While taking a walk through the Armenian Bazaar (or Vernisaj), you can easily distinguish the colorful bookstall owned by an Armenian retired English teacher, Frunzik Tadevosiam, 70, who hails from Nagorno-Karabakh.
He quickly starts a friendly conversation when he realizes someone is coming from Turkey. “I am happy to see Turkish journalists in Yerevan. The Turkish and Armenian peoples have no problem. The problem is with the governments of the two countries. Armenians always remember the help of the Turks during World War I,” says Tadevosiam, adding that both governments should change their attitudes towards each other.
“To err is human; to persist on error is stupidity. We don’t live forever,” says the bookseller, meaning that the two nations should understand each other and become closer.
Sharing Tadevosiam’s opinion, the Global Political Trends Center (GPoT) of İstanbul Kültür University and the Yerevan-based Eurasia Partnership Foundation organized a Turkish-Armenian Media Reporting Bus Tour for a group of Turkish and Armenian journalists in order to bring journalists from the two countries together to gain first-hand insight into their neighbor countries.
Starting in Turkey, the group visited six places: İstanbul, Malatya, Kayseri, Cappadocia, Ankara and Kars. In Turkey, Ani, which is a ruined and uninhabited medieval Armenian city-state situated in the Turkish province of Kars near the border with Armenia, was the most emotional place for the Armenian journalists.
On the way to Ani, the Armenian journalists started to sing a song about Ani. It says, “Desnem anin u nor mermen.” When asked what the meaning of the song was, they said it meant, “I can die after seeing Ani.”
After the visit to Turkey, they crossed into Armenia via the Georgian border. While passing to a neighbor country via a third country, Armenian journalists emphasized the importance of the relations between the two nations and said that even though there are borders between two countries, hearts have no borders. “Two nations can love each other, but before opening the closed borders we have to open our mental borders,” said one Armenian journalist.
After crossing the Armenian border, Gyumri, whose name during the Soviet period was Leninakan, was the first city to welcome the journalists, although it was a rueful welcome. Gyumri is the second-largest city in Armenia, which endured a major earthquake in 1988, resulting in the deaths of at least 25,000 people.
Levon Barseghyan, chairman of the Journalists’ Club in Gyumri, accompanied the group during their visit to a family that has been living in a container since the earthquake. Barseghyan told Sunday’s Zaman that 6,000 families have been living in containers since 1988. “Almost 2,000 families will get houses, but another 4,000 will remain in the containers due to the increased number of family members since 1988,” said Barseghyan, adding that there has been no improvement in the city since the earthquake.
“Gyumri is a very poor city; the government has no investment here. Indeed, the government does not have any investment in the country,” said Barseghyan, adding that unemployment and poverty were the main problems in Gyumri. “The poverty figure is 47 percent. You can understand the situation when you see the condition of the roads and houses,” he added.
He also said that most of the people living in containers were unemployed, adding that their relatives from the Armenian diaspora were sending money to them. One family survives on 10,000 dram (approximately $25) per month. “Large numbers are emigrating to Russia and Turkey,” said Barseghyan.
Barseghyan revealed that 10 years ago the wealthiest Armenian man from the diaspora donated $45 million to build 2,400 homes in Gyumri. “The government can only build 1,000 houses in a year,” he added.
Just as I began to think that every part of Armenia was like Gyumri, I came to Yerevan, which is the other face of Armenia. With its modern buildings, cafes and crowded streets, Yerevan looks like a European city, although one can still feel the Soviet past at times.
People are modern and well-dressed in the streets of Yerevan. One Armenian colleague said this was a common situation in almost all the Caucasian countries. Even on an ordinary day it seems like the people are going to attend a ceremony. But, when the sun sets, Republic Square explains the reason behind the smartly dressed people.
Republic Square, the large central city square in Yerevan, is the place where ceremonies and gatherings are held. Every night, except Monday, shows and concerts are held in the square. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is one of the greatest buildings in Republic Square, which is surrounded by seven major buildings. As a Turkish journalist, one can easily enter the ministry and get some public information. When asked about the lack of concern for security, one Armenian journalist said, “Armenia does not have a terrorism problem, so we don’t have any security concerns.”
Armenia is not a very rich country. The borders with its neighbors, Turkey and Azerbaijan, are closed. Its other neighbor, Iran, faces sanctions from the international community, which also affects Armenia’s economy. Life is very expensive for locals compared to foreigners. One Armenian journalist says people in Armenia are not satisfied with their salaries, adding that almost every family has a member in the diaspora who sends money to them.
“Life isn’t very cheap in our country, especially today, when we have price hikes,” Armenian journalist Vahe Sarukhanyan told Sunday’s Zaman. And another Armenian organizer said salaries were very low in Armenia. “A journalist gets probably, depending on skill, from $200 to $1,000 a month and many of them are on the lower end, of course,” he says, adding that people are dissatisfied with their salaries.
Although the economic situation receives poor marks, the education system saves the situation. Yerevan State University offers Persian studies, Arabic studies, Turkish studies and Kurdish studies. Garnik S. Asatrian, a lecturer in Oriental studies, said the number of staff for each department was approximately 27.
While speaking with Armenians one can easily realize that there is a difference of dialect between the Armenians living in Armenia and the ones from the diaspora. There are two dialects of the Armenian language, Eastern Armenian and Western Armenian, their main difference being the pronunciation. “Eastern Armenian is the dialect spoken in Armenia, Russia and Iran. Western Armenian is spoken in the diaspora, including Europe, America and also Turkey,” said an Armenian.
Lastly, Yerevan with its European and Soviet touch is a beautiful city for visitors. It would not be wrong to say that a snow-capped, dormant volcano is the most beautiful face of Armenia, which can be seen from every corner of Yerevan. Wherever you go, a beautiful view of the mountain follows you.