries.

Overcoming adversity

While visitors such as myself, understandably, tend to focus on the million or more dead in 1890-1920, it is more recent history that caused the closure of the border with Turkey in 1993. The end of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s meant households had power for only an hour a day, while a devastating earthquake in 1988 killed 25,000 people, with estimates of hundreds of thousands injured and 500,000 left homeless. There was then a war with neighbouring Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, that, with Turkey supporting Azerbaijan, resulted in two of Armenia’s borders being closed (this remains the case).

That Armenia survived at all is down to its Christian heritage – it was the first state to convert under Gregory the Illuminator in AD301; its unique language – the books and manuscripts in the city’s Matenadaran are well worth a visit; and its diaspora, which is not just vocal in articulating past wrongs but also gives billions to the country either as remittances to family members or as donations each year.

And there are many famous Armenians. To those of a certain age, Charles Aznavour, the French-Armenian singer who has a square named after him in the centre of Yerevan, would be the best known of these, but to younger readers Kim Kardashian, with her 147 million Instagram followers, built awareness among a new generation when in 2015 she spent eight days in the country her family had fled nearly a century earlier. Early this month she is due to return to Yerevan for the World Congress on Information Technology (WCIT) – which will be attended by 2,500 professionals from more than 70 countries – to give a keynote speech on “how decentralised technologies have democratised the worlds of entertainment, media and journalism”.

At the same time, the Aurora Humanitarian Prize will be awarded. This was set up in 2016 “to recognise humanitarian courage, commitment and impact” and is given each year to notable peace and humanitarian activists worldwide (last year’s winner was Rohingya lawyer Kyaw Hla Aung). It is part of a larger Aurora Humanitarian Initiative that was set up by ethnic Armenians in Russia, including Ruben Vardanyan, who says he has personally made US$300 million in donations to projects in the country in recent years.

The awarding of the Aurora Prize is now a central part of a larger forum and conference that includes the WCIT. Vardanyan told me that he hoped the forum would “not only engage the global community but also inspire Armenians around the world to re-engage with their homeland… We expect our country’s progress to be showcased first-hand to visitors throughout the Aurora Forum. This is a chance for us to bring the world to Armenia, in a way we’ve not been able to do before.”

The forum’s focus on IT reflects Armenia’s big ambitions to become a regional tech hub. Once the Silicon Valley of the Soviet Union, accounting for 30 per cent of its military electronics, the country has maintained a competitive advantage in technology development. Technology is the fastest-growing sector in the economy, enjoying a reported 20 per cent annual growth rate. There are more foreign companies working in this industry here than any other, with the likes of Microsoft, Oracle, Synopsys, D-Link, National Instruments and Mentor Graphics having offices and development teams in the country. Other well known companies investing are Bloomberg, Pernod Ricard, Philip Morris and Atlas Copco.

Last month, Moody’s rating agency revised Armenia’s credit rating up from stable to positive, and forecast continued economic growth at 5.5 per cent annually. “In particular, ongoing investments in hotels will raise tourism capacity, new textile factories are being built, and the number of IT sector companies and projects are growing rapidly,” Moody’s said.

It added that the IT industry was “providing a strong foundation for the development of a skills- and knowledge-based economy”. On his Facebook page, Prime Minister Pashinyan said: “This is a really important development which increases international confidence in the Armenian economy and makes our country considerably more attractive to investors.” Meanwhile, Deputy Prime Minister Tigran Avinyan said the country was “attractive [both] for investors and entrepreneurs who seek harmony of soul and emerging opportunities for business.”

As visitors numbers rise, those arriving in Yerevan looking for this “harmony of soul” will find a peaceful city. There is traffic, but nothing on the scale of a Beirut or Cairo, and it is an attractive capital, with buildings of pink tuff catching the sunlight in the evenings. Republic Square has the History Museum, National Gallery, an impressive post office and large government buildings, many with colonnades and all facing the well-tended gardens and dancing fountains at its centre.

Paris had Haussmann, while Yerevan had Soviet-born Armenian architect Alexander Tamanyan, who designed the capital’s wide streets in 1920 in neoclassical revivalist style. A monumental basalt statue portrays him poring over the masterplan at the bottom of the city’s much-photographed travertine Cascade, with the Tamanyan Sculpture Park at its foot. Intended as an art deco representation of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the 572-step stairway, 302 metres high, offers good views of the city and Mount Ararat (see picture, pages 34-35).

In a symbolism a little too obvious to be pressed home, this Cascade was planned as a celebration of 50 years of Soviet rule, but when the rule – and the money – stopped, it lay unfinished for 20 years and had to rely on later funding from the US-based Cafesjian Family Foundation to beautify it. Get to the top and through a wire fence you will see a large hole where a museum was once planned. When, if ever, this will be finished is anyone’s guess.

As you wander the city, depending on the weather, you will see people playing outdoor chess; the country has a long tradition of producing champions. These skills may be necessary as Armenians seek to make an advantage out of what has so often been a disadvantage, its geographical position squeezed by larger neighbours such as Turkey, Iran and Georgia.

“Not only do we sit at the crossroads of four different bordering civilisations,” Vardanyan says, “but our recent peaceful revolution into a new political era, as well as our diaspora’s global influence, makes us an important community from an international perspective.” For that, it will need all its human resources, and a long-deserved run of luck.

What to see

For the visitor to Yerevan, Armenia has several half- and full-day trips easily accessible from the city centre, with prices varying from £8 per day for a group minibus tour to £100-plus per day for a private driver and car.

In the capital itself, head for the History Museum of Armenia and the National Gallery of Armenia (co-located, with separate or combined entry tickets) or the Matenadaran (the repository of manuscripts). For a day trip, the most popular site offered by tour operators is Garni and Geghard. Garni Temple’s location above a high gorge within ancient walls is irresistible (as is the gorge, which has Giant’s Causeway-type basalt columns). Geghard is an ancient monastery with several churches built into the rock formation (some are almost caves), and perhaps reflect the churches’ origins of having been built over pagan temples. One has a natural spring bubbling through the rock face, from which Armenian visitors often collect water for its curative or holy properties.

If you have time, a second day trip would be Sevan, Sevanavank Monastery, Dilijan, Haghartsin, Goshavank and Lake Parz, several sites that can all be visited in one day using an inexpensive group tour. Lake Sevan and its Mother of God Church is the most photographed site in Armenia (discounting Mount Ararat, which, of course, is in Turkey). Dating from 874, but much altered, the two churches making up the monastery are fascinating, although most people sit and gaze out at the beautiful lake.

Haghartsin monastery has recently been largely rebuilt but is in an attractive valley, while Goshavank dates from the 12th century and has a fine Khachkar (a stone cross) by the door of one of the chapels. Dilijan is an attractive village in the mountains with much renovation by Ruben Vardanyan’s Idea Foundation. Lake Parz is a nice lunch stop in the hills above Dilijan and you can take a walk around the lake with noticeboards telling you more about the flora and fauna.

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