By Brian Kelly, KF9, Armenia

Mt Ararat lies just across the Turkish border, miles from Yerevan, Armenia's capital

Since arriving in Armenia, I’ve tried as much as possible to be a sponge.  Attempting to soak up everything there is to know about microfinance, cultural tendencies here, and especially current political happenings. Coming from the United States, a relative kindergartener historically-speaking compared to cane-wielding Armenia, and without a particularly strong allegiance to any real ethnic identity, (despite my name sounding more Irish than the potato famine) it’s hard to fully comprehend the Armenian history and deep-rooted identity.  The country has existed for so many years in so many different forms, changed its borders many times, and suffered devastating tragedy during its history.

Just after arriving here, Armenia and Turkey reached a landmark agreement to sign accords that will open Armenia’s 3rd border stretching across the west of the country from Georgia down to Iran.  While cautiously distant at best, the relations between these two countries appear to be improving.   Azerbaijan, Armenia’s eastern neighbor, is a different story.  Technically, Armenia and Azerbaijan are still at war.  Since the Soviet Union collapsed, the two have been fighting over picturesque mountainous lands known as Nagorno-Karabakh, a now-independent territory that Armenia controls. During my time here, I have tried to absorb all of the sentiments that fuel the political relations among the countries in the South Caucusus.

My first instinct after naively traipsing into Yerevan in October was to casually ask: “why NOT open the border with Turkey? It’s the 21st century, the world is globalizing, how can you delay the inevitable and why not choose to spur commerce?” But it’s just not that simple.  That was such a westernized way of thinking, a perspective where I hadn’t grown up looking northward and southward and seeing bitter rivals staring back at me.  The beneficial economic gains that might come from normalizing relations can be easily shielded by their long-standing emotional associations.

So with that, I am about to depart for a road-trip to Nagorno-Karabakh for several days to go visit branches with my MFI, and experience this source of neighborly animosity and conflict with Azerbaijan 15 + years in the making.  I hope to gather more impressions about the political situation but also the Armenian identity, and see what role my MFI is playing in this contested region.  I plan to write more when I have a better overall impression of the situation and history here, when I feel like less of an outsider.  This understanding will provide a context that can translate into microfinance, and why I often feel so estranged when I ask my bizarre questions about “hopes and dreams” or “profit margins.”  Without proper perspectives, trying to understand the impact of microfinance and how it should work here is difficult.  And as for now it can feel daunting to process, but I am trying to wrap my simple American senses around these complexities more and more each day.  So stay tuned…

Brian Kelly is a member of KF9 serving his Kiva Fellowship in Armenia to help bring pilot partner Aregak UCO onto the Kiva website.  To join the Armenian lending team, click here.  And to see more about Armenian loans, check out Nor Horizon UCO, and click here for fundraising loans (you may have to come back as they are new too)

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