by Zhanna Alexanyan
Administrative center: Gyumri (population 149,900)
Population: 282,500 (8.8 % of republic's total population)
Education: 193 state and 3 non state schools of general education, 23 music and art, 41 sport, 56 pre-schools, 9 state and non-state secondary specialized, 6 state and 2 non-state universities
Healthcare: 37 out-patient polyclinics and 19 hospitals
Industry: Production of construction materials including tuff and pumice
Agriculture: Grain farming and cattle-breeding
In the Shirak province village of Berdashen, winter arrives early and stays late. From November until nearly May, snow usually covers the ground and, significantly, the one road linking the high-altitude settlement with the rest of the world.
"We open the road, the life line, when it becomes extremely urgent, for a sick person or for food," says the village head, 41-year-old Slavik Chapanian.
"The life line" is the northern 27-kilometer road to Ashotsk, where there is a hospital. Eight to 10 children a year are born in Berdashen and families have an average of four children. But, families who are mindful of planning births try to time delivery before November or after April.
Here, at 2,000 meters above sea level, there are only about 130-150 days without frost.
In 1992 the village held 82 families; now the number is 61 and almost the entire village (57 families) is made up of former residents of the Armenian region of Georgia, Javakhk.
"People living in this village are poor and weak," Chapinian says. "There is nowhere they could go. We overcame the difficulties Georgia caused us, we lived like a colony. Today, the people living here belong neither to Armenia nor to Georgia."
As in so many border territories (Berdashen is five kilometers from Turkey), these Armenian transplants live in houses abandoned by Azerbaijanis, who fled in the late 1980s when aggressions over Karabakh intensified.
For much of the year the village is literally cut off, and, year-round villagers say they feel hardly connected to the province's administrative center, Gyumri, and even less so to Yerevan, which they consider absolutely out of reach in every way.
It has been more than two years since the village chief was in the capital, 175 kilometers away.
"We don't feel the presence of the state here. They don't need us and we don't need them," says Samvel Madoyan, 25, a villager.
Above the tree line, Berdashen does not enjoy the alpine ambiance of lower settlements. The verdant meadows, however (when not frozen), do provide good conditions for raising cattle, the villagers' main source of income.
Winter storehouses are stocked from the income of the sale of meat, milk and cheese in summer. Dairies in Ashotsk and Amasia pay 73 drams (about 15 cents) per liter for milk.
Seventy-year-old David Akhtskhetsian says he trades 20 kilograms of cheese for a 50-kilogram sack of flour.
"There is no market to sell wool (they also raise sheep) or meat," he says, "so we have to barter."
The villagers own plots of land but the unforgiving climate does not permit cultivation. Potatoes are the only harvest. The sale of hay is another income source but it brings in too little to survive the winter. The very poor have no land or cattle, and there are 15 such families in Berdashen.
"If someone is sick in the family then you are on the verge of bankruptcy," explains the village head. "People sell all of their cattle to cover the expenses. If you lose your only cow, you lose your property."
Lernik Akhtskhetsian, 35, had three cows. But his 30-year-old wife Mariam fell down the stairs and hurt her head and spine and the cows were sold to pay for medical treatment.
"They were my only source of income. It will take years until I can buy another cow," says Lernik, who has three children. Lernik is good at repairing cars. But the village has only four vehicles, so there is little demand—and less pay—for a mechanic.
The poor of Berdashen are among about 26,000 needy families in Shirak province (282,500 total population), who receive about 180 million drams (about $360,000) in aid (from the state). Some 5,000 families receive allowances of 4,500 drams ($9 per month) each.
"Those who have a plot of land are not listed as poor. It doesn't matter whether one receives an income from it or not. It would be good if Ashotsk and Amasia were regarded as a special case in a northern zone," says Ashot Harutiunian, head of the socio-economic department of the province administration. "This village cannot be compared with other villages of the province."
