Armenia's poorest province pins hopes on 'velvet revolution'

Gyumri (Armenia) (AFP) –


The facade of Zoya Sarkisian's apartment building in Armenia's poverty-stricken city of Gyumri is slowly crumbling nearly three decades after it was damaged by an earthquake that killed more than 25,000 people.

"Nobody comes to visit us here," says the 80-year-old living in the main city of Shirak, Armenia's poorest province.

In this poor South Caucasus country, she and many others feel ignored by the government.

Yet with 42-year-old opposition hero Nikol Pashinyan set to be elected prime minister on Tuesday, they say they have fresh hopes for a better life.

"In the Soviet era, people had access to free education and healthcare," says Sarkisian, standing beside her bookshelves full of Armenian editions of classic French literature.

"I have health problems but I can't afford to see a doctor," says the frail woman, who spent nearly 40 years of her life working at Gyumri's textile factory and now lives off her meagre pension.

Sarkisian's building is slowly falling apart and has never been repaired since the December 1988 earthquake but neither local nor central authorities have ever offered to help her.

Now she expresses cautious optimism about Pashinyan, who has transformed Armenian politics with mass street protests.

"I do hope for change," she says. "It's not easy to make a revolution. (Pashinyan) will have to build the country anew."

- Corruption and inequality -

Pashinyan -- who is likely to be elected prime minister by parliament on Tuesday -- has promised to tackle widespread poverty, oust corrupt elites and rein in powerful oligarchs who wield massive influence over politics.

Tens of thousands of Pashinyan supporters for several weeks rallied in Yerevan and other cities in what he has called a "velvet revolution".

The former newspaper editor faces an uphill battle to kick-start Armenia's economy and clean up corrupt government agencies.

Nearly 27 years after Armenia's independence from the erstwhile Soviet Union, the country faces serious economic, political, and security challenges.

The unemployment rate stands at 19 percent, according to the International Monetary Fund, while Transparency International has denounced the alarming scale of systemic corruption and social inequality.

Armenia's decades-long simmering territorial conflict with neighbouring Azerbaijan over the breakaway Nagorny Karabakh region risks exploding into an all-out war.

- 'He cares about our hardships' -

The province of Shirak is only about 100 kilometres (60 miles) north of Yerevan but is the country's poorest area.

According to official statistics from 2015, 49 percent of its residents were considered "poor or very poor".

This contrasts with a nationwide rate of nearly 32 percent.

Zoya Sarkisian's neighbour, 54-year-old Susanna Martirosyan, has lived with her family in a shack since her house was destroyed in the 1988 earthquake.

The walls are damp from rain that filters from the ceiling while dried cow dung burns in a stove for heating.

Pashinyan "is totally dedicated... and cares about our hardships," says Martirosyan.

Discontent is brewing elsewhere in the province.

In Gyumri University, around 100 students recently staged a protest demanding the resignation of the rector -- a member of the ruling Republican Party -- accusing him of corruption.

"For years, our rulers were stealing (from) and tormenting the Armenian people, and limiting their freedom of expression," said Armen Melkonyan, the president of a students council.

"Students are rebelling!" rejoiced his fellow student Martin Mkrtchyan before grabbing a megaphone to add: "No violence, do not break anything!"