A Hard Life in Rural Karabakh

The tribulations of post-war life in a Nagorny Karabakh Armenian village

A Hard Life in Rural Karabakh

The tribulations of post-war life in a Nagorny Karabakh Armenian village

"To survive, a farmer has to dig in the ground from early morning till dark, hoping the weather will be merciful and his labours won't be in vain," said Vladimir Antonian.


Antonian spent 30 years of his life as headmaster of the local school in Gishi, a village in Nagorny Karabakh. Now retired, he survives like most people in the village - by working on the land.


Gishi, one of the oldest and largest Armenian villages in Nagorny Karabakh, used to be one of its most prosperous communities. Nowadays, while a few inhabitants savour the fruits of a market economy, most live in poverty, struggling to make ends meet.


Nine out of ten farm workers lack the equipment to till their land properly, and do not have enough money to rent machinery. Instead, when they borrow combine-harvesters, tractors and trucks, they offer in return a share in their future harvest.


In Nagorny Karabakh's agriculture ministry, they blame "a failure to think through land privatisation and excessive zeal in carrying it out" for the problems facing villages like Gishi.


The Karabakh government has said that raising the standard of living in the villages to the same level as in the towns is a priority, to stop people leaving the land.


They are still dealing with the legacy of a decision made in 1994, immediately after the war with Azerbaijan ended, to divide up the collective farms and distribute the land to individuals. This resulted in more losers than winners.


The oldest residents are openly nostalgic for Soviet times. "People used to slaughter cattle on holidays and treat the whole village," lamented Raya Davitian, who worked for 40 years in the collective farm. "Now that's all in the past and everyone is isolated."


Gishi has 300 families and a population of about 2,000. But it has just three combine harvesters, which have to be rented out for around 17 US dollars at a time. Then there is the cost of using fertilisers, pesticides, fuel and the grain mill.


No one faces starvation in Gishi and few complain openly. Every family has some farm animals, or at the very least a cow.


But it is a hard life. A farmer needs to invest between 300 and 350 dollars per hectare to grow a harvest, but few can afford this much. Peasants work 14-16 hour days, irrespective of the weather - scorching sun or torrential rain.


Most villagers supplement their income by distilling tutovka, Karabakh's traditional mulberry vodka. There are mulberry trees in every garden. Summer is the distilling season, and virtually every family in Gishi engages in the vodka trade. In autumn, villagers harvest their grapes and ship them to the winery in Martuni, 12 kilometres away.


Gishi used to have its own winery, and grape growing was the principal industry. Plans are now afoot to use it to generate income in the village.


"We are trying hard to bring our vineyards back," said Marat Gasparian, the village elder. "Grapes used to earn the bulk of revenue for the village."


Robert Garibian, 50, is one of the most successful grape farmers in Gishi, owning several hectares of vineyards. He is one of those that has benefited from private enterprise.


Garibian used to manage a team of workers at the collective farm, but was quick to set up his own farming business once collective farms were disbanded. "I knew what was going on, and realised the benefits of private enterprise," said Garibian. "So I rented around 1.5 hectares of land, and planted some vines. I took good care of the vines, strictly by the book, and got my first harvest in three years' time."


"Unfortunately the idea of 'help from outside'- from rich foreign compatriots - has not died in many farmers, and this stifles work and initiative. I rely only on myself," he said.


Razmik Gasparian also makes a good living from the new era. Helped by his wife, son and daughter, he has cultivated a sprawling garden and watermelon patch. The Gasparians also have over 20 cows, a herd of sheep, and some pigs. And they grow grain crops, which earn them their main income.


"Sometimes we simply live at the farm. There's too much work to do," Razmik told IWPR.


But, he added, "I enjoy being a private entrepreneur. The secret of success lies in enterprise, planning, and hard, relentless work. A lazy farmer is doomed."


Another group of villages is looking at bee-keeping as a way of earning a living. Artak Gukasian, 25, has chosen this path.


"No one in my family kept bees," Gukasian told IWPR. "I developed an interest in bee-keeping in high school; learned the basics of the trade from neighbours. I harvested 25 kilos of honey last season. Soon I'll be making enough money from bee-keeping to support my family."


Bee-keeping, however, is a perilous undertaking. "In the unstable climate of Nagorny Karabakh, with its steep temperature fluctuations, bees are apt to wake up early from hibernation, eat up their honey, and generally waste energy, which results in their early death," Gukasian explained.


Not surprisingly, there are few bee-keepers in the area. After harvest, Gukasian must find buyers for his honey, which costs up to six dollars a kilogram.


During the 1991-4 war over Nagorny Karabakh, almost no one left the village. Now young people have left to serve contracts in the army, work in the local town of Martuni or further afield in Stepanakert or Armenia.


The widows of soldiers killed in the Karabakh war have it the hardest. There are around 40 of them in Gishi, many with children. The government pays them a benefit of about 30 or 40 dollars a month. They were also given a hectare of free land, but few can work it on their own.


Venera Shakarian, one such widow, is bringing up two children, who are both very ill and cannot help her. Her parents live in another village.


The government built a house for the Shakarians after her husband was killed. But it has begun to fall apart already. The family has no refrigerator or television.


The village administration used to help the families of soldiers' widows with basic necessities such as firewood and flour, but not any more, Venera said. In the new rural way of life, she is one of the losers.


Ashot Beglarian is a freelance journalist and regular IWPR contributor in Stepanakert, Nagorny Karabakh


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