In recent years, lack of cultivation has rendered 900 hectares of land in the village of Otzun barren. As to why they are not cultivating their own soil, forty of the villagers we interviewed told us, "There's nothing we can do; we're too poor." Otzun has 5,000 residents and 1,300 hectares of soil fit for agriculture. But only 150 acres were planted in the fall, and 200 acres in the spring, with potatoes and corn. There is a serious reason that villagers have stopped cultivating their soil. High crop yields, buying healthy seeds, fighting parasites, acquiring agricultural know-how as well as fuel and fertilizer, all cost money. "We need serious assistance from the government and the local authorities," explain the villagers. "They should give us long-term low-interest loans, and check to see what other difficulties we face, become a source of support for us, and then ask for taxes. We don't know where our taxes are going," the villagers said, disheartened.
As things have gotten worse, people have started to leave Otzun. "Of the men who can work, the only ones who stay are the ones who don't have money for transportation, " said Aram Aghvanyan, an elderly man who we met on the village's main road.
Melik Ayvazyan has been the community head, or village mayor, of Otzun for eleven years. He spoke with us about social and economic conditions in the village. When asked, he said that the budget revenues for 2006 amounted to 18 million drams. Then he summoned his assistant, who summoned Vahan Davtyan (known in Otzun as the brains behind Mayor Ayvazyan) to join the conversation. Davtyan corrected his boss's figure, lowering it to million drams. Saying he wished to provide a more exact figure, the assistant summoned the treasurer (Ayvazyan's uncle's wife) and asked her to bring the figures. She left and came back with figures regarding land tax and rent collection. We asked for the 2006 budget. The mayor and his assistant simultaneously informed us that the budget was locked in the community accountant's fire resistant safe, but that the accountant was not in the village, having gone to the statistical committee.
This interview revealed that the community leader has in practice ignored the responsibilities outlined in Article 34 of the Law on Local Self-Government-law, i.e. to draft a local budget, to implement it, and to send quarterly and yearly reports regarding budgetary matters and village expenses.
The citizens of Otzun have no information regarding their community budget. The villagers told us that the members of the committee of village elders are all "the mayor's men"; they just sign all the papers he gives them. The villagers, who interrupted each other to get their story out, would not tell us their names, out of fear of the community chief.
When we visited the village elders, we met Arev Hovhannisyan, the art teacher at the local school, who frankly admitted that she didn't know anything about the budget and that she had only participated two or three times in committee meetings.
The next day, we happened to run into community accountant Pavlik Noninyan. We managed to get him to talk about budget revenues, but he refused to talk about budget expenses, explaining that only the mayor was authorized to do so. We were similarly unable to learn anything about Otzun's budget in the Alaverdi treasury. "We have no desire to mess with Melik-do you know how nasty he is?" one of the workers at the treasury said.
Nevertheless, we managed to find out that the village of Otzun's planned revenues for 2006 are 79 million drams, of which 12 million drams are a subsidy from the government. Liquid revenues are at 66 million drams, of which 35million are from land tax, 12 million from income tax and 17million from rent payments on the land. For years, the community authorities have had serious problems collecting taxes.
Noninyan told us that the total budget deficit from past years is 200 million drams and the village is 24 million drams in debt, 13 million of which is for unpaid salaries.
Tax revenues remain unsatisfactory in 2006. As of May 1, only 11million drams had been collected, only 14% of the planned 79 million drams.
To ensure a good indicator for tax collection, the desperate community chief gives vouchers for land tax in exchange for the money collected for textbooks, tuition, and food from the students at Otzun's two schools and kindergarten. He then records the money as tax collected for land. And afterwards, he brags that in Otzun textbooks are free, art school is free, and kindergarten is free. The staff of the institutions on the village budget haven't received their salaries for a year. It is impossible to drive a car in the village, as the roads haven't been fixed in twenty years.
While Otzun and its residents try to escape poverty, Mayor Melik Ayvazyan continues to prosper. In the eleven years he has been in power, he has opened his own dairy processing plant, a flourmill, and Grura LLC, which provides bus transit from Otzun to Alaverdi, and he cultivates 40 hectares of the best soil in the village. He raises animals in his own farm complex, and bought a two-story building that had housed a local college. He had the building razed, and is currently building a luxury villa in its place.
Citizens of Otzun can go on for days about the Melik Ayvazyan's plundering. But they know that it's not his own brains or his own efforts alone that are making him rich. They understand that very well, but Melik (aka Alabash Melo) Ayvazyan keeps on laughing at them, and at the rest of the world as well.