by Naira Bulghadaryan
In the Armenian province of Lori, 58-year-old sculptor Bogdan Hovhannisian connects his homeland's history to those outside it through his craft.
A khachkar (stone cross) he carved honoring those from his town who died during fighting in Karabakh has been erected outside Saint Mariam Astvatsatsin church in Vanadzor.
A popular khachkar artist, Hovhannisian has sculpted works that now stand in London, Los Angeles, and other locales distant and different from the Vanadzor studio where he unleashes figures from the rock that holds them.
Hovhannisian is the son of a long line of masons who mined the rocky slopes of the beautiful Lori province for nature's own materials to use as the product for their inspiration. The famous sculptor in Lori is also a folklore collector and singer; he collects the songs of Lori and passes them on to his students at Vanadzor Teachers' Training Institute.
A visitor to his studio finds about 120 sketches for works the artist hopes to create. "I need 300 years to realize all these," the sculptor says.
Time is a relative concept for the 282,000 residents of Lori, known for their great hospitality and simplicity.
If the sculptor needs 300 years to achieve his art, then what is 20 years or more for seeing the recovery of a region ruined by natural calamity and political collapse? For it has been two decades since Lori—and its provincial center Vanadzor, home to about 100,000—was a leading industrial center of the Soviet Union.
It has been that long, too, since Lori suffered—less notably than Gyumri, but severely—as the deadly 1988 earthquake had its epicenter in Spitak, in the Lori province.
The Lori province is the third largest of Armenia by territory, after Gegharkunik and Syunik; it is second after Yerevan by its population. Despite the existing problems, those in leadership in Lori consider it to be a region making headway not only in terms of its industry, mining and agriculture, but also as an area becoming more attractive for tourism, capitalizing on its resource of natural beauty.
About 1,600 families were left without homes in the Lori province after December 7, 1988. Since then, 160 multiple-family residential buildings have been reconstructed—a rate of only eight per year. The rebuilding is taking place in Lori villages from state budget allocations. Edik Hovsepian, advisor to the provincial governor, agrees that the pace is slow and, if continued at this pace, it will take another 10 years to provide homeless villagers with permanent housing. ("Homeless" refers to those who have taken residence either in temporary housing or moved in with relatives—it does not mean that there are families living "on the street.") A government commission headed by Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian has been set up in this connection by the order of President Serge Sargsyan. The commission is looking for ways to solve Lori's housing problem.
In Vanadzor, 116 families still remain without homes as a consequence of the earthquake. By a decision of the Vanadzor city council, two half-finished buildings will be completed for 32 families by the end of this year.
Alvard Saribekian's family is one of those who lost a home because of the disaster. "A few years after the earthquake, our building was demolished. We had nowhere to go. They (the state) gave us a makeshift lodging and we have lived here since 1995," Alvard says. She lives in a tiny temporary shelter along with her mother and young daughter.
According to data provided by head of the Housing Department at the Vanadzor Municipality Ara Mayilian, a total of 5,407 families got apartments in Vanadzor after 1988, of whom 571 bought them with the aid of the government's apartment supplemental purchase certificates.
Eleven buildings have been constructed in Vanadzor in recent years at the expense of the U.S. Red Cross alone and 36 buildings with 1,604 apartments have been fortified. A total of 73 apartments have been purchased for Vanadzor residents from state budget funds, and 35 families have been moved to community-owned apartments.
Lori's border villages (near Azerbaijan) have suffered less from earthquake-related matters than from the social problems related to war displacement.
Despite the rate of agricultural development, life in such villages is far from being at pace with progress in less isolated areas. Gubernatorial advisor Hovsepian says that the governor's office has initiated development projects for several border villages. In the next two years, schools in seven villages will be repaired and each local family will be provided with a milk cow. This will be done with the assistance of the Hayastan All-Armenian Fund.
"The program is aimed at preventing the depopulation of the villages," the governor's advisor says.
