I have just arrived back in Tbilisi after an extremely enjoyable week in Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh. Compared to the eleven-hour train journeys I have taken between Yerevan and Tbilisi in the past, the four and half hour car ride through Armenian mountains and the Georgian low-land was a relatively relaxing experience – crazy South Caucasus driving styles aside
It has been just over a year since I was in Armenia or Nagorno Karabakh. Unlike North America or Western Europe where both political ideas and physical infrastructure remains much the same from year to year, the speed of change across the South Caucasus means there are always need developments to discuss, sights to be seen and challenges to (try and) understand.
The most dramatic thing that struck me about Nagorno Karabakh in particular is the vast amount of construction work going on in its two main cities Stepanakert and Shushi.
While I first visited Stepanakert years after the very worst of the war damage had been repaired, large parts of the city are still made up of fenced-off, empty plots had presumably once stood. The pace of rebuilding is astonishing with a huge impressive conference centre for war veterans having been constructed on the main Renaissance Square and many new housing blocks springing up on the hill leading up to the town centre. Stepanakert remains a poor city but it’s an immaculately-kept one with well-groomed parks, shady boulevards and very little litter evident on the streets. In the four years I’ve been visiting Karabakh, I have always known the residents of Stepanakert were proud of their city – and I’m glad they’ve finally acquired the investment needed to modernise its ageing infrastructure.
The city of Shushi sadly remains in an sad condition that is unbecoming of its status as one of the major cultural hubs for Armenians internationally. The main Ghazanchetsots Cathedral has been fully refurbished and quite literally glistens on the hill overlooking the valley and the nearby Verkhiya Mosque has been pleasantly restored, although wasn’t open to visitors on the day I was in town. The key priority of the Government of Nagorno Karabakh must, of course, remain housing but more needs to be done to ensure that Shushi’s cultural heritage is protected.
Back in Yerevan, the pace of change is a little slower but there does appear to be a fair deal amount of modernisation going on around the city. The parks close to the Cascades still provide, in my opinion, the world’s best cafe culture with open air jazz cafes, wine bars and cocktail lounges providing a perfect place to waste a few hours (or indeed days).
It wouldn’t have been the type of holiday I could have enjoyed without at least a brief delve into the political situation in both Yerevan and Stepanakert.
President Serzh Sargysan was only reelected to his second term in February and parliamentary elections are still three years off, so the political situation in the country appears relatively calm – or rather, not immediately contentious. Even those who didn’t support Sargsyan’s bid for a second term and allege that vote rigging took place do not appear to dispute that he won the election in February.
Indeed, the real criticism seems to have fallen at the feet of Raffi Hovhanissian who secured a highly respectable second place finish in the elections (with 37%) for failing to build upon his showing to create a true opposition movement. There is a distinct feeling Raffi acted more like a spoilt child than a credible political figure in the months after the election – which is a shame for democracy. Governments need oppositions and, at the moment, Armenia just doesn’t have an effective one.
In Nagorno Karabakh, party politics (which does just about exist) always plays second fiddle to basic security concerns. In that sense, nothing has changed. Rebuilding goes on, people go about their day to day lives and tourism continues to rapidly expand – but the words “Azerbaijan”, “invasion” and “war” are never far from anyone’s lips.
While in Karabakh, I developed a theory that the people of the region actually need the Azeri dictator Ilham Aliyev to remain popular in his country for oil revenues to remain high. Prosperous countries and popular leaders don’t go to war against their neighbours and risk the loss of valuable blood and treasure. Unpopular dictators with economic problems do, a la Argentina’s General Galtieri. There can be no doubt that mounting economic troubles in Azerbaijan – or a sense that the Aliyev family’s grip on power was loosening – could result in a strike on Nagorno Karabakh in an effort to rally internal support.
While my thoughts were unique to me, friends tell me that they mirror very similar remarks made by President Sargysyan several months ago. I’d therefore say my perception on the ground is a fair one!
Flying to Armenia is neither a cheap nor easy undertaking. There are no direct flights from the United Kingdom, meaning travellers from London to Yerevan need to endure flights that usually average about seven hours with a change in any of Paris, Kiev of Moscow.
Getting to Nagorno Karabakh is even harder. Even though there is a brand new airport in Stepanakert that is ready to operate return flights from Yerevan for as little as £50 return, the airport does not currently operate due to Azeri threats to shoot down any planes flying there. The only alternative is a tedious – albeit stunning – road journey through the mountains that takes six to eight hours.
Due to the logistical issues facing travel Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh, it’s clear that the two countries aren’t going to attract the ultra-lucrative, pile ‘em high and serve ‘em cheap booze tourists that put Prague and Riga on the map for British tourists. Batumi in Georgia will, in the coming years, benefit from this type of tourist too.
Armenian approaches to attracting tourists needs to be a bit more nuanced.
Hundreds of thousands of members of the Armenian diaspora flock to the region each year to rediscover their family heritage. The sites they visit are simply stunning; from the ruins of Zvartnots Monastery to snow-topped mountain ranges to Lake Sevan to ‘singing fountains’ in Yerevan’s Republic Square to the mountainous Janapar Trail.
To increase tourism to the county, Armenians need to appeal to two groups of tourists: those in search of physical pursuits such as mountaineering and canoeing and those fascinated by ancient architecture and monuments.
Call it what you want but I believe these groups are generally thought of as being at the ‘premium’ end of the market – and willing to spend what it takes to have a good time. Advertising needs to be targeted at certain publications and the narrative needs to be strong enough to attract the adventurous without scaring people off.
If anyone from the Armenian of Nagorno Karabakh Governments is reading this, I’m happy to share some marketing ideas with you! Just get in touch…
Armenia hasn’t fared well over the past 100 years; its territory gradually picked at and hacked at by a combination of Ottoman aggression and cack-handed international treaties, occupied by the Soviet Union from 1920 to 1991 and being forced to struggle with the psychological trauma of losing 1.5 million of its citizens in the 1915 genocide.
Almost every Armenian you meet is an expert on the country’s history, including both the country’s triumphs and tragedies. Perhaps it is the profound awareness of the country’s proud history and contribution to art, architecture, literature and language that has allowed Armenians to move beyond the ‘blip’ of the past 100 years and focus on the future.
As anyone who has ever visited Armenia will attest, spirits are high and welcomes are warm. The influence of the Armenian diaspora has also resulted in an intriguing view of citizenship and what it means to be “an Armenian” that has hard-wired a profound sense of internationalism into the DNA of the country’s people.
Yesterday evening I had a drink with a friend living in Yerevan who had been born in Paris to parents from Tehran and grew up in California. A day previously I met a mother, father and son born in Lebanon, Egypt and Canada respectively. All of them identified as Armenian, while still retaining a keen respect for their countries of birth.
Nestled on a dusty plain close to the Turkish border and only a few hours drive from Iran, Yerevan is an improbable place to have a cultural and linguistic melting pot – but that’s precisely what it is and what makes the city such a compelling place.
There’s nothing more to add – other than that I’m already looking forward to my next visit.