In a recent visit to Yerevan, Armenia, I took the opportunity to stop first in my native town of Tehran, Iran.
Not much had changed in Tehran since I saw it four years earlier. In the early hours of the morning, when I arrived, the city of roughly 12 million people was covered with a thick layer of smog, caused mostly by millions of cars filling the streets. In the massive traffic jam a two lane highway quickly turned into three or even four lanes, creating more congestion than if cars had stayed in their own lanes. The traffic jam is an epitome of how hectic life in Tehran has become.
It was therefore no wonder that, upon hearing that I am on my way to Armenia, I was told by a number of people that Iranians go to Yerevan for vacation and relaxation. Indeed, on an old, dilapidated Russian built plane which took me from Tehran to Yerevan, there were numerous Iranians. Similarly, when walking in the streets of Yerevan or dining in restaurants, a number of times I could hear Farsi being spoken.
There is, however, another reason for Iranians gravitating north. The rising population in Tehran and speculation in real estate has caused housing prices to go through the roof. A small piece of property in the northern part of Tehran, I was told, could sell for a million dollars or more. The rising real estate prices have resulted in some Iranians going to Yerevan—which is only one hour away by air—and buying properties. I was told by at least two Armenian colleagues from the Faculty of Economics that in certain neighborhoods the Iranian purchases of real estate have caused housing prices to rise in Yerevan as well. Yet, despite this new “Persian invasion,” the relation between Iranians and Armenians appears to be quite friendly.
Landlocked, Armenia is surrounded by two hostile neighbors to the east and west, Azerbaijan and Turkey, and two friendly neighbors to the north and south, Georgia and Iran. Given the Georgian political instability—which has only recently improved—and its poor transport system, Iran becomes one of the major sources of the Armenian trade. Actually, Iran is the third major trade partner of Armenia after Russia and Belgium and the volume of trade between the two countries has been rapidly growing.1 This friendly relation between the two countries not only benefits Armenia, but it is also beneficial to Iran, particularly since the relation between Iran and its neighbors to the north, Azerbaijan and Turkey—two countries whose foreign policies are often aligned with that of the US and Israel— is an uneasy one. Thus even if the Iranian real estate speculations in Yerevan were to result in increasing housing prices, it is hard to imagine that the friendly relation between the two countries would be adversely affected.
Rising housing costs, which could contribute to inflation, are, of course, the last thing that Armenia needs, since the hyperinflation of the early 1990s is now under control. But there are other problems. The Armenian economy is in a precarious state. “Armenia,” writes the well-known development economist Keith Griffin, “has embarked upon a transition from a centrally planned to a market oriented economic system.” 2 But, Griffin goes on to say, the “transition has not gone smoothly, not least because Armenia has received a series of blows which have seriously affected the economy.” Among these blows, Griffin mentions the massive earthquake of 1988 and the disintegration of the USSR in 1991. According to Griffin, the latter event, which led to the political independence of Armenia, also resulted in deterioration in Armenia’s terms of trade and loss of industry. Indeed, as a share of GDP, Armenia’s industry has declined from 44.5% to 22.1% between the years 1990 to 2000.3 The result of this dis-industrialization is an official rate of unemployment that stands at 20%, and unofficially, according to some economists with whom I talked, stands at 30-40%.4 At the same time, according to the official data, real income has declined and poverty and income inequality have increased.
Much of this was evident in daily observations and private conversations that I had with faculty members of the Yerevan State University. One faculty member who had worked for thirty years told me that her university salary was only $120 per month. Given that a slice of pizza costs a dollar and a bottle of the most inexpensive Armenian beer sells for $0.80, it is obvious that the regular salary of a university professor does not buy much. If a university teacher faces such hardship, one can imagine the difficulty that Armenians with less prestigious jobs face. Indeed, there was a noticeable degree of poverty on the streets of Yerevan.
Yet, despite all the hardship, Armenians appear to be a very resilient people. Almost all the faculty members that I met had at least one outside job to supplement their meager university income. Many ordinary folks, even those who appeared to be on the verge of poverty, were engaged in creative activities to make a living and the informal economy was thriving.
Moreover, and again despite all the hardship, the Armenians I met seemed to be among the most hospitable and generous people that I have ever come across. A day did not go by without a faculty member taking me and my colleagues out to a restaurant, ordering massive amounts of food and drink, and refusing to accept a penny towards the burdensome cost of the meal. This hospitality and generosity, however, was not confined to spending what appeared to be a 1/4 of one’s monthly salary on entertaining guests. On at least three occasions in a week I was given guided tours by one or more faculty members.
These tours often lasted for no less than half a day. This meant that colleagues selflessly gave their precious time to entertain a foreign visitor. In Armenia, it seemed, “time was not money,” and establishing human connections by making your guest feel at home was far more important than giving up one’s time.
In sum, even though my fellow Iranians are famous for going all out in treating their guests, I have to say that when it comes to hospitality and generosity Iranians are dwarfed by the Armenians. I will remember the kindness and warmth of my Armenian colleagues for a very long time.
1. IRNA, Aug 18, 2002 and http://www.armeniandiaspora.com/archive/10605.html.
2. Growth, Inequality and Poverty, edited by Keith Griffin, A report of a UNPD mission led by Keith Griffin on the Impact of Macroeconomic Policy on Poverty, Yerevan, 2002, p.1.
3. Ibid. p.14.
4. For official rate see Terry McKinley, ibid. p. 43.