Sunday, September 06, 2009

Today in Yerevan

It's twenty past one in the morning here in Yerevan, Armenia. I never like arriving somewhere new in the dark as it is difficult to know what to make of the place, but from what I have seen so far the Armenians certainly like their monuments. The hotel is excellent (my criterion is good Wifi!) and the Blackberry works. Hurrah. I am here as an ambassador for the John Smith Memorial Trust and one of the tasks over the next two days is to talk to Armenian journalists and politicians about the use of the internet in politics as well as recruit fellows for the Trust's 2010 programme in the UK. The Trust funds training programmes to aspiring leaders from the former Soviet Union countries. I gave a lecture to one of them back in June.

Today we meet the British Council, the British Ambassador, then address a meeting of potential fellows in the afternoon. I loved the invite waiting for me in my hotel room from "Her Britannic Majesty's Ambassador Mr Charles Lonsdale...". Sadly no Ferrero Rocher...

My only knowledge of this country, and indeed the only reason I had heard of Yerevan was because West Ham played them in the 1976 European Cup Winners Cup. But I have done a lot of boning up and am now an expert on Armenian history. Sort of. I have to do several TV interviews over the next two days and I suspect that will test my knowledge or ability to talk sensibly on a subject I have no idea about. No change there then...

20 comments:

Norfolk Blogger said...

Room by yourself in a foreign country and you are "boning up". Oh dear Iain, the jokes just write themselves !

Iain Dale said...

Glad I have provided you with a fantasy for later, Nich!

Clameur de Haro said...

Well, you could always blag it and say that when you were growing up you were always fascinated that such a small country has produced some of the greatest chess players ever - I think it might even be true.....

fyoc said...

"My only knowledge of this country, and indeed the only reason I had heard of Yerevan was because West Ham played them in the 1976 European Cup Winners Cup."

FOOTBALL GEEK!!!!!

Thatsnews said...

Have a good and useful time, Iain.

Alexander Macleod said...

Iain, the food in Armenia is absolutely brilliant. I had an Armenian friend and remember the food he once served, like nothing you can get in the western world. Make the most of it :)

Matt Pain said...

Radio Yerevan jokes used to be very popular in the 80s in Eastern Europe, non-political but very, very dry!

Inamicus said...

Iain

If you are in Yerevan to promote democracy and freedom of speech I would hope you are least vaguely aware of the worrying state of developments in Armenia in recent years.

The government is essentially following the Putin script in cracking down on opposition parties and activists and there are signficant concerns about recent elections.

I hope for your sake you have done at least some reading on this subject.

PS Given that the national mobile phone networks are being run by relatives of the political leadership you might not want to send too many sensitive emails.

Nilus said...

Pace Inamicus, I would say that the present government is Armenia's best hope of breaking away from Russian hegemony (that is at least what I hear from its supporters and they seem on the ball.) Its opponents seem to stand for corruption, Russian, and Trotsky-style eternal confrontation with Turkey which is frankly pointless and destabilising even if it keeps the hate merchants in business. Viva Serzh Sargsian.

jane said...

Alexander Macleod is right and so is Inamicus. There is a journalist in London who managed to get out of Armenia with his family a few years ago after he wrote articles unhelpful to the president and was blown up by a grenade for his trouble. I can tell you more about him privately if you wish. The Council of Europe has a representative in Yerevan whose job is to develop contacts and to promote democracy, human rights and the rule of law, might be worth talking to her. Which hotel are you staying in? I am planning another visit and wifi which works would be remarkably helpful.

Anonymous said...

Just beware of any Turks. And if you are so uninformed about the country then google Armenia and genocide.

john in cheshire

True Belle said...

Good morning to you.

I expect you had fresh grapefruit for brekky!

What is the view like, and the weather?

Is Armenia surbservient to Russia?

How very lucky you are to be in such an influential role.

Enjoy it all, and good luck- remember not to overdo the yum yums!

Anonymous said...

My criterion (sic) is good wifi.

T'oros said...

