Veteran UK Member of Parliament and International Observer Sir Roger Gale, MP, was in Armenia for May 6th elections. While in Yerevan he met with the General Director of the Armenian British Chamber of Commerce. This is what, as an unashamed, naïve and affectionate “instant expert”, he told Armine Israyelyan:
You arrive, usually in the dark, in a Country that you have never visited before, speaking none of the languages in common use and knowing little of the exchange rates in a currency that you do not possess.
You are, fortunately, met. Not because you are important but because Members of Parliament as a breed are loose cannons and can make mayhem if left to their own devices and unsupervised for too long. So, for `home` read `International Standard Hotel`. Bed, wake up and begin the process of becoming, in five days, an instant expert on everything that moves, eats, breathes and is or has been involved in Armenian geo-political history for the last couple of millennia. Easy, really.
First impressions are important (“Olympic” UK please note) and they stick. Welcoming officials, smiling faces, clean corridors and lavatories matter.
Roger Gale and Armine Israyelyan (Chamber of Commerce)
Republic Square prior to the explosion
Republican Square post explosion
But when you have knocked around some of the less stable bits of the developing globe for a while, and got some of their soil between your toes, you do, perhaps, get a sixth sense that says to you very quickly “this place has got the skids under it” or “I am in a country that is on the way back up”.
“On the way back up” can apply to most places at some time or another. Margate, in my own parliamentary constituency in Southern England, has enjoyed a heyday as a premier UK seaside resort patronised by the fashionable, has watched its holidaymakers drift away to the sun and the cheap booze of the Mediterranean, has found itself playing host to welfare benefit claimants, asylum seekers and illegal immigrants and is now, on the back of a significant investment in a major art centre, at last experiencing a renaissance. What goes around comes around.
In other parts of the World conflict, pestilence, drought, famine and ethnic divisions have taken their toll. Warlords and dictators have been and departed leaving, occasionally, culture and prosperity but, more frequently, desolation in their wake. The road back to prosperity is long and hard but the path, overgrown maybe, is still there and just sometimes your instinct tells you that it is once again leading in the right direction
Armenia is, perhaps, one such place.
The fact that the approach from the airport is at present lined with garish `nitespots` and casinos is indicative only of the fact that there are still wealthy people who are prepared to be parted from their money. And a few young trees planted in the sidewalks of a capital city are only the merest indication that someone, somewhere, is bothering to renovate and to reconstruct. The occasional lumiere, even without the son, on a fine old building, attention to drains and cables and, subsequently, road surfaces , all of these things send out the right “ we are on the way back” signals.
The simple fact that some far-sighted Western European companies are, for all of the bureaucratic hoops that have to be jumped through and the hazards of overdue diligence required when forging links with local companies, bothering to seek investment and business opportunities, tells what ought to be the beginning of a long story.
Briefed, bothered and bemused. Election Day, May 6th, took me and my Georgian parliamentary friend David Darchiashvili, north out of Yerevan to Vanadzor, the home town of our interpreter. Facile to describe the valley centre of the town, with its acres of broken pipes, rusting steel and decaying concrete as the inevitable result of post-Soviet decline. These were once huge industrial plants employing thousands of people and turning out chemicals and artificial silk and the like. Take away the five-year plans, the artificial support and the managed markets and the edifice collapses.
That has happened in many towns throughout the former Eastern Bloc, of course, but it has also blighted the rust-belt of the capitalist heartland of the United States. It is a long time since I paid a fleeting visit to Allentown, Pennsylvania, but there also was the detritus left behind when the smokestack circus masters leave town and the fires go cold.
The problem here is scale. The sheer size of the ruin screams billions of dollars in site clearance even before regeneration can properly commence. A district, though, that has pulled itself back from a terrifying, death-dealing earthquake has to be able to live in hope. Preserve and convert some fine old industrial archaeology, clear the debris, recycle the metal, decontaminate the soil, move forward. Simple!
Pushing further northwards towards Alaverdi no traveller could fail to be awestruck by the stunning river valleys and mountains of Lori. The contrast between the natural beauty and the industrial wreckage left behind is harsh, cruel and breathtaking. It has its own industrial wastelands, of course, still only partly hidden by the young trees growing to take the place of forests felled for power when Armenia was left without heat or light. It is a region that is screaming out for discerning visitors with money in their pockets to spend on quality accommodation and high-class environmental leisure.
We cut back through the mountains to Stepanavan and on towards close of polling day. In the course of this political tourism we did the job that we were sent to do. We visited urban and rural polling stations, talked to many electors and saw mostly good, a bit of bad and some ugly. We felt confident in being able to report back that on the day these elections were, while a little ragged around the edges, peaceful and, at least in the local context, free and fair. On the day. Others will have to decide whether what went before and what may follow will prove acceptable.
Turning a corner from one outpost of democracy high in the hills we stumbled across a World Heritage church built on the remains of an earlier, pagan, temple. The priest tells us that Christianity has been celebrated here in this very building for about fifteen hundred years . It claims one of the oldest known carvings of the Madonna and Christ in the world. `Counting the vote` is a worldwide political tedium that drags on into the night and the early grey dawn but it is seldom that that task is preceded by the opportunity to see something very special. I would sit through a thousand similar long political nights for the privilege of seeing just one such monument. That church is part of a heritage and a landscape and a history and an opportunity that the outside world needs to know a great deal more about.
Armenia may now be reduced to a small, landlocked country with a tiny population but with the support of its distinguished and impressive diaspora is there any reason why, in every form of business, it should not punch way beyond its weight?
And I reached the end of this short journey without even sampling the “Churchill`s favourite brandy” that I am now forced to take home to enjoy!
On Friday 5th May I was strolling through the crowds that made up the rally in Republic Square, trying to soak up some of the pre-election atmosphere. The music was pounding out and parents were taking balloons for their children from the man with the gas bottles, beside whom I stood. I had arranged to return Armine Israyelyan’s call at half past seven to fix a business meeting. I ducked back into the hotel to use the phone. Just in time. Had it not been for that call I would have been right beside those gas bottles when they exploded injuring some one hundred and forty people. Instead of observing the election I would probably have been occupying a bed in the General Hospital. I think that I owe the Armenian British Chamber a rather big “thank you”.