Sunday, February 17, 2008
In Armenian Border Villages, Poverty Outweighs Politics
Yigal Schleifer: 02/17/08

The small village of Chiva lies only some 120 kilometers south of Yerevan, but it might as well be a world away.

While Yerevan is experiencing a building boom and is even about get its own Armani store, Chiva is slowly disappearing, a place with few jobs and hardly any young people, most of whom have left to seek work in the capital city or in Russia.

The village, a collection of squat stone houses with tin roofs nestled in a mountain valley, has few shops of its own, save for two convenience stores selling mostly cigarettes and snacks. The only grocery closed soon after Armenia gained its independence in 1991 and headed into a long period of economic decline. These days, the area in front of the boarded-up market serves as an al fresco meeting place for the men in the village, where the unemployment rate, according to the mayor, is close to 60 percent.

On a recent sunny day, some 15 men are gathered there, standing in slushy puddles of melting snow. Four of them are playing cards, using a piece of cardboard on the ground as a table. Although the village was once a large producer of apricots, peaches and grapes, irrigation problems and difficulties in getting the produce to market have made agriculture less than a viable work option, the men say.

Improving living standards for ordinary Armenians and creating jobs may have been issues that featured prominently in the 2008 presidential campaign, but in Chiva, the candidates' promises fall flat.

"We don't see a future for the village," says Samvel Grigorian, a 58-year-old former accountant chatting with his friends. "We're longing for the way things used to be. Young people are leaving the village forever and only the old people remain."

"We feel a lack of attention from the government," adds Grigorian.

But in recent years the government -- and donor agencies -- have started to pay more attention to the pressing issue of Armenia's rural poverty. In September 2006, Yerevan unveiled the Rural Development Program, designed to support infrastructure and social development projects in poverty-stricken villages along Armenia's borders, mostly by enlisting Diaspora help.

In March of the same year, the United States government's Millennium Challenge Corporation awarded Armenian government a $235 million grant to repair irrigation pipelines and roads in the country's rural areas.

"The development gap between Yerevan and the provinces remains one of the key challenges of modern Armenia," outgoing President Robert Kocharian said at the opening a three-day conference of Diaspora members in Yerevan in 2006.

Though Armenia's economy has posted double-digit growth for the past six years, Yerevan, with one-third of the country's population of roughly 3 million, produces more than half of its Gross Domestic Product. Nearly half of Armenia's rural population of 1.5 million lives in poverty, according to United Nations Development Program statistics.

"We expect that, after restoring the rural infrastructures, [the villages] will become more attractive for investors, and moreover, hopefully, part of the population who left those villages may return," Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian said at the 2006 conference for Diaspora members. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive.]

But a visit to Chiva and another nearby village offers a glimpse of not only the difficulties facing the rural poor, but also the difficulty the government faces in getting its new development program off the ground.

Sitting behind a beat-up wooden desk in a dingy office heated by a small wood-burning stove, Chiva's mayor, Nairi Sarkisian, says the village has already felt some changes from the government's new initiatives. Some 4.5 kilometers of new pipe, for both irrigation and drinking water, has recently been laid, he says. Also, the village's main road was paved in the last year.

"It helps us to feel less ignored, especially in comparison to the past, when nothing was undertaken to help rural communities," the 38-year-old mayor, dressed in a dark black leather jacket, says.

"We are very satisfied with what has been done and what is planned, but that doesn't mean all the problems have been solved."

A visit to the village health clinic, located just below Sarkisian's office, makes that abundantly clear. Although the Rural Development Program's English-language website the renovation of the village's health clinic lists among its activities, done in conjunction with Oxfam, it turns out the last renovation work was done in 1997.

Today, the one-room clinic has moldy walls with large chunks of paint peeling off and no heat.

When asked what her clinic needs most, the village nurse thinks for a moment and then offers up a wish list stark in its simplicity. Linens to cover the thick plastic sheet on the examination bed. Surgical scissors and lancers. Medications for respiratory ailments. And, a new heater.

"We applied to the regional government regarding our needs, but the answer they gave us is to get along with what we have," says the nurse, Tanya Tadevosian, who spends most of her days making house calls among the village's 1,000 residents.

The Program's website also lists among its accomplishments in Chiva the donation of furniture to the village's kindergarten. But the mayor says the village doesn't even have a kindergarten.

The website, which offers close-up maps of the nearly 200 villages receiving assistance and detailed information about their history, fails to disclose how much funding the program has received and has spent or plans to spend in each village.

Program officials say they have not listed the figures in order not to compromise ongoing tenders.

The snow-covered village of Khachik, located at the end of a winding mountain road some 35 kilometers from Chiva, is also part of the Rural Development Program, but few locals say they have heard of the initiative.

Asked about the program, Vahan Sarkisian, secretary to the village's mayor, draws a blank. While a pipeline project to bring drinking water to the village has recently been completed, what the village is really waiting for is the restoration of a Soviet-era irrigation pipeline that helped water the fields around Khachik, Sarkisian says. The mayor's assistant says he's not sure who financed the drinking water pipeline.

Near the center of the picturesque village, which overlooks the soaring Mount Ararat, Ervand Haroutiunian is shoveling snow from his driveway.

Haroutiunian, who runs Khachik's grocery store, says 170 people left the village of 1,000 in the last two years. The situation, he says, is even worse than during the war in the early 1990's with Azerbaijan over Nagorno Karabakh, when the village was shelled from the nearby Azerbaijani territory of Nakhchivan.

"If it keeps up like this, the village will be abandoned," he says, pausing with his shovel. A diminished population means decreased demand for village products in Yerevan, he added.

"We can no longer sell our products in Yerevan, and that is the only way we can make a living. It gets worse and worse every year."

Asked if the upcoming elections give him any hope for a change, Haroutiunian smiles.

"All the politicians promise to help us during the election period, but then they do nothing," he says. "They speak beautiful words, but no actions are taken."

Editor's Note: Yigal Schleifer is a freelance reporter who covers Turkey and the South Caucasus.