Pagranichnyie Slujba Rossii

Ștefan Cândea
The multitude of luxury stores, crowded terraces, renovated boulevards and the monuments of Yerevan doesn’t originate from exemplary economy, but from the Diaspora. Only a third of Armenians live in the country. The rest - around six million - are spread all over the world. According to locals, the Diaspora is for Armenia what oil is for Azerbaijan.

And just like in Azerbaijan, Armenia’s main resource is irrationally exploited by politicians. A blend of organized crime, government leaders and parliamentarians. Profitable businesses are in the hands of politicians and so is spending public money without any government transparency. The journalists we’ve talked to claim that great part of the money is laundered by building new residential luxury complexes, the so-called ‘apartments of the elite’.

Around one million people live in Armenia’s capital, approximately a third of the country’s population. The rest of Armenia doesn’t enjoy the lifestyle of Yerevan, not by a long shot; on the contrary, according to official statistics, a large part is struggling with extreme poverty. We ask two local journalists to show us a few villages on the border with Turkey, a border nobody can pass. We drive through Ejmiatsin to Margara, a former customs point not far from Ararat. Many villages seem deserted. Here and there, car skeletons lay among bunkers and tank turrets.

Peasants complain business is done at their expense using irrigation water and agricultural credits – nobody receives any subsidies from the government; they’ve all got bank debts to pay. And yet, like the rest of the Black Sea region, this doesn’t prevent them from being extremely hospitable. A woman invites us to her house and offers us coffee and candy. The children are sent to pick cherries; out of nowhere, tomatoes, fresh goat cheese and home-baked lavash appear. On TV a video of the youngest son’s eighth grade graduation party is running. The head of the family shows up, straight from work, carrying a bag of vegetables. He’s glad to have guests – this way he can take a little break.

We quickly find out the border with Turkey (and Iran) is guarded mainly by Russian officers. Russian troops stationed in Armenia number about 5.000 people. Sona, the journalist who accompanies us, wants us to get a closer look at the Turkish border. This is her first time in the area also, so we both rely on Grisha, her colleague, a local journalist who says he has taken pictures right next to the barbed wire fence separating the two countries. In Margara we are invited to park the car in a courtyard giving onto the border. Four journalists next to the fence marking the border of the Soviet Union, a fence identical to the one I saw a long time ago in the Republic of Moldova. We fall behind while the journalists take pictures. Not too far away, a border guard is staring at us with his binoculars from his observation tower.

In a little while, a black BMW jeep with smoky windows is coming towards us. Four solid young men, wearing undershirts and flip-flops get placidly out of the car. They’re also wearing camouflage trousers – a sort of training. They honk at us from afar and beckon us to turn away from the fence. One of them has a military transmitter in his hand. He politely introduces himself in Russian: ‘Pagranichnyie Slujba Rossii’. He requests to see our documents. Sona tells them we are journalists which triggers about three hours of parleying, controls and waiting.

The Russian patrol guards seem rather amused at the thought of what we’re in for. They comment on our visas which they pass from one hand to another. They hold back our documents and ask us to follow them to the military unit, 500 metres down the road. There, a young, blond superior officer with a childish figure takes over our case. He tells the journalists taking pictures on the border is strictly forbidden and that we are to wait for him to report the incident and decide our fate. After a while, he exits the unit and informs us we’re going to get off easy this time, but that we have to follow him to the Town Hall where he will train us with regards to border behaviour. He also informs us an Armenian intelligence officer is already on his way over to investigate the case.

We reach the Town Hall. The Russian officer plants a chair in the middle of a spacious room. The four of us huddled up together on an uncomfortable sofa, our backs to the wall. We’re offered coffee. On a very official tone he explains – and Sona translates – that they might detain us for 48 hours. Who infringed which law still remains somewhat hazy. In the end, we are told foreigners aren’t allowed to come closer than one kilometre from the border. We now stand as potential spies. He questions us about our jobs. He tells Sona he is from Kaliningrad, went to military academy and was, afterwards, sent to the Armenian border. He asks her if the same goes for journalists, if they are assigned their jobs. The atmosphere is pretty relaxed until the intelligence officer, in civilian clothes, shows up.

Our documents are examined yet again, every page of the passport photocopied. The officer reports to the centre, while the Russian continues his nosing around: why do you travel only to conflict areas? Sona’s editor is already calling the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to complain about the situation. After more than two hours, we tell them we’re very grateful for the hospitality, but we must contact our embassy in case they decide to keep us detained. We are told in an official stance that the maximum they are allowed to detain us is four hours. They’re just waiting for a call from the Ministry. Pretty soon the call comes through, the intelligence officer puts on a smile, returns our documents and wishes us a safe trip. The local journalists exchange phone numbers with the officers. To make sure we do leave the area, the officer dressed in civilian clothing in a Lada Niva and the Russian border guard in a military jeep drive before us. Two jeeps with Iranian tags heading merrily towards Ararat speed by us from the opposite direction. Our escort is in a thundering rage. The cars suddenly break, turn around and drive off like a whirlwind after the Iranians. The fun continues on the border with Turkey.