Jiliza, on the Georgian border, is part of the program. "It is almost half empty," says Hovsepian. Azeris formerly lived in Jiliza; then Armenians from Azerbaijan came to replace them. The population now is only about 200. Its school enrolment—from 60 students in 2004 to only 40 last year—shows the decline that provincial authorities are trying to stop. One of the odd consequences of border life here is that residents of the village receive electricity from Georgia, not from Armenia.
The government of Armenia had ordered the allocation of 130,000 euros (equivalent to nearly $1,000 for each current resident) for building an electricity line. But as Hovsepian notes, the amount of money is not enough to see the plan through, so Armenia's Electricity Networks and the Armenian Social Investment Fund (World Bank) will allocate additional funding.
The problems of Jiliza are not limited to electricity alone. The road leading to the village was impassable until last year. The only road linking the villagers with the rest of Armenia was through neighboring Georgia, which required documents for border crossing. Even in order to reach the Armenian Khorakert monastery, residents of Jiliza had to travel a small path leading to Georgia, which, according to Hovsepian, "also served as an occasion for conflicts." The motor road leading to the village was repaired last year at the expense of 850 million< drams ($2.8 million) allocated from the state budget.
Armenia's "Third City"
About 125 kilometers north of the capital, Yerevan, Vanadzor is Armenia's third-largest city. During Soviet times it was called Kirovakan, named for Sergey Kirov, a Stalinist whose assassination in 1934 sparked the "great purge" of Josef Stalin's ignominious reign. Before the Bolsheviks took over, the town had been called Gharakilisa, a name of Azeri origin meaning "black church."
In 1918 the people of Gharakilisa fought a victorious battle against the enemy during the Russian-Turkish war. The battle took place in the area of the so-called black church, and after the victory it became a sacred place for the townsfolk.
At the beginning of this year the province's leadership decided to set up a memorial to perpetuate the victory of their forefathers—a basalt structure that, deputy governor of Lori Suren Darbinian says is "for centuries to come."
By any name, Vanadzor (literally, "the gorge of Van") is, perhaps as much as any Armenian city, evidence of the lingering impact of political upheaval and social change.
As recently as a few years ago, visitors to Vanadzor could still smell chemicals in the air, as if the sky had rained bleach and left a sharp odor as the only reminder of the city's former industrial might.
Before it closed when the Soviet Union fell apart, Vanadzor's giant chemical plant pumped out 2,000 tons of product a day. For many years the plant lay dormant, a smelly icon to the USSR's unsustained glory.
The last 10 years have been a period of constant efforts to revitalize the plant, as it was reopened and reclosed several times. The final reoperation took place in April 2007.
Alexander Snegiryov, director of the chemical complex, now called Vanadzor Chimprom, recalls the days when "60 boxcars of product used to be taken out of here daily."
Whereas the Soviet giant used to provide 5,000 jobs, the plant today employs about 800, with an average monthly wage of 90,000 drams (about $270). The volume of production cannot compete with the past. Over the past several months, Chimprom has produced about 5,000 tons of carbide and 3,500 tons of artificial stone. (The products of the chemical complex are sold in Indian, African, United Arab Emirates and Georgian markets.)
Snegiryov, optimistic as his predecessors over the years, hopes to expand into ammonium production. "In that case, the number of employees will increase to 1,400-1,500," he says.
Despite the fits and starts that have failed to revive the province's largest factory, production is up in Lori. In the first six months of this year, the region turned out $39.5 million in goods, with more than 70 percent of it represented by the work of ACP copper-smelting, in Alaverdi—north of Vanadzor, about 12 miles south of the Georgian border.
And, as with other mining operations in the southern province of Syunik, the northern ACP plant has proved a mixed blessing. It has brought jobs to the area, but it has also brought health concerns, as its scrubbers release toxic chemicals into the air. Cases of respiratory disorders and abnormal births have increased in Alaverdi since the plant re-started in 1996. The plant turned out 55,000 tons of copper a year during its Soviet heyday (compared to 7,000 tons last year). But the decline of the USSR, plus pressure from Armenia's nascent environmental movement, forced the plant's closure in 1989.
