by Julia Hakobyan
Administrative center: Gavar (population: 34,000)
Population: 238,000 (7.4 percent of republic's total population)
Education: 132 secondary schools (plus 14 music and art schools and 8 sports schools).
Healthcare: 8 hospitals, 34 polyclinics
Industry: Tourism, mining (gold, dolomite, sand, basalt, volcanic tuff), fishing (and one fish production factory).
Agriculture: Gegharkunik is an agricultural marz, but its inclement climate is favorable for cultivating few crops such as potato, grain and cabbage. Not only its rural population but also a large number of its urban residents (45 percent) have agricultural lands.
Sevan resident Eduard Gevorgian is 27, and emblematic of the optimism inspired by long days of warm sun and sparkling waters and Lake Sevan beaches annually growing more crowded and more developed.
Except for so many building sites in Yerevan, there is no place that shows some sign of economic revival in Armenia more than the republic's primary tourist destination, the jewel of the country, and certainly of the Gegharkunik province.
"When I was younger I wanted to live in Yerevan," says Gevorgian. "But now I think Sevan town too has all chances to be prosperous. We have a great advantage, our beautiful lake."
At a college in the town of Sevan (population 41,000), Gevorgian is studying the business of tourism. He is also paying to learn about tourism by making a living off it—his $120 per year tuition comes from money he makes as a bartender in the May to October season at Sail restaurant.
From roadside vendors selling boiled corn for about 40 cents an ear, to two dollar straw hat merchants, to the $150 a night Harsnaqar Hotel, Armenia's "sea" is a single-season employer for much of the Gegharkunik population.
Within the past five or so years, tourism around the lake has gone from the left-over Soviet idea of rest houses designated according to profession, to a competitive industry.
Pop Hayrapetian has lived through the previous system to see the potential only now starting to be realized by the natural resource.
Hayrapetian is editor of "Sevan", believed to be the oldest newspaper in Armenia, founded in 1939. The Town Council pays 700,000 drams (about $1,400) a year to publish 500 copies of the weekly. It is the only regular newspaper in the province.
Hayrapetian, reporter, editor, designer, printer, says publishing good news about the area will attract the kind of attention needed for young people such as Gevorgian to fulfill their hopes.
"We need better links with Yerevan newspapers," Hayrapetian says. "The capital's mass media pays little attention to regional problems."
And, despite the province's unique attraction, the problems of Gegharkunik are common: unemployment, immigration, few incentives for the next generation. The region is our home
In 1830, Armenian emigrants from Bayaset (Western Armenia) founded the administrative center, Gavar and it became one of Soviet Armenia's industrial centers.
But like every Soviet-era boomtown, Gavar industry went bust with the demise of the USSR, leaving shells of factories either closed or operating at 10 to 30 percent of their capacity.
Today in Gavar a plant producing building materials and a food processing plant operate not far from the ruins of the Urartian fortress devoted to the pagan Armenian god Khaldi.
The Hotel Khaldi stands like an exhibit to its previous glory, empty nearly all the year.
The hotel's director Samvel Zangezurian recalls when the hotel's 200 beds were filled by visitors from Russia, Georgia and Yerevan, who were coming to the province on business trips to visit its factories.
For four dollars a night a guest gets a room with no water nor heat nor air conditioning—a far stretch from the lake-side attractions of waterslides and cabanas and luxury restaurants.
Zangezurian's wife Anahit Kalashian is a math teacher in one of the four schools of the town. After her job she comes to the hotel and works to help Samvel maintain what is left of the deteriorating building.
Anahit makes about $20 a month. Samvel's income depends on whether there are guests in the hotel. The family is supported by the salaries of two sons who have businesses in Yerevan.
The only sign of life in the once-bustling hotel is the "Kyavar" TV station located on the first floor.
About 70 percent of the Gegharkunik population watch the six-hour-per-day broadcast that includes a US Embassy-State Department program "The Region is Our Home".
The station itself has little ability to report about its region. It has no car for travel, and digital equipment like the stations in Yerevan use is little but a dream in Gavar.
"We have to produce more interesting news," says reporter Grigor Dashtoyan. "There is no cinema in our town. We have a theater but no performances. Armenian pop stars do not often come to our place and the only entertainment that Gavar people have is television."
The station's main source of income is from a public access program called "They Live Near Us". For 15,000 drams ($30) a person can go on air and propagandize. The program reached its peak during elections, when candidates and party affiliates bought airtime to advance their platforms. Occasionally poets, writers and historians have also paid for broadcasts.
