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

No-Man's Land in Armenia

As men go off to Russia in search of work, many poor rural villages are inhabited almost entirely by women
By Karine Ter-Saakian

Driving through the villages of the Vaiots Dzor Region in southern Armenia is a depressing experience. The houses and fences are boarded up, and the streets look deserted. The sense of desolation is even stronger in winter, when you notice that none of the chimneys have smoke coming out of them.


Like most of rural Armenia, Vaiots Dzor has seen a steady outflow of its inhabitants since 1988. First, the local Azerbaijanis left when tensions mounted over Nagorny Karabakh. Few Armenians came in to replace them in this harsh mountain region.


Emigration rates shot up after independence in 1991. Fourteen years ago the republic of Armenia had a population of 3.4 million people. Now at least a million people are thought to have left, although estimates vary. The exodus was greatest in rural regions, where unemployment and the problematic process of land privatisation made life especially hard.


Armenian men traditionally used to go to Russia to work over the winter season, but they normally returned. Over the last ten years, however, thousands of them have stayed away for good. As a result, many villages in this part of Armenia are inhabited mainly by women.


The mountainous village of Khachik, close to the border with the Azerbaijani region of Nakhichevan, has about 50 families living in it, half of them without any men.


"They send us money, but they don't seem keen to return," said Haikuhi Kazarian, 40, as she repaired the wooden stairs up to her house. "The men aren't here, so we have to do everything by ourselves."


The women of Khachik now do jobs that their husbands, sons or fathers would have done in the past. "The women go to the woods together. We have to do it all by ourselves - collect brushwood, cut down trees and chop firewood," said Haikuhi.


Several of the men from her village have found new partners in Russia, although they still send a little money back to their families in Armenia from time to time.


"The children need a father, and the family a breadwinner," said a young woman whose husband has started a new family in Russia, leaving her with three small children. "The way things are, no one wants us any more."


There are plenty of reasons why a young man would want to leave. Samvel, Haikuhi's eldest son, will soon be called up to the army, and is thinking of joining his father in Russia. "What is there to do here? No schools, no jobs. I'm going to leave as soon as I can, either now or after army service," he said


Some villages have found it easier to get by. Areni is situated in a valley, and with a gentler climate than Khachig it is well-known for its vineyards and wine. Many of the women here have set up cafes and food stalls along the Yerevan-Goris highway, the main north-south route through Armenia to Iran. They sell a huge variety of homemade products such as wine, pickles, meat and honey, as well as wild nuts and berries.


"We are always here, whatever the weather," said a middle-aged woman called Gohar. "Everything grows in these woods. We fix something to eat for these people. They're happy, and so are we." Her husband left for Siberia about 10 years ago.


Another village, Malishka, has the advantage of being the birthplace of business tycoon Ara Abramian, chairman of the Russian Armenians' Union. But although he has invested money in the community, people are still leaving.


"He's built a new church for us and repaired the school, but what's the point?" said pensioner Gevork Manukian. "There are no jobs, and all those who can leave will do so sooner or later. Some go to Yerevan, others leave the country."


The village of Aralez is even more depressed. There are only a few men left, all over 60.


"There are no men here, just like during the Second World War," said Parandzem, whose husband Hakop, 70, is one of the few who remain.


Two years ago, the entire village collected money to send Hakop's son to Krasnodar in the south of Russia, where he found a job. Hakop receives regular remittances from him, and pays off the debt to his fellow villagers.


But despite the income, Hakop is not convinced that going to Russia is a wise move. "Our relative Hovik Mikaelian was recently killed in Krasnodar for a bottle of vodka," he said.


This year has been especially hard for the villagers. Due to water shortages, there was no irrigation for the vegetables, and no seeds to plant. "We've got nothing," said Parandzem wistfully, glancing at her strong, overworked hands.


It has been getting harder to keep the animals every year. "The feed is too expensive. The cows eat up most of the income we get from the milk. We consider ourselves lucky if we can save a couple of glasses of it for the kids," said Aralez resident Varduhi Grigorian.


Varduhi's husband Hamlet left two years ago, and is now working on a construction site near Moscow, sending home around 100 dollars every two months. "That's a lot of money here. It's enough for us to live on and to help our less fortunate neighbours," said Varduhi.


Policymakers are beginning to worry about the long term consequences of a constant drain on half the rural population and the break-up of families.


"There's only one solution - to get the state involved," said Alvard Petrosian, a deputy in the Armenian parliament. "We must create incentives to make people stay."


Gagik Gevorkian, head of healthcare and social security in the Vaiots Dzor regional administration, is angry with the government, although he thinks the problem is a consequence of wider global issues, "It looks as though the government is pursuing a policy aimed at devastating and ruining the villages. Not that they're doing it on purpose - it's all due to globalisation imposed by the World Trade Organisation.


"Over the past four years, more than half the men have left in our region alone, and they're unlikely to come back."


Armenia's agriculture ministry is working on a package of programmes to boost development in remote villages. Ministry spokesman Vahan Martirosian told IWPR that several foreign governments have agreed to provide grants to buy machinery and seeds for Armenian farmers.


"The government is working to create jobs for rural residents," Martirosian said. "Specifically, farmers will be offered incentives to start production, mainly on dairy farms."


Residents of Khachik remain unconvinced that the government is serious to do something about the problem.


"We are too far away from the capital," said one woman. "No one cares about us. The ministers and the [regional] governor certainly don't. We'll keep hanging on as long as we can. If not, we'll just follow our husbands."


Karine Ter-Saakian is a reporter for the Respublika Armenii newspaper.


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