@Jane
Are you sure your grenade story happened under the Armenian president? SS only took office in April last year. He has concluded agreements with the Council of Europe and wants to break the isolation which led to the corruption and violence of a few years ago. But not all hardline nationalists like this idea...

Anonymous: there aren't any Turks in Armenia. The indigenous ones of the Azeri variety were all driven out in the 1990s. "Beware of any Turks" sounds a bit racist to me..

inamicus said...

The current Armenian government seem to place greater emphasis on keeping in with Russia than moving firmly into the Western / NATO / EU orbit (they saw what has happened to Georgia). They recognise they need a powerful protector in the region, and despite increasing trade and collaboration with Iran they recognise that Tehran is not necessarily a stable and supportive ally.

Their relations with Ankara are admittedly thawing but to expect the Armenians to completely forget about the genocide is unrealistic and unreasonable.

The Sargsyan government is dominated by a coterie of Karabakh Armenians, and there are concerns over the extent to which family connections determine which "private companies" get government contracts. It is certainly not free from corruption, and nor is it free from arresting and beating up activists from mainstream opposition parties.

Would advise you to read up on the history of the recent Yerevan local elections, as well as the protests that followed the "stealing" of the last presidential election.

PS Footprints is one of the better Armenian politics blogs

http://blog.hetq.am/

jane said...

it happened under Kocharian. But I do not see real progress under Sarksian.

Chekov said...

Read 'The Crossing Place' by Philip Marsden.

Ghillie said...

Perhaps the late hour - and or the diet - and or the jet lag, but invite is the verb; invitation is the noun.

Most unlike you - Keith Waterhouse would turn in his grave.

T'oros said...

@Inamicus
Here's what your "better Armenian blog" says, denouncing the decision to open diplomatic relations with Turkey:
'And Armenia gets nothing in return—no claims to historic lands, no reparations, no justice while genocide denial continues unabated. Strange times we are living in.'

Blimey. First of all these moderates want land back from other countries, i.e. mainly Turkey(where, though such people never bother about history and demographics)Armenians were alas not in a majority in the 19th century. Then they want reparations. That is a game everyone in the Near East can play, not least the 1 million Azeris booted out of Nagorno Karabagh and surrounding provinces by people now alive. These people have already helped themselves to someone else's territory and evicted the inhabitants.

And "genocide denial" i.e. writing a version of history other than the one dictated by militant Armenian polemicists (whose sole aim seems to be to stifle free expression on the matter across the globe: "if you don't say what we say, then you are a genocide denier and should be shunned.")

Sargsian says that he has two aims, one to restore relations with Turkey, the other to get the world to accept the Armenian genocide. That is quite a pragmatic position to take. In practice it could mean a joint commission of scholars which would do everyone good -- because all sides have their blind spots.

Can we leave it at that? The last president and the last government in Yerevan meant stagnation. This one means an overdue opening to the world. About 100,000 Armenians have already voted with their feet and gone to work in Turkey -- where so far as I know, though they are technically illegal immigrants, they have no problems.

It is only part of the Armenian diaspora which is glued together by atavistic hatred of Turkey and that development is relatively new -- post 1970.

I hope Sargsian succeeds because it will mean a better life for Armenians in Armenian, giving them prosperity and freedom. And less international tension and hatred.

inamicus said...

I should also have linked to this blog which has been excellent on covering internal repression and democratic abuses.

http://frontlineclub.com/blogs/onnikkrikorian/


(T'oros - Whilst I am not a fan of the current government's repressive internal policies, I don't disagree with the Sargsian position on Turkey (normalisation of diplomacy; reopen frontier; recognition of the genocide) but I have doubts as to whether the Turkish or Armenian parliaments will ratify the proposals.

Some in Armenia - such as the blogger cited - feel that the terms of the deal at present don't go far enough. However I don't think anyone seriously believes reclamation of lost land from the Turks is on the agenda - most Armenians would settle for reopening of the frontier and the normalisation of trade links.

The question of whether Turkey will retreat from its historically aggressive "holocaust denial" is another matter.)