Since ACP's reopening, its 100-meter-tall smokestack that dominates the Alaverdi skyline has belched toxins, including arsenic, into the air at up to 20 times the amount allowed by law. Against loud outcry, the plant— which is the city of 22,000's largest employer, with 700 jobs—has been allowed to continue operation, and has been given until next year to bring its pollution into compliance with state health standards.
Led by ACP's controversial output, production in Lori is up 111 percent over 2006.
Head of the Financial and Social-Economic Development Department at the Lori Regional Governor's Office Sevak Hovhannisian places importance on Lori developing light industry, such as textiles.
Hovhannisian singles out the Vanadzor-based Gloria garment factory, as well as DavGar and Bazum firms. But he says they currently work at about 10 percent of their capacities and also have problems marketing their products.
(DavGar and Bazum are small clothing factories, employing 150 and 15 respectively. Both are located in Vanadzor, with products exported to Europe.)
Diaspora Armenian Christian Gelici, 37, moved to Vanadzor last year to try his luck in Armenian garment production.
"My grandfathers lived in Turkey from where in the 1960s they left for Holland. They were businessmen, involved in textile manufacturing in Turkey, which they also continued in Holland," he says.
He says he intends to develop textile production in Vanadzor and expand it throughout Armenia.
Gelici was brought to Vanadzor by advisor to the Lori governor Hovsepian. Their communication via the Internet set the beginning for their practical contacts and in August 2007 Gelici came to Vanadzor.
"It is costly to ship products by air, but from Lori it is easy to export products on trucks via Georgia," the Dutch-Armenian says. In Vanadzor he met with representatives of the local textile manufacture but found it difficult to work with them. Instead of relying on existing companies, Gelici set up the Armenian-German WKS-Armenia LTD, which temporarily operates in the premises of the Gloria garment factory. Gloria factory was built in 1997, unlike others that were re-tooled after the Soviet collapse.
Since February his company has been producing jackets, trousers and other types of clothing, exporting the products to Germany and the Netherlands. He employs 200, but intends to hire more workers after constructing a production shop corresponding to European standards.
"I will involve 1,000 more people every year, paying each an average monthly wage of 300 euros," the businessman says, presenting his plans for the next five years.
While enterprises such as chemical production and garment making are trying to come back in Lori, the province also relies on nature's oldest of products, dairy.
In the Lori region of Tashir, more than 30 entrepreneurs are engaged in milk and cheese production. (Armenia's most popular cheese—the white, salty, pungent variety that is served on virtually every table—is called "Lori.") A project of the United States Department of Agriculture a few years ago assisted dairy producers in Lori in methods of packaging, distributing and marketing their products.
The Social Struggle
The unemployment rate of Lori is officially marked at 9.8 percent. But, consistent with the situation republic-wide, figures only reflect those who register with employment centers for help in finding jobs. Plus, according to Armenia social service standards, anyone who owns property is not considered unemployed. The actual number of residents without reliable income is probably at least double the official count.
While in villages people are mainly engaged in farming, urban residents—especially middle-aged—find it more difficult to get jobs. Some people in urban areas are involved in educational, medical and other state-paid establishments, while others turn to the private sector for jobs, or remain jobless.
It is a difficult task for Lori graduates to find jobs, no matter what qualification they have.
Graduating from the Teachers' Training Institute this year, Tatev Matevosian is facing difficulty finding a job she is qualified for. She is a teacher of Armenian language and literature by training, but there is practically no demand for her area of interest in the schools of the province.
"Everyone knows that there is no available place, and they demand something in exchange for employment," says Tatev, implying "connections" and bribes needed to find a job in her area of training.
According to the data provided by head of the Education Department at the Lori Governor's Office Mayis Khachatrian, the region's schools have few vacancies for teachers: "The recruitment of new personnel takes place when current employees either retire or quit jobs for some personal reasons, which does not exceed one percent."
