Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Armenia: Border Villages Get New Lease of Life

Resettlement programme aimed at bolstering depressed border regions is gaining momentum.
By Karine Ter-Saakian

In 1995, Anait Gevorkian from Ashtarak in central Armenia collected together several families and took them south to a village in the Goris region. She procured construction materials to repair abandoned homes, organised firewood and seeds and started setting things straight in their new home.

Gevorkian, who was soon elected head of her new community, was spearheading a drive to settle dozens of abandoned villages along Armenia’s frontier with Azerbaijan that has as much to do with national security as economic revival of depressed regions.

The resettlement programme has government support, although it is mainly funded by diaspora Armenian money.

All the new inhabitants of Avan were granted an interest-free loan of 25 thousand drams (50 US dollars) and paid moving expenses. It was a big sum of money back then. During the first two years, the settlers received further allowances for heating and repairs. “I was about to give up,” Gevorkian said. “There were small children among the first settlers, and they could have been killed by frost - the winters are bitter cold here. The village that we named Avan had no electricity, no running water; it lacked the most basic amenities. But no one left, everybody was here as spring came.”

In the last two years, the resettlement programme has gained momentum, especially on the border in the Goris region. Around 50 villages, mostly on the frontier with Azerbaijan and that with Turkey, have been granted special status. Those who wish to settler there are given tax-breaks and free housing.

The two most settled areas are in the north-east between Ijevan and Kazakh and in the south around Goris and Lachin. The Nakhichevan border is out of reach - no road goes there, while on the Turkish and Georgian frontiers everything is calm as it was before the war.

The Lachin region, between Armenia and Nagorny Karabakh, is still internationally regarded as being part of Azerbaijan, but Armenia hopes to keep hold of it in a final peace settlement. Government officials, however, decline to comment on that subject.

There is no official information available as to the number of settlers, but there seems to be a slow but steady flow of them. According to well-informed sources, about 35 families have moved to the Tavush region of Armenia in the north-east so far this year.

Most of the settlers are volunteers from Armenia. Surprisingly, there are virtually no refugees from Azerbaijan among them. “In Armenia, people forget all the time that there are very few villagers among those who fled Azerbaijan,” Nikolai Babajanian, the head of a refugee organisation, told IWPR.

Avan is a small village. The houses are mainly well-built and fringed with a small plot of land on which people grow herbs and vegetables. The village is surrounded by forests with nuts, wild pears and apples, dogwood and mulberry trees whose fruits are used for to make tutovka or mulberry vodka.

About 100 families live in Avan today. They have a school, a kindergarten and a church. Ten children were born in the village last year. Veterans from the Karabakh war in 1992-1994 constitute the majority of the village population. "We are the ones who defended this land and we are to live here,” said Smbat, one of the veterans. “It is a shame though that the government pays very little attention to us and everything we do remains unnoticed in Yerevan. We have to fight for everything – there have been no governmental programmes in place, nothing at all. Although the situation improved last year - officials from Yerevan started visiting us and asking us about our needs.”

For some, though, life is still too hard in Avan. “I cannot achieve anything, so I'd rather go to Russia, get settled there and then my family will join me,” said 40-year-old Sarkis. “Winters are cold here, the children are often sick, my wife cannot find a job - she is a music teacher - she cannot milk cows and see after cattle, can she?

“You shouldn't forget that we live on the border. It has been calm here so far, but there have been shootings for a month on the Ijevan border. The war is not over yet, and we have not forgotten the dreadful bombings of the Goris region in 1992-94.”

Robert Tatoyan, programme director of Yerkir, the public organisation that is resettling villages in the Tavush region, sets out what he sees as the overarching justification for the project.

“The only way to stop emigration and to provide for steady social and economic growth is to redistribute the Armenian population, reducing the former industrial cities and resettling the villages,” he said, adding that this process with help to develop agriculture and strengthen the country’s borders.

The members of Yerkir are trying to persuade young people from the Armenian diaspora to come to Armenia as permanent residents. “There is a lot of tension in the Middle East,” said Sevak Artsruni, the organisation’s executive director. “There has been no threat for Armenians so far, but it is much better to be safe at home, among your people. But Armenians from Lebanon, Syria and Iran still prefer to leave for the USA or Canada.”

Karine Ter-Saakian is a freelance journalist based in Yerevan.