Notes From Hairenik
October 5, 2006
On Tuesday I drove my friend and former editor of the Armenian Weekly turned deputy director of Armenia Tree Project, Jason Sohigian, to Karabagh as he had never been before. We returned Wednesday due to personal reasons on his part, but it was a way for him to finally connect to the sacred region that holds such high, historic importance to the Armenian people. We stayed at a recently renovated hostel called Olymp Plus, which bills itself as a “Health Restoration Complex,” like a spa or something. The room was extremely clean and tidy, with new furniture, although the bathroom was separate, located across the hall. We were the only guests on the floor, and the room costing only 10,000 dram contained two twin beds with thick homemade wool blankets, which essentially serve as personal furnaces. The disco on the other end of our floor blaring rabiz dance music was annoying, however.

Unfortunately the rain as well as thick fog engulfing Shushi prevented Jason from seeing the Persian fortress, abandoned yet standing mosques, and the churches, but we were able to drive along the recently paved thoroughfare in the town’s center. The roads leading into the town however from the south and north are still devastated, something I cannot understand, since Shushi is such a strategic area. In the evening we went to a modern Internet café along Azadamartik Street, the main drag in Stepanakert, then went to a newly opened restaurant called “Dghyag” near the Nayri Hotel, which served very good pizza and salads. The capital city is still pretty clean compared with Yerevan, and seemingly dozens of businesses are preparing to open with several stores being renovated. It was good to see increasing progress, up from last year. Jason said he was expecting to see a magical city to some extent due to all the stories he has heard about how wonderful Stepanakert is. He seemed disappointed, but then I reminded him that a dozen years ago the city was in absolute shambles. I do like the city—it is much more relaxed than Yerevan and people seem much more patient as well as courteous.

Yet I found Karabagh a desolate place. While we drove along about half of the North-South highway on the way to Gansasar, which has been a destination for me and my companions to visit three of the four times I traveled to Karabagh, I found that there were virtually no other cars on the road. We counted a few minibuses full of tourists on their way to the site as we were returning to Stepanakert, but I do not recall more than a few passenger cars driving the opposite direction.

The landscape is exceptionally stunning—a turbulent sea of hills intertwined with jetting mountains. Areas are checkered in farming plots where various crops are grown or have already been harvested, such as corn, wheat, and vegetables. The tilled soil is nearly jet black, the richest soil I have seen. But I didn’t see anyone working in the fields, which was surprising. Once in a while we would run into an old man pulling along a donkey by a short rope tied around the animal’s neck, with a wrapped pile of dead tree limbs strapped to its back. But I did not see anything bustling in the villages we drove past. Perhaps I did not look hard enough or maybe I should have actually driven into them to get a better look. But the roads were empty. Karabagh seemed to have been ours for the early afternoon.

In the village of Vank where Gansasar is located perched atop of a mini-mountain, there is a strange resort with water sports apparently, something similar to Water World in Yerevan, but with seats surrounding the place like it was an amphitheater. The walls of the complex are covered in old, out of register license plates—it made me wonder where did all the cars go? The portion of the 15 km road leading to the village—which last year was a muddy nightmare when I took my parents to the monastery—has been completely paved with asphalt. Incidentally Gansasar is a fantastic place to visit, the most well kept monastery in Karabagh according to the priest that serves there. He personally defended the compound against Azeri gunfire during the war, and bullet holes are still visible in the walls.

People living in Karabagh have always been characterized as long as I can remember being told as extremely resilient as well as self-reliant. But I think this characterization is mostly out of date now. Regions are visibly emptying as my trip through Lachin, notably the administrative center Berdzor, proved. The town which was once inhabited by about 15,000 people now has an estimated population of 7,000, due to the inefficiency and incompetence of administrative officials. Some estimate the number of inhabitants in town to be lower. Last year while passing through there it seemed that many new homes were being or had recently been constructed. My trip this time showed the opposite to be true, or perhaps I was seeing things I did not before, such as dozens of abandoned or dilapidated buildings. Incidentally, abundant information about the depopulation of Lachin as well as other regions in Karabagh has been documented on Hetq Online and the Oneworld blog, both of which offer excellent accounts of what is happening there, including suggestions that the governments of the Republics of Armenia and Nagorno Karabagh are intentionally promoting a mass exodus by refusing to build the infrastructure there, as most villages have little to no running water as well as problems with readily available electricity, let alone natural gas lines.

