By Emil Danielyan
It took only a few days to dig up the main streets in central Yerevan. It will take at least six months to get them back into shape.
Sidewalks deprived of asphalt and cobblestones, roads strewn with rocks, and mounds of construction materials dumped on the street are becoming the new hallmark of the Armenian capital. Having long suffered from excessive amounts of dust during windy summer evenings, its one million residents are made to swallow more of the same as their government spends money provided by Armenia's single largest Diaspora donor, U.S. billionaire Kirk Kerkorian.
Work on a $7 million project to refurbish the city's main thoroughfares, which began last month, is proceeding at a snail's pace and in utter disregard of municipal construction regulations.
Under the project funded by Kerkorian's Lincy Foundation several streets in the heart of Yerevan are to be completely rebuilt and paved before the end of the year. Critics say that the authorities and Lincy have picked the streets that require least repair, neglecting other parts of the city that are in a much worse condition. The way the construction is being conducted is adding more weight to their arguments that the whole undertaking is a waste of money.
Many sidewalks in the city were quickly dug up for repair a month ago and still lie in ruins, with little sign of any activity going on. Construction engineers managing small numbers of workers say they are bound by no obligation except the project's December 2002 deadline.
In the meantime, pedestrians have no option but to make their way through the grime or walk along the road alongside roaring cars.
"Idiots," muttered a young woman as she faced a battered and dusty sidewalk on a key section of Mashtots Avenue. "What we have seen so far is mainly destruction," said an angry man on Abovian Street. "The whole city center is now deep in dust. They can't work like this in America, can they?"
A 200-meter section of the Abovian became a no-go area for pedestrians in one fell swoop, with pavements simultaneously excavated on both sides of the street. Motorists driving past them have to be careful to avoid big border stones and their splinters littering the road. There are no traffic signs marking the construction site.
Only a dozen of mainly elderly laborers can be seen working in the area. Their foreman agrees that they could have worked on one roadside at a time to spare people the trouble of inhaling dust and soiling themselves. But he says he is not the one who decides on work organization.
Edik Bezoyan, who runs Lincy's road projects in Armenia, is the man in charge. But hearing his explanations proved impossible as he failed to show up for an agreed interview with RFE/RL this week. "I'm building a city," Bezoyan declared by phone before reluctantly agreeing to meet this correspondent.
Bezoyan's office overlooks Amirian Street that leads to the city's central Republic Square. It used to be one of the cleanest and coziest streets of downtown Yerevan. It is now thick with grime which sends clouds of dust into the sky even after the slightest breeze. That turns into a real sandstorm in the evenings when weather is quite windy in the summer.
The picture on the sidewalks is equally depressing: old curb stones pulled out of the ground, dismantled cobblestones and a lot of sand. A handful of workers hewing stones is all that tells residents that Amirian is under construction, not destruction.
Vahagn Khachatrian, the former Yerevan mayor who is now in opposition to the government, reflects the growing belief among pundits when he claims that the authorities are deliberately dragging out the construction to play up its significance. "Their objective is to create the overall impression that they are working hard, that Yerevan is a big construction site," Khachatrian says.
President Robert Kocharian's influential chief of staff, Artashes Tumanian, is personally overseeing Lincy projects in Armenia, including the street reconstruction. To such an extent that the Yerevan mayor's office has little say in the latter. So far the presidential administration has been silent on the slow pace of work.
About ten private firms that won contracts earlier this year would have incurred no extra costs if they had hired more workers and finished the construction sooner. And with average monthly wages paid by them hovering between $100 and $150, labor costs should make up only a fraction of their net expenditures.
A large part of the $7 million allocated by Lincy apparently goes to pay for the construction materials, notably basalt stones. Making the best sidewalks and roads in town look even nicer may not be a bad idea, but it is a luxury in a cash-strapped city where 90 percent of the roads are in a deplorable condition. Other major streets in Yerevan are in much greater need of repair. Not to mention its run-down suburbs.
With Lincy officials in Yerevan refusing to comment and the municipal authorities denying any involvement in the undertaking, the official rationale for the choice of the repaired streets also remains unknown.
Meanwhile, the director of the municipality's architectural design institute, Gurgen Musheghian, urges people to be more patient, arguing that "you don't always come across such generous benefactors" as Kerkorian.
The largesse of the U.S. tycoon of Armenian descent is impressive indeed. Kerkorian, who owns Hollywood's famous MGM film studio, has set aside a total of $165 million for providing Armenian businesses with low-interest loans, funding infrastructure projects and offering credit guarantees to foreign investors taking an interest in Armenia. More than $60 million of it has already been spent.
A considerable part of the Lincy grants, $38 million, will underwrite the refurbishing of highways across the country. This includes the Yerevan street project. Some $15 million has been earmarked for the rebuilding of houses in Armenia's northwestern regions devastated by the 1988 earthquake. Another $20 million will be invested in the development of the country's tourism infrastructure.
But Kerkorian, 83, appears to show little personal interest in its Armenia projects, letting his Armenian-American aides handle the money. The way they have done the job is criticized by Lev Freinkman, the World Bank's chief economic expert on Armenia. Freinkman, who has done extensive research on Diaspora aid to the country, believes that the bulk of the funds should have been channeled into development programs that would spur the emergence of new export-oriented businesses. In his words, Lincy's activities epitomize the inefficiency of Diaspora's multimillion-dollar assistance.
"I think that it's a vivid example of the lack of Diaspora understanding of Armenia's development priorities," he told RFE/RL. "In a sense, a terrific opportunity to help Armenia has once again been lost."