An interview with Ernest Ghevondyan, Head of the Kashatagh Administration
On March 12 of this year, Ernest Ghevondyan was appointed Head of the Kashatagh Administration.
As Hetq has reported earlier, the last few years have seen increasing rates of emigration in the region and the population has declined dramatically. The Kashatagh region includes three former provinces ofAzerbaijan– Lachin, Zangelan and Ghubatli. Today, seven provinces formerly inAzerbaijanare under the control of Karabakh forces. These regions, which used to be inArmeniahistorically and were liberated during the war, are now populated by refugees fromAzerbaijanand people who have resettled here from various parts ofArmenia. Over the last few months, the government of Karabakh has begun to focus more attention on these regions and a few new provisions have been made.
- On May 18, Karabakh President Arkady Ghukasyan was at the 15 th anniversary celebration of the opening of the Lachin corridor and said in his speech, “Don't believe the fairy tale that Kashatagh will be returned to Azerbaijan – that is not going to happen. We did not liberate this area only to return it later. We must restore and develop Kashatagh.” What are the main objectives for this region?
- Our objective is resettlement. But how can you resettle in a region that has nothing? This means that first you have to build roads, houses, schools, water pipelines, medical centers, provide electricity, have industries and processing plants. All this is necessary for the people to work, watch television and send their children to school. People must lead a life of dignity. We will present a program, including how many schools should be built or renovated, how many children there are in each village and how much money is needed to do all that. There are only three hospitals in the whole region today and even they can't really be considered hospitals. There is only one medical center in a 200 km stretch of land. We need to have first aid centers, normal buildings for the hospitals with good equipment and trained personnel.
- You mentioned all that needs to be done, but only a minute part of that is possible with the budget at Kashatagh's disposal.
- Of course, it is impossible to do all that today with only the state budget. I think that resettlement in Kashatagh is not only the responsibility of the Karabakh government, though they must share in a large part of it. Karabakh has few resources available; we need the help of all Armenians. Armenians need to understand that people need to live on land in order to claim it as their own. Yes, we all know that this is historically Armenian land, our churches here testify to that, although a large part of them have been ruined by Azeris who tried to wipe out traces of our presence here. This land was in their hands for a few decades, now it's ours again and we need to repopulate it quickly, so that it can finally become Armenian. I don't see any alternative to resettlement; there is no other way to keep this land with us Armenians.
- Refugees are coming to Armenia from Iraq nowadays, and people are returning from Russia. People want to come here from the Ararat valley. Do you have housing here or living conditions for people to stay? What provisions have you made for those who will settle? What do you have to offer them – loans, livestock, land?
- There are some provisions made by the Karabakh government, of course, but they are unfortunately not enough to lead to major resettlement here. There are no financial means to build houses. We give each settler 6,000 square meters of land and allocate a half-ruined house, which must be rebuilt to become a home. It is wrong to renovate these old houses because the Azeris built them on a foundation higher than the freezing zone. The soil freezes in the winter and the walls of the houses expand by about eleven percent, causing cracks to appear and making the houses unfit for living. So new houses must be built. Yes, there are provisions, but they are not enough by themselves. We need serious solutions and fast.
- So one can say that there has not really been a resettlement program here yet?
- No, one cannot say that. The program exists, but there are no finances. The Ministry of Construction has been assigned the task of mapping all the roads and calculating renovation costs. Similar assignments have been given for schools and electrical supply. But these are far from realization because we always come across the same problem – lack of finances.
- There are tens of villages in the region with no electricity; people have been living this way for more than ten years. Do you have an estimate of the necessary sum in order to supply the whole region with electricity?
- I cannot say, that work is still in progress. But I know that one kilometer of high-voltage electricity wires cost 1.5 million drams. But that's not the only thing – most residential areas also have problems with drinking and irrigation water.
- There are families in villages that have a large number of animals – 15-20 cows, for example. But those people cannot make full use of their dairy products and meat. Are there any programs in this regard?
- Yes, there is a program, and a specific person who must realize it. Ashot Poghosyan, our compatriot fromNew York, is going to build a slaughterhouse near thevillageofNoragyugh. The meat will be processed here to make ham and sausages. Two areas in Kashatagh will have animal collection zones, where people can bring in their livestock and get money in return. I think that will encourage animal husbandry and there will be more livestock in the region.
- But why don't the villages in Kashatagh have their own budgets to this day?
- At first, this was for objective reasons. People had chosen village heads, but did not have a budget or a stamp. Now, 80 percent of the village heads have no administrative skills and are not even literate. They do not know how that they need to formulate a budget, keep accounts, collect taxes to form the community budget which would then cover the village's expenses.
- Perhaps there has been the lack of a central decision?
- There has been a government decree, which I am now implementing. I am also penalizing those village heads who don't provide documentation, so that at least next year they will have budgets. At this point, only cities have budgets and, naturally, they cannot manage with their own finances only so they receive grants from the government. Village heads have no deposits at this stage because they have no accounts.
- Isn't it risky to start collecting taxes from villagers today?
- I think this is a serious problem, but one shouldn't look at it that way. Villagers should understand that their taxes help the country survive. Villagers should gradually learn to pay the state their taxes. I think that they are capable of paying taxes to a certain extent.
- Don't you think that part of the emigration from Kashatagh is due to talk that it will be returned? That is to say, don't you think psychological pressure causes people to think about leaving the region?
- I think that it is a factor, of course. This talk definitely affects people. I've told the President and Prime Minister that if we plan on returning any land then I must be aware of it, so that I can be accountable to the people. Both the President and Prime Minister have emphasized that we are not going to return any land, we are going to resettle them. We must all be convinced that this is a part of our homeland, and one can never talk about giving up any part of their homeland.
- There are many different organizations that are implementing different programs. Isn't it possible to coordinate them?
- There are truly many organizations doing work in the region and that is very important. They are all having an effect on the residential areas. The Tufenkian Foundation is reestablishing vineyards, the Monte Melkonyan foundation had opened a cultural center in the village of Karegah and is providing villagers with cows on an “as is” basis, the Armenian Relief Society is building kindergartens and financing them, Agape is doing something else and so on.
Karabakh Telecom donated an ambulance to theBerdzorHospitalrecently and then donated a garbage truck to the city. This year they plan to build ten apartments. We have decided to invite to Berdzor all the factories owners and businessmen who would like to work here, so that we can make decisions collectively and realize programs. This is everyone's job; we all have to do something here, so that the state resettlement program is a success. We are condemned to doing this, there is no alternative.