Informal Economic Practices in the Post-Soviet Caucasus: Traveling Goods and Values in Flea Markets

Researcher: Hamlet Melkumyan

Topic

Among the new features of the economy in Armenia in the 1980s and Georgia in the 1990s were open-air marketplaces of second-hand souvenirs and household goods in Yerevan (Armenia) and in Tbilisi (Georgia). This was a result of the increase of urban poverty (Dudwick 1993).

Yerevan today has two flea markets named vernissage. They play very different roles in urban culture and public life of the city. The first one, Sarian Vernissage, formed in the 1980s as one of the mini cultural centres of Yerevan. The second is the New Vernissage, which is the first souvenir and flea market space in Yerevan that tourists and local residents regularly visit. Beginning in 1993, the New Vernissage came to attract growing numbers of customers seeking handcrafts, and grew economically more attractive for sellers from other markets (Melkumyan 2010a; Melkumyan 2011).

In central Tbilisi, another flea market formed, which is called the flea market on the “Dry Bridge.” This market also became very popular in post-Soviet times.

The vernissages in Yerevan and the Art-Flea Market in Tbilisi have some structural similarities: In both cases, they are located in the city centre; they are a place to sell art and souvenir production, and they are surrounded with smaller flea markets, where one can find vendors of second-hand household goods (Melkumyan 2010b). Comparison of cases in Yerevan and Tbilisi gives us the possibility to explore how the informal economy appeared in the 1980 and 1990s in the shape of flea markets in urban public spaces and illustrates how the informal economy and flea markets began to grow.

Questions/hypothesis

In this subproject, Melkumyan will examine social practices that have been used to negotiate with the state to allow continued informal economic activity in Tbilisi’s and Yerevan’s flea markets: What are the common strategies of survival found in both settings, on the one hand, and what are the differences between the strategies of survival deriving from the different cultural backgrounds in Armenia and Georgian, on the other?

Melkumyan’s second research interest is to understand how informal economic linkages and exchange practices are formed. For example, “goods” are traveling from Yerevan to Tbilisi. The subject will investigate the regional and international trader-consumer networks, which foster “globalization from below.” In this connection, Melkumyan will explore such questions as how people manage their networks and how they cross borders.

Methods/data

In-depth research on the market spaces in the two different countries will provide the opportunity to find general patterns of informal economy in Armenia and Georgia, and it will help to understand how these markets and exchanges are cross-regionally interlinked. The starting points for this analysis are: (a) the historical background of markets, (b) the locations of market places as integrated parts of urban space, contributing to the construction of urban identity, (c) the vendors’ biographies, and (d) questions related to gender issues.

In prior research, Melkumyan has investigated flea markets in Tbilisi and Yerevan using anthropological field methods. In the proposed subproject, the primary methods will include mental mapping, biographical interviews, in-depth and expert interviews, participant observation, and archival research.

Collaboration with other group members and contribution to the joint project

The informal markets in Melkumyan’s research in the context of the Caucasus have common features with Karrar’s research settings in Central Asia. This is a good starting point for interregional comparison to understand how informal market activity has been shaped and how it has changed within the post-Soviet context.

Melkumyan will also work with Fehlings and Khutsishvili to examine related aspects of the Georgian context. One aspect of the common thematics is the patterns of mobility of traders and goods across the region.