Stallholders at the spice, vegetable and fruit market in Yerevan.

Rita Willaert (under a Creative Commons licence)

Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, nestles under the shadow of Mount Ararat; on a good day you can see the mountain through the mist and the smoke. It’s an odd kind of town, centred by a downtown government and shopping quadrant that has all the glitz of Glendale, California, or even Beirut – both homes to significant parts of the large Armenian diaspora. Yerevan is one of the oldest continuously occupied cities in the world, which is a point of pride for Armenians who have outlasted a series of foreign occupiers – Persians, Ottomans and Russians. The prosperous Kentron District and the area bordering historic Republic Square have been a hive of construction cranes since the early 2000s as money from the wealthy developers of the diaspora has poured into new hotels, boutiques and luxury residences.

But move much beyond the lively and bright cafés serving surj (Armenian coffee) and freshies (fruit smoothies) in this small central district and the aspect shifts to some of the worst urban poverty – blighted Soviet-era highrises and neglected infrastructure – in this part of the world. It’s like moving from light to darkness. More than a third of all Armenians live in greater Yerevan, but very few are able to afford the luxury of the city centre. Beyond Yerevan the Armenian countryside is remarkably beautiful and almost half the population (46 per cent) are still involved in agriculture.

Armenia suffers one of the worst levels of economic inequality among post-Soviet ‘transition’ countries, with the poorest 55 per cent of the population earning just 16 per cent of the national income. For this group, underemployment and poverty wages are the daily diet, only alleviated for those with family abroad by occasional remittances. This inequality, together with the decaying industrial base and a relative lack of natural resources, has impaired the economic performance of the mountainous state. Corruption (particularly in the police and the judiciary) remains a serious problem.

The country has also been plagued with political authoritarianism – another persistent feature of many post-Soviet societies. Armenians have become deeply suspicious of election results since they were manipulated by the regime of Robert Kocharian (President from 1998 to 2008) who greatly enriched himself and his inner circle while in office. His successor, Serzh Sargsyan, violently suppressed demonstrations in 2008 protesting the manner of his ascent to power; 10 protesters were killed. There have recently been some signs of political liberalization, with renewed discussions between government and opposition and the first serious attempt to resolve issues with Turkey since the Armenian genocide of 1915 to 1920.

Flag of Armenia

Armenians have long lived under the shadow of the modern world’s first mass genocide when Turks (with official encouragement) systematically murdered some 1.5 million of their Armenian neighbours. Memory of it has engendered quite a different attitude to Russia from the hostility one finds in neighbouring states that were also once part of the Soviet Union (particularly in Georgia) – to Armenians, Russia was and is widely seen as some protection from ‘the Turks’. Today an eternal flame and a museum dedicated to remembering the genocide overlook Yerevan. The largely Christian Armenians remain deeply suspicious of ‘the Turks’, a term that has come to signify all Muslims – including the neighbouring Azerbaijanis, with whom Armenia fought a 1994 war over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Many unresolved issues still divide Armenia and Azerbaijan but there was at least a start to negotiations in 2011.

For Armenians, the question remains whether living with a proud but tragic past will prevent them from coming to terms with a viable and sustainable future in a Caucasus region often unforgiving to those who miscalculate.