BY MARIA TITIZIAN
While most of the world has finished celebrating the New Year and gone back to work, the holiday season is only now coming to a close in Armenia. Most post-Soviet countries like Belarus, Georgia, the Russian Federation, Moldova, the Ukraine, and Armenia continue to celebrate the Old New Year according to the Julian calendar, which falls on January 13.
This year, Armenia’s National Assembly decided that all banks, schools, and state institutions were to have an extended public holiday till January 10 – they appeared to forget that the country’s gross domestic product contracted by 18 percent in 2009 and the effects of the global financial crisis were still in full swing in this tiny republic with closed borders, an absence of natural resources and a continuing brain drain. Who needs to work? And who cared that those privately-owned businesses that chose to open during the state holiday would have to pay their employees time-and-a-half? A real boost for productivity…
As Hovik Abrahamian, the speaker of the National Assembly said, “It doesn’t take a lot of brains to become a politician.” (www.7or.am)
While no one will argue that Armenia is a country of contrasts and extremes, the extravagant holiday decorations in the country’s capital this year bordered dangerously on the tasteless; Yerevan looked like a brightly colored gift box, a shiny candy wrapper, a multi-colored fluorescent disco ball from the 70s.
2009 was one of the most trying and difficult years in our nation’s recent history. We were faced with the near-collapse of Armenia’s economy and a dangerous rise of oligarchs and monopolies, even though the Minister of the Finance Tigran Davtian insists that things are fine, and the Armenia-Turkey protocols, which instigated much national discourse and caused a further divide between the homeland and the Diaspora. It caused us to look at the reality of our country’s precarious situation and it highlighted the sensitive issues of collective memory, identity, rights and restitution.
Most indicators show that the country is sliding backwards in many spheres. Perhaps in order to veil the rise of social injustice, the rise of monopolies, the decline of good governance, the lack of accountability and an unequal application of the law, among many other issues, authorities worked even harder to disguise the reality on the ground through a variety of measures. The modus operandi utilized so brilliantly by the Soviet Union is definitely alive and well around here. Give the people a good performance and they’ll forget their misery.
And so, benevolent city officials in Yerevan went through pains to help lift people’s spirits.
It began with Yerevan’s 2791st birthday celebrations on October 11, one day after the signing of the Armenia-Turkey protocols. While many of us felt the world around us collapsing and decades of advocacy and hard work obliterated with the stroke of Foreign Affairs Minister Edward Nalbandian’s signature, the city of Yerevan was transformed into an open-air festival, the likes of which had not been seen since independence.
On every corner, in every conceivable open space throughout the city marching bands, dance ensembles, choirs, rock bands, jazz bands, musicians, clowns, flags, trumpets and balloons were dispersed. School administrations were “requested” to bring their entire student body out to take part in the festivities. Residents from nearby villages and towns were bussed into the capital city to witness Yerevan’s birthday celebrations and if they were lucky, perhaps take home a balloon or two.
Weeks before, the city’s administration had placed boxes in many supermarkets and shops asking the residents of Yerevan to contribute to their city’s birthday celebrations. Under the banner “Siroum Em Qez Yerevan,” (I Love You, Yerevan) an extravagant day of events took place throughout the city, starting at the Erebuni Fortress.
As I walked through Republic Square that day, I thought that I might actually be in North Korea.
Young girls in brightly colored uniforms marching in unison, dancers dancing the kochari, clowns passing out balloons, singers singing, and children running, squealing and jumping for joy. I felt like I was in an altered reality. Had we not just signed away the memory of our grandparents’ suffering; had we not just given away our birthright? Give me a good celebration and I’m supposed to forget my history?
And as we inched closer to the conclusion of the first decade of the 21st Century, Yerevan’s City Hall once again, dipped into its seemingly bottomless budget and well, went crazy. Driving down Abovyan Street toward Republic Square has become almost impossible to navigate with all the bright lights and fanfare.
To add to this absurdity, at the beginning of the winter season the municipality asked stores, restaurants and other businesses to “help out” by shoveling the snow in front of their establishments as the city couldn’t guarantee cleaning all the sidewalks.
So instead of directing funds where they are needed most – garbage disposal, snow removal, placement of traffic signs, educating the public about not littering, etc. – the city spent inordinate amounts of public funds decorating the city for the holiday season.
Almost 20 years after independence, if we could proudly and confidently say that our country was on the road to becoming a true democracy where freedom of speech, the protection of human rights and social justice prevailed; if Armenia had become a valuable regional player, a country which honored and protected its citizens and the rest of the Armenian nation dispersed throughout the globe, then perhaps the Christmas decorations wouldn’t have appeared so gaudy. Some might argue that creating a festive mood in the capital city can contribute to our quality of life; however trying to fool people into a false sense of security is irresponsible and negligent.