By Emil Danielyan
Yevgenia Grigorian gets to see the place of her baby daughter’s tragic death every day as she passes the sixth floor of a rundown apartment block in Yerevan’s southern Erebuni district.
The space between safety rails of its atrocious staircase was too wide to prevent 19-month-old Izabella from accidentally falling to the ground just over a year ago. In a figurative sense, it is perhaps as wide as the abyss between the girl’s family and a small class of rich Armenians that have been the prime beneficiaries of an almost decade of economic growth trumpeted by the authorities to the applause of Western donors.
Once a hostel for Soviet-era factory workers, the building is now home to some 150 families. Many of them live in inhuman conditions that do not seem to bother much the local and central governments.
Just across the potholed street, literally meters way from the building, is a compound of luxury villas housing the extended family of a local mini-tycoon who was ostensibly elected to Armenia’s parliament with pledges to aid the local people which he does not seem to honor. The mind-boggling contrast is a potent symbol of the growing polarization between the richest and poorest strata of the population. The scene is only a 15-minute drive from the Armenian capital’s increasingly posh center, a deceptive oasis of prosperity and development.
“When I go out to the center I am really impressed. But when I return home I think, ‘Oh my God, I am back in hell’,” Yevgenia Grigorian says amidst the squalor of her family’s two rooms lacking basic amenities such as toilette and running water.
“I can’t live here anymore. The kids are also sick and tired,” she says of her four remaining children.
The oldest of them, a 14-year-old boy, has to sell flowers in the streets in order to somehow support a family whose sole guaranteed income is 14,000 drams ($27) in monthly social benefits paid by the state. Dropping out of school, where he was repeatedly berated by teachers for failing to buy exercise books, increasingly looks like an option for the family.
School is still one of the few sources of joy for one of his three sisters, 11-year-old Tatevik. “My biggest dream is to have my own school,” she says smilingly, standing barefoot on the concrete floor.
Frida Harutiunian, a neighbor and mother of two effectively separated from her husband, has a similar story to tell. She quit her last job because of poor health two months ago and has since been selling her modest property to make the ends meet.
“Yesterday I sold my kitchen pans to buy the children some bread,” she says. “I have an old washing machine. I want to sell it as well to buy them school stationery. They have no bags, no clothing, nothing.”
The two families are in the category of Armenians officially considered to be living in “extreme poverty.” According to government statistics, they make up 16 percent of the population, each of them living on less than 7,600 drams a month.
The figures show that just over half of the country’s households live below the official “normal” poverty line of 12,600 drams per person. That means a four-member family with a monthly budget worth $100 is not considered poor by the government -- a highly questionable judgment given the soaring cost of life in Armenia.
The government has declared “poverty reduction,” the Western donors’ buzzword in developing nations in recent years, the centerpiece of its economic policies. It has pledged to reduce the poverty rate to 19 percent by 2015 through job creation, improved tax collection and more public spending. Continued economic growth, which hit a record-high official rate of 14 percent last year, is thus essential for the success of the plan endorsed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
Annual increases in the government’s tax revenues have so far been quite modest, however. The state budget is now even more reliant on the value-added and excise taxes, mainly paid by ordinary Armenians, amid a thriving tax evasion among the country’s big businesses, many of them owned by government-connected individuals. Astonishingly, government proceeds from payment of corporate profit tax last year were 30 percent lower (in dollar terms) than in 1996 when the Armenian economy was probably half its present size.
All of which suggests that the bulk of extra wealth generated by the economic growth has not been taxed and channeled into the cash-strapped public sector. Instead, it has materialized into plush villas, cars and restaurants for the rich. At this pace of change it is highly doubtful that the lot of people like Yevgenia Grigorian and Frida Harutiunian will improve in the foreseeable future.
“The development that is going on in the center of Yerevan is a façade to the reality of socioeconomic conditions in Armenia,” says Onnik Krikorian, a British journalist of Armenian descent who has extensively researched the country’s poverty. “It doesn’t take very much to leave the city center just for a little bit and see that there are people living in very bad conditions. I have seen apartment buildings that have literally fallen apart.”
In many ways, the Erebuni neighborhood is a microcosm of modern Armenia. Its local administration chief and representative to the parliament are wealthy individuals who hold sway in the area. They both bought votes to get elected and are better known to locals with their notorious nicknames rather than social work. Grigorian says the only aid she ever received from the parliamentarian, whose royal lifestyle can be observed from the lowly hostel, was 5,000 drams ($10) given for the funeral of her baby.
The building’s ground floor hides even greater misery. Constantly flooded with sewage waters spreading foul smell and dampness, it is a breeding ground for life-threatening disease. Mariam Papanian, a single mother, has a womb tumor and is due to undergo surgery. But Papanian’s biggest pain and worry is her 8-year-old daughter suffering from cancer.
“You can’t stay healthy living here,” she says.
At least two other ground-floor residents are said to have died over the past year. Neighbors suspect that the death was caused by tuberculosis. Local officials deny this.
They should have seen Zarik Hakobian, an extremely gaunt woman facing a slow death in her tiny room. She needs a few minutes to leave her bed and open the door to visitors, breathing heavily. She longs not for food but for hospitalization. Ironically, one of Armenia’s biggest hospitals, also called Erebuni, is around the corner.
Another shock is to learn that Hakobian, who neighbors say has spent years collecting food from garbage dumps, is only 44. She looks much older. Officials at Armenia’s Ministry of Health and the Yerevan municipality alerted by RFE/RL promised to send doctors to inspect Hakobian.
Saving her life alone would hardly mark a change in the overall government neglect of the most vulnerable and downtrodden citizens. The deputy head of the Erebuni district, Samvel Markarian, was remarkably frank when he was asked what his administration plans to do to alleviate the plight of the hostel residents.
“Is it our problem?” he said. “Let them not live there if they don’t like that place.”
But the residents can only dream about that, unable to afford any other accommodation. As one of them put it, “I’m ready to live even in a tent just to see my children breathe fresh air.”
(Photo by Onnik Krikorian: Zarik Hakobian sitting on her bed.)