Lachin Corridor Confronts Demographic Crisis

By Onnik Krikorian for Eurasianet

ISN, Switzerland
Tuesday, 19 September 2006

Following the 1994 Karabakh cease-fire agreement, Armenia experiences
difficulties in resettling the strategically important Lachin corridor,
which contains the road that connects Azerbaijan’s separatist republic
Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia.

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. 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 US$177)
a month in addition to 20,000 drams (about US$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 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
US$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:
"’People, is Aghdam ours? Do you want another war?’ they were worried."

Robert Matevosian does not deny that there has been an exodus in recent
years. While not disputing the allegations and articles published in
the Armenian media, he nonetheless reacts angrily to them. "If these
reports do not result in changes here, they will do more harm than
good," he says. "Already they are having a negative effect."

"These articles do raise various issues that are of concern,
and that do exist here," he admits. "These problems have affected
resettlement. […] Our officials and national [political] parties
need to think about elaborating a strategic plan for this region."

But with the international community still pushing for a Karabakh
peace agreement, few believe any national plan of action will
surface. Samuel Kocharian, for example, doesn’t. Indeed, he even
wonders if the situation is one by design. "How wide do they want
the Lachin corridor to be?" he asked rhetorically.

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