Villagers Cut Off by Border Move

Armenian farmers lose access to fields in frontier demarcation.

Villagers Cut Off by Border Move

Armenian farmers lose access to fields in frontier demarcation.

For centuries, the residents of Jiliza and Chanakhchi have traded and visited one another as neighbours do all over the world, their villages separated by a narrow brook.

They have long known they live in different countries – Armenia and Georgia, respectively – but they are all ethnic Armenians and they never took much notice of the border between them before.

Now that the two countries are delimiting their mutual frontier, and have settled this sector, life has become much trickier. Although there is no fence, the boundary formed by the brook is patrolled by border guards tasked with enforcing it.

Anahit Lalayan’s son, for example, went to a party in Chanakhchi just three weeks ago but narrowly avoided being caught.

“My husband shouted to him to cross the stream, and if he hadn’t, they would have grabbed him,” she recalled.

There are more serious consequences to contend with than missing their neighbours’ parties. The road to 22 hectares of their village’s land is transected by the border, and they either have to break the law to gather the hay their animals need for the winter, or take a rough track and leave much of the hay behind.

“We only just managed to get our hay across the fields, but a half of it was left behind and was ruined,” said Albert Lalayan, her husband.

Jiliza mayor Mher Vardanyan said there is a road to fields, but it runs through a forest and is almost impassable.

“The village cannot afford to repair the forest road. I have not even worked out how much it would cost,” he said. At the moment, he said, villagers are forced to carry their hay on donkeys through the forest if they want to obey the law.

“And that is inefficient,” he said.

The Lalayan family is not planning to cultivate its share of the 22 hectares next year, although those are the best fields they have, since they are scared of ending up in a Georgian prison. Illegally crossing the border is punished under Georgian law with a 5,000 US dollars fine. If the fine is not paid in one month, then the culprit faces five years in prison. Under Armenian law, the sentence is between three and seven years’ incarceration.

If residents of Jiliza want to legally visit their neighbours, whose houses are just a few metres away, they have to travel 90 kilometres to use a legal crossing point. They start with a bus trip to Alaverdi, the biggest local town, but the 30 km road there is practically impassable in winter and the buses only travel when full, and there are none then anyway.

“We all understand what a state border is and we know we can get big fines if we are caught,” said Anahit Lalayan. But she said the winter isolation of their village meant they were forced to deal with their neighbours in Georgia just to survive.

“We cannot not cross the border. The Georgians bring goods by car – clothes, food – and we buy them.”

In the meantime, the population of Jiliza, which currently houses 130 individuals, is falling year by year. Lalayan’s neighbour, Albert Sargsyan, pleaded with the government to save the village.

“Would it be impossible to sign a state agreement, to do something, so we were not cut off? We depend on each other,” he said.

Hrach Tashchyan, the secretary of the Georgian-Armenian intergovernmental commission, said its members were discussing all questions, including those of the border villages.

“I cannot say there is great progress, although work is going on,” he said.

In Georgia, officials conceded the delimitation process - which has completed about two-thirds of the two countries’ 225 km border - was complex, but argued that it had to be done.

“Georgia does not have a precisely defined border with any of its neighbours except Turkey. The delimitation is not finished but it is already affecting the lives of real people, both Georgians and others,” said Nikoloz Lalishvili, deputy chairman of the Georgian parliament’s committee for external relations.

“These questions are so closely linked to questions of state security, that often the fair requests of citizens are left unfulfilled.”

Mamuka Areshidze, director of the Caucasian Strategic Studies Centre, said the governments should be generous to the local residents, but conceded that the commission had a tough job on its hands in resolving the various claims to ownership.

“On old administrative maps the border used to move around from time to time. In the Soviet Union, because of the inexactness of the administrative borders, you got ‘cut off’ territories, mainly agricultural land. Therefore, before the border can be resolved, the population should be compensated with an equivalent amount of land, if crossing the border is not possible,” he said.

But Lalishvili was not hopeful that the wishes of the residents of the two villages would be granted.

“I do not see a way out of this situation. Exceptions are possible for every case, but this depends on the good will of the state. Until the question of delimitation is resolved completely, then there will always be local problems.”

Nana Mamagulishvili is a freelance journalist. Naira Bulhgadaryan is a reporter for Radio Liberty.
Support our journalists