Armenian Politics in Yerevan Taxicabs


 

By Edmond Y. Azadian

If you think the Armenian parliament is the most contentious forum for political debates, try the Yerevan taxicabs and their most informed and astute drivers. Many of my columns, over time, have been sparked by my discussions with cab drivers who have sharp opinions on world affairs, but especially on Armenia’s domestic affairs.

Armenia’s news outlets are mostly introverted and myopic generally. They dwell on trivia, amplifying them and feeding the readers and viewers what they present as valuable news rather than the fluff it is.

Of course, there are also the well-organized and generously funded outlets which are extensions of foreign agencies and they serve their own masters. They characterize Armenia within the perspectives of what the owners of those agencies would like to see.

The local outlets have their on heroes and villains, which have nothing in common with objective news reporting.

The alternative is the news and commentary provided by cabbies. They are more genuine and spontaneous, if not always reliable. They provide the raw news and sincere comments. They reflect the unfiltered and uncensored opinion of real people. One can sense the true pulse of the nation through them. I have always been fascinated by how these cabbies generate and process news in their minds and they announce their views with such resolute authority that one feels like one has to surrender.

As soon as you jump in a gas-fueled Yerevan cab, no matter how short the ride may last, you are engaged in a political discussion or discourse — as the case may be — even if you are not in the mood for having a conversation. You don’t need to solicit your driver’s opinion; it will come out voluntarily and loquaciously.

During the early years of independence, the mood was always festive. The discussions were held in a positive path and the visitor was even reassured that the freezing cold and the darkness would soon come to an end and that the country would resume its normal course.

Of course, there were always some sharp remarks or solemn advice to this and that leader but the overall mood remained upbeat.

As the years have passed, the cab drivers have entered a more defiant mood. Those were the war years in Karabagh and Armenians had scored a victory over the much-stronger forces of Azerbaijan. The pictures of bearded war heroes decorated almost every taxicab in Yerevan.

My trip this November found most of the cab drivers silent. It was as if they were biting their tongues not to utter a word — positive or negative. They would answer only if you teased them into a conversation What struck me was that the pictures of war heroes were either replaced by pictures of the Virgin Mary and Jesus or removed altogether.

The change was an indication that people have resigned themselves to the deteriorating situation, or they have placed their fate in the hands of the Lord — their destiny as well as the destiny of the country.

One elderly cab driver posed a question testing my knowledge of the city, but he answered his own question without waiting for my reply.

“Do you see this building? This is the Palace of Justice. But there is no justice in this country. The moment the government passes a law, they [the authorities] are the first ones violating that law.”

But the Russians are most of the times the butt of the jokes or sarcasm, because of the people’s frustration. “They treat us in a cavalier manner. They control Armenia’s economy and they keep raising the price of heating gas,” one driver said. Many families have their homes or apartments connected to the gas distribution system, but they cannot afford to pay the utilities. They either burn wood or their old books or freeze in the winter cold.

Many of the cab drivers have fear in their eyes: These Onions [Armenians’ epitaph for the Russians] are arming the Azeris. We don’t know where that process will lead us. War is inevitable.”

Most Armenians, however, are confident that should war erupt, Azerbaijan will lose more territories. During my visit to Yerevan, the most topical news was the shooting down of the unarmed military helicopter by the Azeris over the no-man’s land on the Karabagh-Azerbaijan border. As the debate raged, the cabbies ridiculed the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) chairmen, who were nitpicking by stating that there is no definition of the no-man’s land between Karabagh and the Azeri forces. The Azerbaijani army continued firing near the downed helicopter in order to block Armenia from approaching the crash site. Finally a commando raid was able to recover the helicopter debris and the remains of the Armenian pilots. The cabbies in Yerevan were jubilant: “You see how our boys recovered the helicopter” one said, while another added, “Make no mistake. Retaliation will come soon and it will be devastating. Let Azeri families learn what it means to lose a son in the army.”

Armenians, no matter how proud they are when it comes to the army fighting the enemy, complain about corruption in it ranks. “My son is drafted into the army. We are proud that he will defend our homeland. But his superiors are corrupt. Whatever food I supply to my son, it will go to his superiors. Otherwise, they will mistreat him. Don’t you hear now and then that a draftee has committee ‘suicide?’ Why would a young man commit suicide? It is all lies.”

One of the cabbies told me a joke about Russia’s President Valdimir Putin. When in Yerevan, he happened to pass by a mansion on a mountain top, a palace rumored to have a river running through it and an ornate chapel for the family next to it.

“Who does the mansion belong to?” Putin is said to have asked his hosts.

“It belongs to Dodi Gago,” was the response.

“What does ‘Dodi’ Gago mean?”

“It means ‘crazy’ Gago.”

“Well, if crazy people live in such a mansion, I could imagine how well off the wiser people should be in this country.”

He came to see that one of those “wiser” people is your cab driver, a former university professor, or the homeless guy who spends the night sleeping on the street.

Dodi Gago is the nickname of Gagik Zaroukian, an oligarch who aspires to become Armenia’s next president. There are legends about his extravagant lifestyle among the people. One of the legends is that Mr. Zaroukian entertains his guests at his private zoo by feeding live donkeys to his pet lions.

This is the irony in Armenia; the zoo animals are better fed than most of the citizens.

One of the cabbies came out with some good news. I thought after all, everything is not dark and pessimistic. He said, “Most of Yerevanites are enjoying better living conditions now.” The news turned out to be bittersweet news or a double-edged sword, as he completed his comments: “Our Russian friends are offering jobs, accommodation and citizenship to Armenian families. Many are happy to be able to feed their families and the emigrate to Russia. That relieves the pressure here with unemployment ranks, and the remaining people have more resources in finding jobs.”

Yerevan cabbies are the most law-abiding citizens in the country. They observe all the traffic regulations religiously because the police look the other way when they notice a luxury car violating every possible law. The police can easily recognize to whom those luxury cars must belong. They can even identify the owners by their special vanity license plates.

On the other hand, God forbid a cab driver makes the slightest mistake, as he will receive a ticket that will cost his entire 20-hour-day’s pay.

Driving in Yerevan is hazardous. Your life is in danger every minute. The cab drivers stoically endure the hardship to put food on their family table. Sometimes they direct a sharp remark to a reckless driver or extend advice for good behavior.

But they continue life under harsh conditions, providing their fares with the latest news or commentaries. Next time you need the latest news or commentaries on Armenia’s domestic politics or foreign affairs, hop into a cab. You will be well infor