- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 13, 2005

YEREVAN, Armenia - Naira Yeremyan knows her home doesn’t look like much, but it’s all she has. A ramshackle collection of wooden boards, concrete slabs and mismatched bricks, it sits amid the winding streets of Kond, a desperately poor neighborhood perched on a hilltop overlooking the Armenian capital, Yerevan.

What the neighborhood does have is a view.

Below Kond, Yerevan stretches out for miles before opening onto the Armenian plain and the ice-capped peak of Mount Ararat in Turkey. That view has wealthy property developers salivating over the prospect of putting up luxury apartments in Kond. And it’s the bane of Miss Yeremyan’s existence.

“This house is 60 years old, my grandfather and grandmother came here to escape the genocide in Turkey. My mother was born here; I was born here. This home is part of our family. And now they are saying we cannot live here, that we have to leave and get almost nothing in return,” said Miss Yeremyan, 37.

Three months ago, municipal authorities told the 14,000 residents of Kond they would have to leave their homes by the end of the year to make way for modern housing. They will be paid between $2,000 and $5,000.

We’ll be homeless’

“You cannot buy a house anywhere in Yerevan for that amount. We are going to be homeless. They are throwing us out on the streets,” said Miss Yeremyan, who shares the house and a monthly pension of about $30 with her 63-year-old mother.

Miss Yeremyan has organized sit-ins, petitions and court challenges, but her protests are ignored. “The authorities will not listen to us,” she said. “There are corrupt and influential people behind this, and they can do whatever they want.”

Kond is not unique. Armenians across the country face the same obstacles: crippling poverty, endemic corruption and powerlessness in the face of what critics say is an increasingly authoritarian government.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. At independence after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Armenia seemed a dream come true for a people with a tragic history. Less than a century after the Armenian genocide of 1915-18, when between 500,000 and 1.5 million Armenians were killed in the Ottoman Empire, the world’s 4-million-strong Armenian diaspora finally had a national homeland.

Money has poured in to rebuild the country, especially from America’s million Armenians and the U.S. government. According to the State Department, Armenia receives more U.S. aid per capita than any other county except Israel. With wealthy backing and strong grass-roots support, Armenian-Americans form one of the most effective and well-organized ethnic lobbies on Capitol Hill.

When the White House tried to reduce U.S. assistance to Armenia this summer, Congress blocked the move, bumping up the Bush administration’s allocation of $55 million to $75 million for 2006.

President dominates

But instead of thriving — and despite U.S. aid — Armenia has languished. Its politics are moribund, dominated by President Robert Kocharian, whom critics accuse of falsifying elections and cracking down on the opposition. Despite economic growth in recent years, the economy remains in shambles and half the population lives on less than $2 a day.

The result has been an exodus, the reverse of early hopes for Armenia. Instead of hundreds of thousands of dispersed Armenians flocking to their homeland, more than 1 million Armenians have left for Russia and the West. According to some estimates, the country has lost more than 30 percent of its working-age population.

“People are leaving because they don’t see any hope for the future,” said Avetik Ishkanyan, chairman of the Helsinki Committee of Armenia, a human-rights group. “And the worst part is that the ones who are leaving are from the most active part of society — these are the people we need to bring about changes in this country.”

Critics lay much of the blame at Mr. Kocharian’s feet. They say the president — elected for a second time in 2003 — is running a corrupt and despotic regime, giving free rein to businessmen close to him and stifling any dissent.

“There is a huge gap between those in power and the majority of Armenian society,” said Stepan Demirchian, leader of the opposition Justice coalition and son of a Kocharian rival killed in 1999 when gunmen attacked parliament and shot several prominent politicians. “And when we try to resist, when we try to bring democratic change, they respond with violence.”

In April 2004, inspired by the peaceful Rose Revolution in neighboring Georgia, thousands of Armenians took to the streets to denounce Mr. Kocharian and reputed vote fraud in 2003 elections. After more than 50,000 people demonstrated on April 12 and 13, the president sent the police to break up the protest with stun grenades and water cannons.

Hundreds arrested

“More than 600 citizens were arrested; political party offices were ransacked; journalists were beaten,” Mr. Demirchian said. “And, after all these acts of violence, the authorities tell us we have to be patient, that it is a long road to democracy.” Government officials insist the crackdown was necessary to maintain order and that opposition parties are simply trying to seize power.

Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanyan says the opposition uses the pretense of supporting democracy to gain support abroad as it attempts to overthrow the government. He says he knows that Armenia’s democracy is not perfect, but claims it is improving.

“The government is stable and the country is on the path to becoming a fully democratic country,” he said. “A lot has been done, but a lot remains to be done.” Under pressure from the West, Armenia will hold a national referendum this year on a package of constitutional amendments designed to limit the power of the presidency and protect judicial independence. Mr. Oskanyan says the reforms will be key to ensuring democratic growth.

“Once we complete our constitutional reforms, Armenia will move forward in leaps and bounds,” he said.

Opposition leaders see things differently. They say the reforms are only symbolic, and see the referendum as a potential trigger for the kind of mass protests that drove out authoritarian governments in Georgia and Ukraine.

Aram Sarkisian, the leader of the radical Republic Party, said opposition parties are gearing up to organize mass demonstrations after the referendum, which he contends is sure to be fraudulent.

“The situation in our country is terrible. People are leaving because they have no hope,” he said.

“Armenian society is ready for revolutionary change — peaceful and civilized change.”

Mr. Sarkisian said he met with White House and State Department officials during a June trip to Washington and emerged confident of American support for a revolution.

“The United States supported the Georgians and the Ukrainians, and they will help the Armenian people,” he said.

Still, experts say it’s unlikely the opposition could organize a successful revolution or win Western support. Fractured by infighting and with no clear leader, the opposition is more likely to fall apart before posing any threat to Mr. Kocharian.

“The opposition is too weak, and the government is just democratic enough to keep the West from supporting drastic changes,” said a Western official in Yerevan, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Some decide to stay

Chatting over rich coffee and ice-cold Coca-Cola in Yerevan’s trendy ArtBridge Cafe, a group of students and recent graduates agreed that a revolution is next to impossible.

Unlike so many other young Armenians, they’ve decided to stay and try to build their country.

“I will not leave Armenia. I want do to things for my country, make it a better place to live,” said Artak Ayunts, 26, a university lecturer. But the group was skeptical about radical change. They don’t believe Armenians are ready for a revolution, and say it could take decades of slow progress before the country is free and relatively prosperous.

“People don’t believe in themselves. They think someone else should always make changes for them,” said Mr. Ayunts.

“The biggest problem with Armenia is the Armenians,” joked philosophy student Gevorg Abrahamyan, 28.

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