There are people who work in international development that develop a great affinity for the country in which they work, and stay for a number of years. There are other people, for whom living and working in another country is something they rotate like clockwork. Then, there are those - like me - who come full circle and return to where they first started with IFES, many years later.
In January 1996, IFES asked me to go to Armenia to prepare a rapid assessment report regarding the presidential electoral law which was to be amended in preparation for national election to be held later that year and make preliminary logistical arrangements for the first IFES office in Yerevan. The trip had been planned to last three weeks . . . and, as was usual for a lot of people who get into democracy development . . . I remained in Armenia for almost two years. Through the development and passage of the law, the subsequent election that September, the tens of thousands of demonstrators who protested the outcome of the election, the night the tanks rolled and martial law declared and trying to sort through the aftermath - it just never seemed the right time to leave.
Admittedly, the charms of Armenia for me focused more on the people and their history, rather than the amenities.
When I arrived at the end of January 1996, I found the privations caused by war with Azerbaijan remained a big part of everyday life, despite the two year cease-fire brokered by Russia. Electricity averaged about four hours a day at that time, hot water was available for two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening and goods coming into the country were few and far between - having parents who had grown up during the Great Depression in the 1930s helped me cope in the early months of my time here. More importantly, the work was challenging, the people were engaging and if the results were sometimes uneven, it was still a chart of progress of some kind.
Sujukh is a national specialty in Armenia. Walnuts are strung on twine, and then covered with a grape juice glaze that makes a tasty and healthy snack.
So, some eight countries and 12 years later - the last three years being spent in Pakistan - I was intrigued and excited about returning to Armenia to see how it had changed. On arriving, I found an interesting series of contrasts which definitely spoke of change. The President's Russian Chaika limousine has been replaced with a Mercedes. Park benches that had been stripped of their wooden slats for firewood during the worst of the post-war years now stood brightly colored and inviting. The old state run markets were replaced by shiny new western-style grocery stores. The old soviet-style restaurants and gastronomes are gone and Yerevan now boasts Mexican and Japanese cuisine. And those who sell Mercedes seem to be in competition with whoever is selling all the Bentleys seen on the city's busy boulevards. While this new affluence still reflects only the fortunes of the few, there remains the fact that there are tangible changes that do reach average citizens: roads that are paved, water and electricity services that are constant, and garbage that is picked up daily being but a sample of normal services that we in the United States take for granted, that 12 years ago were luxuries to Armenians.
A Brezhnev-era Chaika at a Classic Car Exhibition in downtown Yerevan. Chaikas were reserved for the elite of the elite in the former Soviet Union . . . but black, not this electric blue.
Democracy has seen some tangible changes, as well, although more of an uneven nature which indicates that while much has been achieved, much remains to be done. Power is still seen to be held by the few; although it must be said that unlike many post-Soviet states, Armenia has seen numerous changes in its political leadership. It has also been the scene of one of the more horrific episodes that can occur in a nation's political life when it's Prime Minister, Emergencies Minister, the Parliament Speaker and two Deputy Speakers and three Members of Parliament were gunned down on the floor of the National Assembly in October 1999. Today, the unrest that followed the disputed 2008 Presidential Election remains a sore point among many in civil society here, much like the less violent but nonetheless passionate protests following the 1996 Presidential Election.
Some would conclude that "the more things change, the more they stay the same . . ." but in Armenia, it's hard to do that. In a land with a 3,000 year old culture, which has been both the conquered and the conqueror, things have changed, are changing now and will continue to change in the future. But only time and the Armenians can gauge whether that change has been positive or negative.