There is speculation that in a final resolution to a peace deal regarding the status of Nagorno Karabagh, the Armenian side would be willing to even return the Lachin region, as well as the remaining ones surrounding Karabagh that Armenian forces now control. To return Lachin as well as Kelbajar to the north would be a strategic fiasco, but it seems it would be the only method to encourage the Azeri side to agree on finally relenting Karabagh without supposedly going to war, despite its seemingly weekly statements that suggest otherwise. I have often expressed on this blog that all regions occupied by Armenian forces should be returned to Azerbaijani control except Kelbajar and Lachin, and that Karabagh along with the two aforementioned regions should be united with Armenia in a referendum to be held immediately by the Karabagh people. I still hold this viewpoint as being the only viable, logical agreement to a peace agreement.

But everyone is leaving. Some think that the population of Karabagh has dropped from 120,000 Armenians to 50,000 since the declared ceasefire in 1994 or even before then. No one knows for sure as reliable census practices do not exist—people are counted twice or those who own houses but live abroad are still counted in current population figures. The same holds true for Armenia.

Although I feel that Karabagh has lots of potential, there is little to no investment there. Hotels are opening to serve tourists, which is great. But opportunities need to be created to employ the masses, whether they are in the form of opened factories, infrastructure building projects, or construction. Something needs to be done to jumpstart the economy in the region immediately—this also holds true for virtually all of Armenia except Yerevan, especially villages along state borders. There needs to be millions of dollars of investments made in Armenia—millions have already been made as we know but the funding up until now has not nearly been enough. Armenia has huge manufacturing capabilities—there are arguably hundreds of abandoned factories throughout the country to demonstrate this. Trade across state boundaries also needs to increase drastically.

A recent poll shows that 77 percent of people between the ages of 16-30 want to leave Armenia. I’m sure the percentage is just as high for people in Karabagh. People need to live here, and the youth need to stay. A lot more opportunity exists than before in Yerevan mainly but something needs to be done to prevent the current generation from leaving. Otherwise the country will be mostly depopulated in 20 years time at the rate things are going.

Armenians worldwide have lots of work to do to save Karabagh and Armenia. In my opinion they are not really doing much about its future and long-term sustainability. Everyone makes excuses, mostly social and cultural it seems, to not do the work that needs to be done, as Armenians can’t seem to get along with each other anywhere in the globe. But we have only one country, one nation that exists today. It should not be taken for granted, and its borders should not be considered forever permanent. Armenians more than ever need to work together, and vigorously at that, to secure its country’s place in the global community as a leading nation with strong industrial output as well as a land with a rich, cultural legacy that promotes active tourism. The latter thankfully is happening now but not the former. But it has to if Armenia and Karabagh—which must finally unite as soon as possible—is going to get anywhere. There’s too much at stake.

FYI--There is a new petition aimed to force the authorities of Armenia and Nagorno Karabagh to address the socioeconomic situation in the Lachin region, which is incidentally now known as Kashatagh. Go here to sign online.

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Anonymous Onnik Krikorian said...
The population of the town of Lachin, now renamed Berdzor, is 2,200 according to the 2005 census. There are believed to be around 5-7,000 people in the entire Kashatagh region, including Lachin, although the 2005 census says there are 9,800. Most people, including officials speaking privately, in the town of Lachin put the entire population of Kashatagh at not more than 6,000.

Blogger nazarian said...
Perhaps the issues can be resolved if the Armenian products are distributed abroad. If there is demand then the supply side will be easier to resolve. The problems the businesses face are not usually about not being able to produce things but being unable to sell their products at profit.

I think that's how Spyurk can help revitilize the towns and villages outside Yerevan and it seems that that's what the Armenian government wants to do as well as witnessed by the distribution of the basket of goodies at the hayastan-Spyurk conference in September.

But when you look at the actual monetary policy with the dram exchange rate, you see that it's almost impossible to export anything from Armenia profitably. Low productivity rates don't help either.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

From what you write the situation is pretty bad. It appears that if unchecked Armenians in Artsakh are headed for a failed state despite what officials say. This issue needs an immediate Pan-Armenian response. But not like the aimless 3rd Armenie-Diaspora Conference that recently concluded.

Tragically, if this trend continues, in 25 years Armenia will be reduced to the city of Yerevan and not much else.

By the way where does this petition appear?? Who are the organizers?? Any related link would be helpful.