Dashtoyan, who was trained in Yerevan by InterNews agency, makes about $30 a month. He says that's okay for now, because he lives with his parents. But he worries how he'll manage when he starts a family.
Despite the financial difficulties Dashtoyan says he is not going to leave his town. He says that, slowly, life is getting better in the province.
"Before 1997 there was no television in the province," he says. "Until recent times we did not have computers. Now we have both. If young people like me will leave our town there is no hope that the old generation alone can restore it."
The price of progress
On the northwestern edge of Gegharkunik province, progress has meant isolation for the villages of Tsovaghyugh and Semyenovka.
Last April, work was completed to open the Yerevan-Sevan-Dilijan Tunnel, a passageway that links the forests of Dilijan with Lake Sevan—taking about an hour off travel time between Armenia's popular tourist destinations.
But the opening of the tunnel (digging began in 1970) meant the closing of traffic along the old highway where villagers such as Martin Avetisian, 58, stood at road's edge and sold fish and berries to passersby.
"Collecting one kilogram of sea-buckthorn (a berry prominent around the lake) takes us three to four hours a day," Avetisyan says. "We could sell it for 500 drams ($1). It was not much money, but it was enough for buying bread and vegetables."
Now, Avetisyan's highway market has bypassed him, and he must take his harvest to Sevan, about 10 kms away, or stand for hours on in hope for stray traffic.
The Sevan-Dilijan road through Tsovagyugh used to be crowded with villagers standing, arms stretched, to let automobile passengers know they had fish for sale. Now, if they have a market for their fish, it is through brokers, necessarily lowering the amount they can make.
And the months of November and December are especially lean for all Gegharkunik villagers who make their living from Sevan's waters. It is spawning season for Sevan's "sig" fish and against the law to take fish during that time.
Resident Gayane Margarian says she has nothing during those months to feed her seven children. As, by government standards a "large" family, the Margarians get 25,000 ($50) social benefits for children and the family of nine has to think hard how to distribute less than $6 per person per month.
"We realize that fishing these months is not only about breaking the law and paying fees, but about depriving us from the opportunity to have sig fish in the future," says Margarian, 34. "We have no choice but to do without during these months."
The only working enterprise in the village of Tsovaghyugh is a carpet factory established by New York businessman James Tufenkian, employing about 40 women.
Among them, Zhenya Amirkhanyan has worked for Tufenkian for seven years and says that her family survived due to her job. In Soviet times she worked for HaiGorg (Armenian Carpet) factory for 40 years.
"I wish that more branches of enterprises would open in our village," she says. "Our people are diligent, they are ready to work. We know that Soviet times are far away. We don't need big factories. What we want is more workshops and our village will be able to survive."
Unlike many villages—not only in Gegharkunik, but throughout Armenia—for the residents of Noraduz seeing visitors is routine rather than an exception.
Without asking what they are looking for, visitors are directed to the place that made their village a unique spot for tourists, archeologists and historians.
Noraduz is home to one of Armenia's most famous and biggest (seven hectares) cemeteries, with khatchkars (stone crosses) that date back to 996.
The industry of crossmaking, combined with fishing, has, historically, made Noraduz a wealthy village. New generations succeed previous ones in the trade of their fathers—carving, fishing. Tombstones of the cemetery made of rose tuff or basalt are as impressive as old khatchkars.
Rafik Asoyan, 68, has made khatchkars for almost 40 years, like his father before him. He brags of his ability to make his crosses "tell stories", and his craftsmanship has not only been put to use in Noraduz, but in other cemeteries of Armenia.
His neighbors, the Hambartsumians, live off Noraduz's other industry. Three men in the family fish and their catch is smoked by the women. The final product is taken to Yerevan by traders.
"We barter the fish for something we need, clothes or other products," says Horik Hambartsumian.
Noraduz residents say their village is comparatively advanced: Regular bus routes connect them with other villages and towns; there are a variety of stores in the village; it has an art school; and even a taxi service.
The village self-sustains the art school, paying for heating and electricity. There, 90 children, ages 3-17 from Noraduz and neighboring villages, learn dance and singing. A class recently opened to teach girls how to design table arrangements and decorate cakes.
Gegharkunik, like all Armenian regions these days, tries to revive and restore what they once had, a secure life. But, just as individual republics now struggle, the breakup of the centralized economy and industry of the Soviet regime resulted in an inability of separate regions to survive alone.
"The Soviet times turned out to be for us a fat breakfast," says Gavar resident Hambartsum Avetisian. "You feel happy, but eventually by the evening you will get hungry. The Soviet regime was not substantial. It was Utopia. It had to collapse one day and we, the present generation are those who have to survive for the sake of the coming ones."