May 03, 2018
LUSAGYUGH, Armenia (AP) — The local tax inspector would visit Alik Stepanyan’s small fishery in an Armenian mountain village every month to collect a bribe. Each time, Stepanyan would hand over 15 to 20 fish as a payoff to try to keep his business afloat. Last year, the 56-year-old farmer gave up.
“I just got angry and shut it down. I got tired of having to pay bribes,” Stepanyan said. “I hope the new government will tackle corruption and poverty which are hurting us and making our lives difficult.”
Corruption and poverty is what fed mass opposition protests in this landlocked Caucasus Mountains nation, ultimately forcing Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan to resign. He had ruled Armenia for a decade as president. But when term limits made it impossible for him to run again, Sargsyan pushed through an amendment to the constitution making the prime minister the most powerful position in Armenia. Parliament voted for Sargsyan as prime minister last month, which was largely viewed as his attempt to stay in power indefinitely.
Tens of thousands of indignant Armenians, led by former journalist and lawmaker Nikol Pashinian, took to the streets. Sargsyan resigned on April 23 after two weeks of protest rallies in the capital, Yerevan. Pashinian, whom the opposition has nominated to become prime minister, hasn’t put forward any concrete political demands or agenda other than to topple the ruling elite, viewed by ordinary Armenians as encouraging nepotism and corruption.
But the protest leader’s slogans resonated with Armenia’s impoverished rural areas which are struggling for survival. Armenia is one of the poorest former Soviet nations. Nearly 12 percent of its population lives below the poverty line, eking out a living on as little as 1,530 drams ($3.20) a day or less.
Armenia, sandwiched between Georgia, Iran, Turkey and Azerbaijan, has relied on Russia for energy supplies and loans since the fall of the Soviet Union. Strained ties with Turkey and Azerbaijan have crippled the country’s development, making energy imports, among other things, costly.
Poverty and unemployment in Armenia are particularly visible in rural areas like the village of Lusagyugh, about 60 kilometers (35 miles) north of the capital, where farmer Stepanyan lives. Work Is scarce in this picturesque village of 900 people which is nestled at the foot of Mount Aragats, Armenia’s highest mountain. Local residents grow vegetables and raise cattle for food.
Stepanyan’s family of six gets by thanks to two cows, a vegetable patch and Stepanyan’s mother’s monthly pension of 60,000 drams ($125). Stepanyan, whose eldest daughter regularly goes to Russia for odd jobs such as cleaning or babysitting, used to travel to Russia too for upholstery work. But several years ago he got homesick and returned to the village and tried to start a business.
He was immediately approached by tax inspectors who demanded that he pay amounts that were higher than anything he could hope to make from the small fish pond that he dug out on his plot of land. Stepanyan had agreed to give the local tax inspector fish instead of cash bribes, but after several months when fish were scarce and he still had to pay the tax inspector, he decided to shut down his business.
Armenians working abroad often support several family members back home, by sending them their paychecks: remittances account for about 14 percent of Armenia’s gross domestic product. About a quarter of houses in Lusagyugh stand abandoned because villagers have left for Russia in search of work.
Samvel Zakaryan, a 20-year-old culinary student at a school in Yerevan, was in Lusagyugh recently on a break to help his family with some chores. He said five of his friends and his elder brother had gone to work in Russia because there are no job prospects in Armenia.
Zakaryan has taken part in the opposition protests in Yerevan, and supports Pashinian’s nomination. “Several generations of Armenians have been going abroad for a better life,” Zakaryan said as he poured out fodder to the rabbits and two cows, which feed the whole family. “Now we have finally begun to find confidence that we can build a better life in our country, a new Armenia that people aren’t going to flee.”
About 900,000 people who were born in Armenia, a country of 3 million, currently live abroad, according to the U.N. Population Fund. More than 10 percent of the population left the country during the decade that Sargsyan was in power.
“Emigration has served as a relief valve of sorts, providing an outlet for people’s discontent while widespread poverty has allowed Sargsyan’s clan to consolidate power,” said Ruben Megrabyan, of the Armenian Center for International Studies.
Pashinian and his supporters have focused on toppling Sargsyan and proclaimed the fight against corruption as one of their main goals, but so far haven’t offered any specific agenda to fix rampant corruption or widespread poverty.
Back in Lusagyugh, Stepanyan pins his hopes on the opposition to deliver change. “We will feel different when corruption is eradicated,” he said, sitting by a campfire. “This is what the opposition wants, and these are fair demands.”
Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.