Blogger Christian Garbis said...
You can sign the petition for Armenian authorities to address the situation in Kashatagh by going to the following Web address:

There is no information on the site as far as I know about who the coalition organizers are, but there is an updated list of all petition signers to the present. For more information, send an email to:

Anonymous Anonymous said...
Why would anyone invest in Karabakh?

I'm not being sarcastic -- it's a serious question.

The local market is tiny and poor, so presumably an investor would be investing in an export industry.

But getting stuff in and out is ridiculously difficult. There's no rail link, and the road takes you only to Armenia. Our hypothetical export industry would have to send its goods out by truck to Armenia, then to Georgia, thence by boat from Pot'i to the world. Not very encouraging.

Then there's the political situation. Will there be another war? Will Karabakh be Armenian, Azeri, independent? This uncertainty is tremendously unattractive to potential investors.

Going to the RNK website, I see that there has been only one large investment in Karabakh since 1999: the purchase of Karabakh Telecom for $15 million. Otherwise, all investments have been $2 million or less, which is pretty tiny even in Karabakh. And five of the top six investments have been by diasporids. It's not very encouraging.

Most likely outcome: Karabakh will continue to bleed people, especially young people. The economy will consist largely of tourism, the government, the military, and a few farmers and herdsmen scraping out a living at subsistence level.

Doug M.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
A certain Doug M. asks,

"Why would one invest in Karabakh?"

I don't know Doug, maybe someone who values people over profits?

Believe or not, it's been tried before and seems to work....


Anonymous Anonymous said...
No offense, Arapo, but even if I "value people over profits" -- whatever that means -- why would I value the people in Karabakh more than the people in, say, Gyumri or Vanadzor?

I'm not taking a side here, I'm just making a prediction: unless something big changes, RNK's economy is going nowhere.

I'd be happy to be wrong about this.

Doug M.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
Here's a story.

My wife is from Germany, and her family lives in a small town near the old East/West border. The town was in a corner of West Germany that protruded into the East, so it was a cul-de-sac, and a little hard to reach.

So from the 1960s onward, the West German government subsidized this town, and others like it. Industries were given big tax breaks. Hospitals and schools were built to make them more attractive. Small villages had rail stops and big, wide roads leading into them. Basically, the government did everything possible to keep these border enclaves populated.

Did it work? Sort of. For all government's efforts, the towns and villages tended to lose population slowly over time. On the other hand, it's clear that without the subsidies, they would have simply disappeared. So the policies were a success in that sense.

What does this tell us about Lachin/Kashatagh? Well, the situation there is much worse. Armenia is a poorer country than Germany, the terrain is much more rugged, and of course there's the political uncertainty.

So, even if government does everything it can, the region will probably continue to lose population. The best government can do is to slow the bleeding.

-- Note that it makes no difference from a military point of view whether the corridor is populated or not. In fact, from a purely military POV, fewer civilians are better.

But, of course, it does make a difference from a political point of view.

Doug M.

Anonymous Jason said...
I was glad to have the chance to finally visit Karabagh, during a fall vacation trip to Armenia with my wife and one-year old son. It was especially great to travel to Karabagh with Garo, since I first visited Armenia with him in 2000.

Garo’s entry makes it sound as if I was disappointed with Stepanakert, which is not entirely true. The city was consistently described to me as being totally immaculate and reconstructed, so I was expecting almost a surreal city.

Instead the city reminded me of an old Yerevan, with all of the cracks in the sidewalk and old buildings one might expect. This is not to say, however, that I was disappointed with the city or the people of this heroic and historic place.

Like Garo, I was surprised by how few people we saw during our trip, in Lachin, in Stepanakert, and on the roads, although the weather was not great and the peak tourist season was just ending.

I also want to mention that Garo and I found the new edition of the Stone Garden guide to Armenia and Karabagh to be very informative during this trip. In fact, I referred to the book on a daily basis throughout my vacation for recommendations, background on sites, phone numbers, and maps.

Although I am not one to visit vanks, Gandzasar made the entire trip worthwhile, and the pristine forests surrounding the monastery were absolutely beautiful. We can only hope that courageous leaders like Der Hovanes and the Karabagh officials can do a better job than the Armenian government has done to prevent unsustainable logging of this national treasure.

Another highlight of the journey to Karabagh was a stopover at Karahunj, and seeing the Armenian Eagles flying over the nearby highway in Syunik. Although the eagle is a national symbol in the US, I have never seen one in flight so seeing them in Armenia was unforgettable (see for more about Birds of Armenia).