Armenia: Frontier Restrictions Prompt Exodus

Empty Armenian border villages raise security concerns.

Armenia: Frontier Restrictions Prompt Exodus

Empty Armenian border villages raise security concerns.

Villages along Armenia’s border with Turkey are emptying, with their inhabitants blaming strict border regulations for making life impossible, in an exodus that some analysts say threatens the security of the state.

In the village of Kharkov, for example, on the bank of the river Akhurian facing Turkish territory over the water, just one family remains.

In 1949, when the barbed wire was installed and the Cold War made the Turkish-Soviet border the frontline between communism and capitalism, 80 Armenian families lived here.

Turkey and Armenia still have no diplomatic ties, and the closed border between them today is a legacy of Armenia’s war with Turkish ally Azerbaijan in the early 1990s.

The Khachatrians were the most recent emigrants from Kharkov in 2008, and now live in the village of Ani, about seven kilometres away. They say they had no choice but to abandon their homes, so they gathered up their belongings and locked the door behind them.

“My grandson had to go to school, so like it or not, we had to leave Kharkov,” said Avetik Khachatrian, the head of the family.

He said people started to leave the village, which is surrounded by barbed wire, as early as the 1960s, as they struggled to deal with the harsh Soviet border conditions. The school taught children only for the first four years, and the roads were in such a poor state that they were almost impassable.

The Khachatrians had to show special passes at a border checkpoint to reach the outside world, they said, and had to give prior warning if anyone wanted to visit them, including for weddings or funerals.

“They counted them in, and then on the next day they counted them out again,” said Avetik’s wife, Melsida. “Outsiders could not stay in the village. There were cases when, because of extended document checks, the funeral ceremony had to be postponed until 8 pm.”

Now, the only village residents are the Vardanians, a couple in their 70s. When they go, the village will be empty, and that part of the border deserted.

This movement away from the border zone profoundly troubles Stepan Safarian, a political commentator and member of parliament for the Heritage Party.

“These farmers guard our border, and it is especially hard since our enemy is on the other side. The government does not provide decent living conditions for the residents of the border areas, which raises questions about the existence of a border at all,” he said.

“If there are no villages on the border, then you either have to have a strong army, and our country cannot afford that for any extended period, or you have to decide not to defend the border. In this case the biggest danger is that this area won’t be deserted for long, since in the modern world of globalisation other people will quickly move there. And maybe they’ll be from Turkey.”

The local priest, Mikael Ajapahian of the Shirak diocese, can list villages that have either been moved back from the border or were relocated to make way for the Akhurian reservoir. He said an attempt by a group of farmers to move back to Kharkov in the 1980s failed and no one had tried to resurrect the village since.

“In the Soviet years, when everything was done to empty the villages or evacuate people further from the Armenian-Turkish border, of course such an initiative was doomed,” he said.

Ajapahian said the Turkish government’s treatment of villages on its side of the border was different, “There is no barbed wire there, and everything is done to develop these villages.

“For me, it is degrading to see the current situation in Kharkov. What law says a village must be surrounded by barbed wire? If there is already a natural border in the form of a reservoir and a river then why is an artificial one needed too?”

Lida Nanian, the governor of the Shirak region where Kharkov is located, did not deny that the emptying of the villages was a side-effect of the strict border regulations but said the administration was doing all it could to provide modern amenities for the villagers.

“There was a problem with the village of Meghrashat. The issue was that the cowshed was right on the Armenian-Turkish border and not long ago there was a case of livestock being stolen,” she said.

“The border guards demanded that the residents moved their cowshed further from the border and did not send their livestock into those pastures. I did not agree with this but it is their job; it is what they are paid to do.”

The border guards’ involvement does not end with the location of cowsheds. In order to graze their livestock, local people have to carry a pass, something they find offensive.

“I no longer live in Kharkov, but I still have some land there, and now I need to go there to cultivate it,” said Avetik Khachatrian.

“I already have a pass for entering and exiting until the end of the year but believe me, they do not make it easy. A few days ago, I had to wait at the checkpoint from 8 am to 1 pm. for them to open it. They did not even let me work properly. They came at 8 pm and told me to leave.”

Yeranuhi Soghoian is freelance journalist in Gyumri.
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