The flag of the unrecognized Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh flies over the local administrative buildings in the center of Lachin, the strategic lynchpin connecting the disputed territory with the Republic of Armenia. The town and surrounding area, regarded as vital for Karabakh's security, appear to be experiencing an unsettling demographic shift.
Over the past 14 years, Lachin has been reshaped by the ebb and flow of humanity. In May 1992, during the height of the Karabakh conflict, Armenian forces captured Lachin. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Typical of most military operations against towns and villages during the war, buildings were razed and entire populations forced to flee. Accordingly, at least 20,000 Azerbaijanis and Kurds evacuated the area when Armenian forces approached the town.
Armenians remained in possession of the Lachin corridor, renamed Kashatagh, and several other Azerbaijani territories after the signing of a Karabakh cease-fire in 1994. Shortly thereafter, Armenia implemented a resettlement policy. Robert Matevosian, head of the department of resettlement for the region, says that the first Armenian arrivals came to the region out of a sense of patriotism. These territories, "regardless of the consideration of diplomats, must be inhabited by Armenians," he says.
The official line is that most of the Lachin corridor's new residents are refugees and internally displaced persons. The situation on the ground, however, suggests otherwise. It seems many of the new arrivals were socially vulnerable families from towns and cities such as Yerevan, Sisian, Jermuk and Gyumri in Armenia proper, as well as from Karabakh itself. They appear to have been recruited to relocate with promises of land, livestock and social benefits.
Gagik Kosakian, deputy governor of the region, has no choice but to stick to the official line. But he does admit that others came as well. "There are those specialists that couldn't find work in their chosen profession in Armenia who also come here to find employment," he says from his run-down and cramped office in downtown Lachin, which Armenians have renamed Berdzor.
Varouzhan Grigoryan, 48, is one of those professionals who sought a new start in Lachin. The economic chaos associated with the 1991 Soviet collapse hit Grigoryan hard. In the late Soviet era, he operated his own dance studio in the southern Armenian town of Sisian. Yet, amid Armenia's economic transition, he was forced to close his business and seek other work.
Six years ago, he moved with his family to Lachin and now he teaches traditional Armenian dance to school children in the town, while living with his wife and five children in a newly renovated hostel on the outskirts. With a combined income of 70,000 drams (about $177) a month in addition to 20,000 drams (about $50) in benefits for his five children, things are better than they had been in Armenia. He also receives another 20,000 drams in disability allowances for his two chronically ill sons.
But while life might be better for the Grigoryans, the situation is very different for others. The Lachin corridor covers some 3,000 square kilometers and stretches from just below Kelbajar in the north to the Iranian border in the south. Yet, while Lachin's pre-war [Azerbaijani] population stood at well over 67,000, Kosakian puts the number of [Armenian] settlers in the entire region (that also includes the former Azerbaijani regions of Qubatli and Zangelan) at 9,800 people, including 2,200 living in the town of Lachin itself.
Unofficial estimates, however, put the number far lower.
Because of poor social conditions, as well as a lack of investment and the recent transfer of the regional budget from Armenia to the Karabakh territorial government, both officials and activists in Lachin say that many families are leaving. Indeed, while the region's population was estimated at 15,000 in 2002, there are concerns that out-migration is now reaching epidemic proportions. Sources within the local administration estimated the population to be in the 5,000-6,000 range in 2006.
In recent weeks, Armenian newspapers have reported that that families living in the territory are complaining that initial promises have been broken. Moreover, while a budget estimated at 2.2 billion drams has been allocated to Lachin, nobody in the administration appears to know how the money is being spent. Benefits averaging 4,000 drams (about $10) per child a month on average are also reportedly paid late.
At the outset of 2006, an incentive for new settlers -- the provision of free electricity of up to 200 kw per month for the first two years of residency -- was rescinded. Meanwhile, there are questions about misappropriations and malfeasance, including allegations that of 750 million drams allocated for the construction of new homes, only 50 million drams have actually been spent.
"I think that the Karabakh authorities have no real understanding of the importance of this region," laments Samuel Kocharian, Director of the AGAPE Children's Home in Lachin. He is also one of the most vocal critics of the local administration as well as the transfer of the Lachin corridor's budget from Armenia to Karabakh. He estimates the regional population now at approximately 5,000 people.
Marine Petoyan, head of the village of Karegah, located a few kilometers outside of Lachin, touts her village as one of the most successful in the region. Nevertheless, she is concerned about the future. "Sixty percent of residents don't have water because of the drought," she says. "When the natural springs dried out, this became a serious problem," She also says that there are numerous cases of residents in Karegah having their electricity cut off because they have been unable to pay their bills.
Fears of a resumption of armed conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis also seem to be influencing Lachin's demographics. "The process of resettlement started on a large scale at the beginning because of patriotism," says Kocharian, "but now [Lachin] is emptying with the same enthusiasm and on the same scale. When people heard [Armenian Defense Minister] Serzh Sarkisyan say on television: "
Editors Note: Onnik Krikorian is a freelance journalist and photojournalist from the United Kingdom working for a variety of local and international publications and organizations in the Republic of Armenia. He maintains a blog from Armenia and the surrounding region at http://oneworld.blogsome.com