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Armenian continues Arianne & Armenia project within the framework of which every Friday Arianne Caoili tells about numerous trips across Armenia and shares her impressions and experience of living in Armenia.

Foreign policy, sushi and dolma: Armenia’s ‘and and’ society

In Yerevan, one can order both khorovatz and sushi in the same restaurant. The idea that choice equates to luxury has bred a whole set of restaurants which offer the most culturally and geographically distant dishes possible for a palette to experience in one sitting (I was recently at a place which served spaghetti arrabiata, schnitzel and salmon teriyaki – if the owners had a twisted sense of humour they could offer a bundle of all three dishes and label it ‘the Axis powers’ special’). 

In places catering to the lower middle to middle upper market, menus are painstakingly comprehensive. It is as if the waiter was handing over a thick book of laws in which you had to choose one (something I have only experienced in other ex-Soviet nations. Perhaps it is an obsession with the possibility of choice, a relatively recent reborn phenomenon). However, restaurant menus are actually Armenia’s ‘and and’ society at play.

Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian recently gave a lecture at Oxford University on the directions of Armenia’s foreign policy, appropriately titled Multi-vector foreign policy of Armenia . The title and talk reflect a case of wanting your dolma and sushi too: Armenia’s strategic relations with Russia, a close partnership with the United States, and active collaboration with the European Union.

This sentiment is not new; it has just evolved into a more actively pursued instrument to promote national interests tailored by pragmatism and economic rationality. Having it both ways was explicitly described as the ‘policy of complementarity’ (coined by former Foreign Minister, Vartan Oskanian), which explains Armenia’s ability of harmonizing interests and relations with both the West and Russia. The latter’s economic and security ties undoubtedly outweigh the former – but cooperation with the EU and the West certainly signal willingness for plurality in selected spheres.

The gluttony for choice reaches into Yerevan’s music scene too. Start your musical awakening at Parvana (and I mean awakening in its wake up! You’re in Hayastan sense), then jump into a fully-fledged nostalgic rock concert, and then melt away the early hours of the morning in a hot salsa club. For those of you thinking that this is impossible, know that it is not because I’ve done it – all in the space of one very tiresome, schizophrenic day. The same mentality infiltrates weddings: the usual romantic jazz standards are lined up with rabiz, alternating on the playlist side by side like Japanese raw tuna sushi and Armenian popokov badrjan rolls on the same plate.

The fixation with options (or at least, the appearance of the possibility of ‘having it all’) can also be seen in the location choices of many hotels or the residential constructions of society’s ‘and and’ upper-crust:  they have to be both next to nature and right on the highway. In most countries I’m familiar with (not only the rich ones), it is the norm for a property’s value to plummet as it gets closer to any major traffic-ridden road, not to mention a highway. Not so here: extravagance means having proximity to the privacy-invading noise and eyes of onlookers passing by, while also being provided with the peaceful serenity of nature that any collection of shrubs close to a highway can muster.

I remember walking down Abovian for the first time and a group of youngsters in bright coloured t-shirts approached our walking group, handing out condoms. It was an attempt to promote safe sex and celebrate ‘modernity’ in all its brazen shades. And yet, the tradition of handing over a bowl of bright red apples on the morning after the wedding is still a commonly held custom – if not physically brought, it is at least an unsaid expectation held by all. A very sobering example of the ‘and and’ society if there was one.

But Armenians don’t compromise on everything. They have quite a few survival tactics in a long catalogue that they have had to forge – and sincere stubbornness is certainly one of these. I very much enjoyed President Serzh Sargsyan’s joint press conference with Polish President Komorowski in June this year, where he stated quite bluntly that “for some, Europe still remains a market rather than a system of values”. He was, let us guess, referring to a neighbor or two of Armenia’s who have proven to be more ‘as if’ in their foreign policy: portraying an image that would suggest ‘as if’ the country were going in a certain direction (‘as if’ they promoted human rights, and ‘as if’ trade liberalization were a priority), whereas their domestic actions and political discourse present another picture entirely.

Everyone tends to be a hypocrite in one way or another (I, for example, profess to have healthy eating habits but gorge on the fat-soaked lavash under the khorovatz when nobody is looking). But Armenians are well known for fearsomely sticking to their guns when it comes to fighting for a principle or friend close to the heart (or, in the chess player’s case, fighting not to lose – the ability to defend was the hallmark of ex-World Champion Tigran Petrosian’s style).

To counter the political, religious, economic and explicitly sinister designs from various powers throughout the ages, Armenians have learned several survival tactics to combat them: avoiding marriage into foreign communities, using the church as an instrument of leadership to form unity, excelling in trade, flourishing in the arts, achieving powerful political positions in various parts of Eastern Europe, and the downright dirty skill of fighting to survive. Armenia is a bit like a drop of oil in a bowl of water: it is surrounded but never overtaken, and engulfed but never losing its structural integrity. The question of course, is what will Armenia’s tactic of choice and competitive advantage be in the very globalized 21st century?

In his humorous but realistic article Армянин, Derenik Demirchian wrote that in diplomacy, Armenia is so concerned with coming across as sincere – so much that it unfortunately leaves the impression of being a trickster and flatterer.    He is somewhat right: Armenia is sincerely pragmatic. It is arguably a good strategy – why choose between ‘either, or’ when you can have ‘this and that’? I plan on using the same justification when taking my next restaurant order.

Arianne Caoili

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