Melik Ayvazyan, the Mayor of the village of Odzun in Lori Marz, states that only 100 of the village’s 1,000 hectares of arable land have undergone a fall planting.
The elderly residents of Odzun gathered in the village square explained that back in Soviet times Odzun had at least 1,239 hectares of irrigable land for planting and that if you added the 150 hectares of fruit trees that Mayor Melik Ayvazyan cultivated during the early years of his term the village wound up with a total of 1,400 hectares of arable land, not 1,000. All this means that most of the labor force in Odzun, with a population of 5,380, making it the largest village in Lori Marz, remains unemployed. This is also the true picture of the village’s social condition. When asked as to why yearly fall plantings in Odzun remain sub-par, the mayor, in way of a response, handed me a copy of the Lori Marz newspaper (Issue 90; Nov 17, 2007) with an article entitled, “ Since the soil is so hard even agricultural equipment can’t plough it for fall wheat planting. Thus the planting has been delayed.” This is the reason given to the paper by Volodya Buniatyan, Department Head of the Lori Regional Council’s Division of Agriculture and Ecology.
It’s a fact that even spring plantings in Odzun rarely occur. The fact is that the socially vulnerable tillers of the land don’t get a favorable return from the soil they work due to drought, hail storms, and a thousand other factors. There hasn’t been any government assistance as well. Thus, due to poor economic conditions, the villagers are no longer in a position to work the land. In this regard Mayor Ayvazyan stated that, “ In 2007 the village of Odzun lost 200 million drams in damage due to hail storms. For this reason I have petitioned Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan to deploy hail buster cannons here otherwise we’d refuse to pay out damage-related compensation.”
The land remaining uncultivated is also negatively impacting the community’s budget that had forecasted revenues of 95 million drams in 2007, an amount that included 24 million in governmental credits. Land taxes were projected to amount to 32 million drams, property taxes 5 million drams and taxes on leased lands, 1,200,000 drams. Up till today the Community Council has realize 38 million drams in revenue of which 20 million is credits from the ROA State Budget.
Private tax revenues were projected at 64 million drams for the 2007 budget of which 18 million has been collected. Thus with just one month to go till year’s end the Community Council has only realized 29% in private taxes. Some 4 million drams of the budget is allocated to salaries and taxpayers still owe 32.5 million. Only 14 million of the projected 32 million in land taxes has been collected. This is further evidenced by the non-performance of the Community Council’s 15 member staff. Only the most skillful of conjurers could imagine the methods used by the Council when it comes to collecting taxes. Loris Aghvanyan, an Odzun resident stated that, “One method of tax collection is for the school principals to hand over to the Council the 3,000 drams students pay for each textbook at the beginning of the school year in Odzun’s two secondary schools. These sums are entered in the budget and registered as land taxes paid by the parents of the students. Afterwards, the Council deposits these sums in the bank as charitable funds. In this way my land tax debts to the Council have been paid in advance up till the year 2020. And I’m not the only one like this in the village.” A Council employee who preferred to remain anonymous stated that, “ Even the wages of Council employees are considered to be taxes. This benefits both the Council and the students and their parents.”
What’s even more comical is the fact that Mayor Ayvazyan goes on a luxury-spending spree at a time when the budget is in such a precarious state. In 2007 he allocated 1.9 million drams on personal transportation expenses, 500,000 on business trips, 250,000 to refill his cell phone, 500,000 to heat a few rooms in the Council building, 1 million to wine and dine dignitaries and arriving officials and 597,000 for the Council’s utility bills.
As Mayor Ayvazyan proudly boasts, 8.4 million drams from the budget has been allocated to cover social expenditures including hailstorm damage and other public assistance. It became apparent that the mayor has the vote of the aldermen to make these expenditures. We attempted to clarify the position of the Councilmen in this regard. Councilman Ashot Tzavaryan responded that, “ I don’t sit in at the Council meetings and haven’t a clue as to what they do. They invited me to one of the meetings but I never went.” Councilman Artur Tamanyan also said that, “ We went to inspect the fields damaged by the hailstorms, whose field suffered the most damage and provided them with assistance. Councilman Arev Hovhannisyan avoided talking with us.
The villagers first heard about assistance funds being allocated from the budget to the Community Council through contact with us. Viktor Davtyan, the first person we encountered along the way, stated that, “My 4,300 hectares lie within the hailstorm zone but we haven’t received any type of aid.” We were even more amazed when we took a look at the official list of those residents who supposedly received such aid. According to the registry Odzun resident Gagik Davityan received 72,000 drams during the months of September and October. When asked about this he curtly replied, that’s news to me. Armen Dzavaryan, the brother of Councilman Ashot Dzavaryan, who is down in the registry as having received 75,000 drams stated, “Why should they give me a cent if no one else has gotten anything.” 75,000 drams is also shown to have been given to Armineh Dzavaryan, the sister of Councilman Dzvaryan. We weren’t able to locate her in the village during our visit. The list also shows that the family of Valik Davityan received 73,000 drams but he told us he hadn’t received anything. When we tried to get him to confirm this he got hot under the collar and blurted out, “I have nothing further to say.” We learnt that Robert Khechumyan, who is reported to have received 70,000 drams in assistance, hasn’t resided in Odzun for quite a while. The registry shows that a certain Vardush Mnatsakanyan received 11,000 drams. It turns out that there were two people with that name once residing in the village but that both have since died. Finally, we learnt that most of the people included in the registry with lands falling within the 2007 hailstorm damage zone, had neither cultivated those lands nor were they the village’s most socially needy souls.
It’s pointless to talk about the transparency of the state of the budget in Odzun. When answering our questions regarding the budget the villagers replied with apparent indifference or with fear in their voices. No one that we met in Odzun had a clue about the 5 million drams allocated in 2007 by the Council for environmental expenditures or how the money was spent. For the past ten years the village, its Council and the budget have been the personal fiefdom of Mayor Melik Ayvazyan. One of the elderly Odzun residents gathered in the village square, who fearing repercussions requested that his name not be mentioned, stated that, “Melik deals with the budget like a cow in a vegetable patch. As he munches away, he also tramples underfoot.”