The slice of the budget (for Shirak) provided to villages is poor: only 1-2 million drams ($2,000-$4,000). The sum includes revenue from property tax and land tax. "We pay all of the money into the pension fund so that we have no debts," says the village chief.
In the Soviet era, the village of Shurabad (as Berdashen was formerly called) was well known for its cheese mill, which was the fourth largest in Armenia producing 27 tons per day. Milk from throughout the neighborhood was processed at this establishment. There was a hospital, kindergarten, five shops, telephone connection, and a road that was always open.
"Telephone links and technical facilities to protect us in winter are a priority for the village," says chief Chapanian. "A dairy or a meat processing plant would sharply improve living standards in the village. Funds are necessary for that, state assistance, long-term loan programs. It is something of a dream to think about that."
Province authorities in Gyumri say that money has been made available in the past two years to help with clearing the roads. But Chapanian and the villagers insist that this money never reaches them, so the road remains closed.
"I have never seen the regional government help us with any problem," says Chapinian, who has been head for two years. "We rely on ourselves only. The people of our village are hardworking; they have a sense of high dignity. The number of beggars is low."
He speaks of positive changes. People have started thinking about repairing their houses, leading a more comfortable life. He doesn't connect economic hardship with independence.
"Independence is a value," says Chapanian. "Javakhk (Georgia) today is in a harsher situation. After all we are citizens of the Republic of Armenia, we live in a state."
The Armenian Caritas charity has provided some assistance to the Berdashen school but it needs major repair. The school isn't fully heated and firewood furnaces are placed in classrooms during bitter frosts.
"If breeding two cows used to be enough to solve problems, now you have to have at least four or five cows. Children are also engaged in running the household. However, they still love school," says Manushak Terterian, the school headmistress.
The school has 80 pupils and needs teachers. Though the Government pays teachers an extra 15,000 drams ($30) per month to work in remote villages, they still refuse to come to Berdashen. "It's the problem with roads," explains the principal.
Few continue their education after finishing school. Gugark Guyumjian, 27, is regarded as an intelligent young man in the village. He says: "The youth has nothing to do here, they lead a senseless life."
The only recreation is watching television. There's neither a club nor a library in the village.
"They don't complain"
The population of Azatan village is 5,700. Just four kilometers from Gyumri, it is one of the largest rural areas. Winter is gentler and the land is fertile.
The village has a gas supply that serves 95 percent of the population. They have no problem with water either. But they haven't had telephone service since the earthquake and the only telecommunication is a one-way phone to Gyumri.
Azatan has stone mines and two workshops produce basalt. The village has 15 shops and its roads have been asphalted with money from the budget.
"The Azatan people boast that they live better than others. They don't complain. It is thanks to the conditions: not excellent but good," says Vigen Ikilikian, a 58-year-old member of the village administration.
The men crowded in front of the village administration building are concerned about the lack of sewage facilities in the village. They say their village can become more like a town if they get a proper sewage system.
There is no sign of earthquake damage on the mainly two-storied houses in the village. The cheese mill built in Azatan after the earthquake is well known in Shirak and employs 200 people, mostly locals.
The tradition from Soviet times has remained of men leaving for Russia to earn money. The people of Azatan call it "extra income".
Cattle breeding and agriculture remain the principal occupations of villagers. The cheese mill has eased their burdens because they can sell the milk on the spot, as can those from nearby villages. The land is fertile, so the harvest is rich here.
"People come here from different places of the republic to buy potatoes," says Ikilikian. Besides potatoes, Azatan is also a rich source of fruits, which they exchange for clothes and other necessities at the market in Gyumri.
The village administration building has recently been repaired. It also houses an art school and a sports center, and acts as a cultural center for neighboring villages. The school provides classes in painting, piano, and string instruments by specialists who come from the city to teach there.
Azatan's school has 900 pupils and a second one is planned to open soon. The village kindergarten is currently being repaired. And there is even a computer center in this village, where, unlike Berdashen's link to Ashotsk, the information highway is open year-round.