There are many graduates who find themselves in the same situation as Tatev—they have a diploma but face redundancy on the labor market. It is believed that less than one out of five graduates find jobs according to their specialties.
There are three universities and five colleges (all except one are state-run) in Vanadzor alone. About 1,000 students graduate from several faculties of these institutions every year—from music, arts, literature to construction engineering. Six institutes of higher learning operate in the whole region of Lori—four state-run and two private. The total number of students in the region this year is 6,620.
There are 164 secondary schools in Lori, with 38,758 pupils and 4,085 teachers.
The salary of teachers is decided by the quantity of class hours—6,000 drams (about $18) per class hour. An average number of class hours for a teacher is six to eight, making his or her monthly salary 36,000-48,000 drams (about $110-$150).
The social status of medical specialists in Lori is considered far from satisfactory. The province has 420 doctors and a medical staff of 990, who despite the 20-percent pay raise implemented by the government this year still do not consider their salaries enough for a worthy life.
Senior nurse at the Vanadzor Maternity Hospital Bella Jaghatspanian receives a salary of 21,000 (about $63) a month. Her family consists of four members and, luckily, she says, all have jobs.
"The person who has set the level of salaries should make a calculation and see whether a person can live off this money, as there is a discrepancy between the amount of the salary and basic monthly expenses," she says.
Lori has six hospitals, five polyclinics and one blood transfusion station, 20 rural medical out-patient clinics, 10 hygienic anti-epidemic centers. A psychiatric-neurological hospital is also in Vanadzor, with an average of about 20 patients.
Church and state
As the Armenian Apostolic Church has sought to regain its place in Armenian life and undo the damage of communism on a Christian nation, Lori has been a target of rebuilding. Over the past years, old churches were renovated and new ones built.
The region of Lori has eight towns and 105 villages where there are currently 21 churches with 11 clergy serving. Two large churches have been built in Vanadzor in the past five years. Saint Sargis was built by the Holy See of Etchmiadzin and Saint Grigor Narekatsi was built through donations from U.S. Diasporans Sarkis and Ruth Bedevian. Churches were repaired also in other towns of the province. Church construction in Lori continues—Kobairi church on the road approaching Alaverdi was repaired. The Sanahin church complex in the village of the same name is currently under repair.
The Armenian Apostolic Church has been active also in Lori not only by preaching and reconstructing, but also giving attention to the province's socially vulnerable families, regularly providing them with aid and often organizing summer rest for children from poor families at the Tsitsernak (Swallow) camp in Vanadzor.
During the Soviet years, Azeris lived in 20 villages of the Lori province. They left their birthplaces after the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict started in 1988, and now Azeri graveyards (with headstones facing toward Mecca) are reminders of cultures separated.
The Vanadzor chapter of the Helsinki Citizens' Assembly office restored an Azeri cemetery in Nor Khachakap (formerly the Azeri village of Saral), two years ago. The cemetery is now being preserved by Armenian residents who, themselves, fled from Azerbaijan in a sort of undeclared village exchange. The "dead are not at fault," said one villager. "What do they have to do with relations between the living?"
It is not only cultural peculiarities that distinguish Lori from other provinces.
Politically speaking, Lori has a decidedly pro-opposition leaning.
Vanadzor is home to Artur Sakunts, one of Armenia's most fervent human rights activists who himself was arrested by authorities during last spring's clashes between opposition and government factions. The city itself, however, is run on nearly every level by officials connected to the ruling Republican Party of Armenia.
Still in 2003, voters in both Alaverdi and Vanadzor refused to elect members of the incumbent governor's family to parliament. The pro-opposition stance of Lori voters also continued during the latest parliamentary elections when Vanadzor and nearby villages voted an opposition member to parliament, rejecting the government protégé. The lawmakers voted in from the single-mandate constituency, including Vanadzor, the veteran parliamentarian Victor Dallakian, known as a consistent critic of the government and active legislator, who is currently the only MP not aligned with any faction in parliament.