Armenians struggle to find a foothold

For visitors to post-Soviet Armenia, first impressions of its capital resemble any other place in Europe, but travel just minutes from the centre and you enter another world…

Like Baku and Tbilisi, new hotels, restaurants and boutiques have sprung up where once stood communal markets and grey, drab shops selling wares that the majority could afford.
But venture further and roads have deteriorated, buildings are in disrepair and some have even collapsed. The centre of the city is illuminated by hundreds of neon signs and billboards but when the sun goes down, the rest of the capital and much of the country instead descends into darkness. Poverty here is endemic.

According to official government statistics, half of Armernia’s population lives below the national poverty line with 17 per cent living in extreme poverty. Salaries average just $50 a month while pensions are even lower at $10. According to the National Statistics Service, 70 per cent of the population lives on a staple diet of bread, potatoes and macaroni.

As a result, the United Nations concludes that the issue of survival is still vital for many Armenians.

"When we talk about poverty in Armenia," says Ashot Yesayan, First Deputy Minister at the Ministry of Social Security, "we are talking about people who cannot even afford to eat. Among potential claimants [for social benefits] are families with young children who have no money for even bread."

Living on the edge

In a small room of a derelict house situated half an hour away from Yerevan, one such family burns plastic and rubber to stay warm during the winter months. The walls of the room should be white but, like the three children that resemble paupers from a Dickensian novel, they are black and covered in soot.

A social worker stands calmly as the children's Uncle articulates his anger. The government's National Commission for Minors has decided that the children must be removed for their own safety and placed in a children's home.

An international organisation has been called in to do the dirty work for them.

Without the children, the family will find it impossible to survive. Every day, they beg for scraps and change in the nearby village. Faced with the prospect of his only source of income being taken away, the Uncle waves a knife in the air before emotion finally overcomes him. His legs give way and he collapses into a heap on the floor.

Families like this are representative of the poorest of the poor in Armenia. They are unable to feed or clothe themselves; their children rarely attend school and in some cases, are not even officially registered as having been born. With no official documents, they are unable to receive social benefits or medical assistance.

An underclass is forming in Armenia, a world away from the image that the government would like to portray to its large and influential Diaspora. It is, however, one closer to the reality than that depicted in a hundred coffee-table books and postcards of monasteries and churches photographed against scenic landscapes.

Some even rationalise the situation by arguing that conditions are only bad in the regions of the republic, but there are just as serious concerns with poverty in the cities. In fact, the United Nations considers that urban poverty is far more desperate than that which faces villagers who can at least live off the land.

In one of the capital's poorest residential districts, approximately 200 families inhabit a dilapidated hostel complex that once accommodated workers from the nearby chemical factory. The condition of the building should be enough to raise alarm in most civilised countries but the local council says that it is none of their concern. There are no windows left on the stairwell now exposed to the elements, and the elevators no longer work after residents cannibalised their innards long ago.

A four-year-old child pushed another on this stairwell last summer and one-and-a-half-year-old Isabella fell through a hole in the railings seven floors to her death. Her mother, Jenik, shrugs off her loss although from time to time, tears still swell in her eyes when she remembers.

Jenik has four other children to bring up in two tiny rooms furnished only by three rusting, metal bed frames and a divan covered with rags that serve as bedclothes. They've lived in this apartment for over a decade now and don't even have running water. Her children instead collect water from those more fortunate living below.

Now, her children no longer beg on the streets after Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) included them in their Prevention program but that's not to say that their situation has improved.

Somewhat ironically, although most of the inhabitants of the hostel are living in abject poverty, only two fall within the remit of the international medical organisation.

"I agree that many families in this building live in very difficult conditions," admits Samuel Hanryon, MSF's Country Director, "but their situation is not the same. For example, we can only work with two of these families because there is a problem with violence. The needs are enormous in Armenia but we are not the government."

Which is probably just as well.

Across the road, two former officials have erected large and opulent mansions, an arrogant display of wealth to contrast against the extreme poverty opposite.

Children in a difficult situation

Two floors up, a father of six removes copper wire from electrical appliances and automobile parts to sell for a few hundred drams. Like Jenik, Hampartsum's family is also included in MSF's Prevention Program but their situation could be considered even worse.

Hampartsum's only son is in prison for theft after he stole in order to buy food for the family. But unlike those in government who are believed to have stolen significantly more, the courts threw the book at him. Recently, Hampartsum's son wrote a letter to his father. He can be released from prison if he pays $100. For Hampartsum, however, it might just as well be $100,000.

Last September, his daughter, Gohar, became the face on hundreds of posters that were displayed throughout Yerevan highlighting the plight of vulnerable children in Armenia. "I want to live with my family," read the poster.

Now, Gohar and two of her four sisters are temporarily residing in a children's home in Gyumri. And to make matters worse, Hampartsum's eldest daughter lives with her grandmother, unwilling to tolerate her father's drinking. When Hampartsum was supplied with a bag of cement to fix up his apartment he allegedly sold it in order to buy vodka. In and out of hospital for alcoholism, when he drinks, he beats his wife.

But Hampartsum is not a bad man; it's just that times are hard. His wife found work in a local kiosk but left after three days when the owner refused to pay her the 3,000 dram ($6) she was owed. Meanwhile, both Margarita and her husband can't even scrape 500 dram together to pay for the photographs required for their passport applications.

They're not planning to leave the country, of course; just that they need some official papers to receive benefits and other assistance. Still, they have it better than others.

On the ground floor, an extended family of 14 inhabits a tiny room that can barely accommodate two. Along the corridor, water gushes from the communal toilet and the washroom, seeping into the floor.

Last year, according to the residents but not confirmed by other sources, four people died of tuberculosis on the ground floor alone.

MSF admit that tuberculosis is fast becoming a serious concern in Armenia. "The problem is a serious issue in Yerevan - especially with regards to Multi Drug Resistant (MDR) Tuberculosis," says Hanryon. "Nowadays, anyone suffering from MDR in Armenia is sentenced to death."

But although journalists, international organisations and film crews visit the families living in this hostel on a regular basis, and seemingly with good intentions, everyone complains that nothing changes.

Perhaps they have a point.

Although the Armenian Government finalised its long-awaited Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) in August 2003, it will take until 2015 before poverty in Armenia is reduced to the post-earthquake 1989 level of 20 percent.

But at least the World Bank and the United Nations consider that such goals are achievable.

Key to the success of the PRSP will be increasing social benefits and salaries while waging an effective struggle against endemic corruption and a shadow economy that by some estimates accounts for the lion's share of all business in the republic.

It is envisaged that poverty in Armenia should fall to below 45 per cent of the population in 2004.