12.06.2015 | Exploring Armenia’s Unique Identity

What does Yerevan have in common with Jaipur and Toulouse? All three are known under the sobriquet of pink city. As ever many with such nicknames, on a recent trip to Yerevan, it was difficult to find a local aware of it. “Really?” asked one, “I think it’s more orange”. Whatever the colour, Yerevan has a unique architectural style, the result of explosive population growth in the 20th century. From the end of the Russian Empire to the twilight of the Soviet Union, the city developed from a multi-ethnic provincial governorate of around 30,000 inhabitants to a largely ethnically Armenian capital of 1 million people.

Of the former Soviet cities I have visited, no other capital better typifies Stalin’s diktat that culture be developed according to the formula of “national in form, socialist in content”.  The slogan, which was adapted to fit all walks of Soviet life, including art, literature, cinema and architecture, underlines the paradox behind the so-called Soviet national question.  On the one hand, it promoted Soviet unity and, on the other, the uniqueness of each constituent Socialist Republic.  Although nationalism was an entirely negative impulse to be combatted with internationalism, the Socialist Republics were encouraged to add national tropes to their cultural output, best exhibited at Moscow’s exhibition park VDNKh.  The slogan is also typified in Yerevan’s Republic Square, formerly Lenin Square.  Built in 1929, it resembles squares across the former Soviet Union except for the hue of the buildings and the particular designs above their windows and columns.

Of course, it would be wrong to describe modern day Armenia as entirely Soviet.  Indeed the hot dry air, café culture and the numerous waterfalls dotting the city centre mean that many would think it had little in common with, say, Minsk.  Add to this mix the prevalence of visiting members of the Armenian diaspora, which makes bumping into groups of Californian-accented students and French school children along the city’s boulevards a frequent occurrence, and it is clear that any attempt to blithely characterise Yerevan as Soviet, Asian or European, would be in all cases an exaggeration.

June was a fascinating time to visit.  I arrived shortly before the Electric Yerevan protests broke out against government hikes to consumer energy prices in July and during the commemoration of the 100th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.  During my stay I was able to observe how wider international developments had obliged Armenia’s foreign policy to evolve – most obviously in response to the nuclear deal with Iran and Russian involvement in Ukraine.   Over dinner on consecutive nights with local contacts, conversation would inevitably turn to politics and Armenia’s role within the region.

Notably, there was a distinct lack of interest in the EU and the potential to develop along a so-called European path.  While my interlocutors were not opposed to increased EU participation in the country – indeed quite the opposite, given the relative dearth of international investment – it became apparent that most saw the EU as an afterthought in the region.  This was most often attributed to Armenia’s unique political situation.  As a land-locked country with no diplomatic relationship with two of its neighbours, and the ominous example of a disintegrating Ukraine across the Black Sea, a pragmatic realism seemed to reign regarding both the country’s domestic and international policies.

Many of the people I spoke to referred to membership of the Eurasian Union, the possibility of establishing diplomatic ties with Turkey, and the continued threat emanating from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as policy priorities, as if the country had no other options.  As opposed to disheartening realism, however, the political and civil society figures I spoke to seemed preoccupied with what Armenians themselves could do to improve their prospects.

Amid the harsh political realities of the region, the country’s growing information technology sector and the nascent civil society movements appear to be particularly bright spots.  In a country dependent on Russia for the vast majority of its energy needs, which houses two Russian military bases and where remittances from compatriots working in Moscow amount to approximately 20% of GDP, a pragmatic worldview is entirely necessary.