Sand-filled defensive barrier installed at Aygehovit secondary school by the Pahapan Foundation (courtesy of Pahapan Foundation)

Development on the Frontier: Tavush Province, Part I


As part of a three-article series, the Mirror-Spectator has investigated the economic and development challenges faced by residents and leaders of the Tavush region

By Mateos Hayes

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

TAVUSH, Armenia — The province of Tavush is the green jewel of the Armenian landscape. Located in the landlocked nation’s northeastern corner, Tavush is a crossroads of sorts, sharing an international border with Georgia and Azerbaijan.

The Tavush countryside on the outskirts of Ijevan (courtesy of Mateos Hayes)

With its idyllic rolling green hills, its majestic mountains, and its picturesque valleys and rivers, Tavush Province is unquestionably one of the most beautiful corners of Armenia. It is replete with friendly and hardworking locals eager to extend their hospitality to the few outsiders that pass through the province.

However, the largely agrarian province is also one of the more underdeveloped parts of Armenia, accounting for just 1.2 percent of Armenian industrial output as of 2019. There are many contributing factors to this situation, including underdeveloped infrastructure and the legacy of post-Soviet economic decline. But one of the factors central to the challenges the province currently faces has been the ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

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This has been especially true in Tavush’s border villages, a set of 42 villages that are near Armenia’s border with Azerbaijan, 23 of which are in the direct line of fire. By gleaning the perspectives of regional leaders, the Mirror-Spectator has investigated the principal barriers to economic development and entrepreneurship in Tavush, and what can be done to overcome them.

‘Strategic, Targeted Aid and Legislation Are Needed’

In short, the border towns of Tavush suffer from a dearth in investment. Inga Harutyunyan, director of the Pahapan Foundation, which works to bring sustainable economic and social development to the province, explained the problem as one concerning risk and trust: “We need to build trust with our donors for projects, which is a difficult thing to do.” Harutyunyan also emphasized the importance of government incentives in encouraging sponsors to invest in an otherwise high-risk region.

Inga Harutyunyan (courtesy of Pahapan)

The Pahapan organization has worked to address this problem, attracting investment from other parts of Armenia and from the Armenian diaspora. Using these sources, it has raised funds for the construction of communal shelters in schools and towns so that residents of the border region can protect themselves from shelling attacks.

Interior of one of the shelters constructed by Pahapan Foundation in Aygehovit secondary school. It is equipped with athletic equipment, toys, and a boxing ring. (courtesy of Mateos Hayes)

Harutyunyan said the state must make it easier for the border villages to receive donations, take out loans and thus create businesses and jobs in the area. While she noted the VAT tax exemption given to border villages, Harutyunyan nonetheless emphasized that more must be done to ensure that government legislation facilitates entrepreneurship in Tavush border towns. Harutyunyan cited a specific example in which a donor wished to invest money for the establishment of a factory which would make recycled wood products, such as mulch. This would be achieved via the importation of the required machinery from China.

Although this factory would have been exempt from the VAT tax, a 20-percent import tax still applied to the Chinese equipment, which would have amounted to a tax in excess of $3,000. This rendered the project unfeasible, as the donor could not pay such a cost for equipment that could be targeted by artillery fire. In effect, the high-risk nature of this investment precluded the continuation of this project. Residents of these border villages would likewise be unable to foot this prohibitive cost. Thus, the Pahapan Foundation had to put this project on indefinite hold. In effect, the high-risk nature of this investment, absent certain financial incentives from the state, precluded the continuation of this project.

Bishop Bagrat Galstanyan, Primate of Tavush, agreed the government could provide better incentives. He said that although the Armenian government had taken several steps to improve life in the border areas, a more systematic approach was needed for these efforts to be more effective. He argued that any government legislation addressing the concerns of border towns must be focused and targeted on the most pressing needs of the province, stating that “there must be more strategic coordination of [government] policy. For instance, border towns are given an exemption on VAT tax, but this policy must be more widely publicized in order to attract investors.”

Bishop Galstanian poses with his new book Thoughts and Words (courtesy of Diocese of Tavush)

Additionally, Galstanyan believed that financial aid itself needs to be more strategically coordinated: “Increased support [for the border villages] must be focused and strategic. It cannot be just emotional. There needs to be clear goals and priorities in terms of investing and participating in that process.” Galstanyan argued that certain donors had made onetime donations towards goals that had proven unproductive, as these had not addressed the most pressing needs of local communities.

The Tavush Diocese Center and Social Education Center for Youth (courtesy of Mateos Hayes)

To this end, the Children of Armenia Foundation (COAF), a charity based in New York City, is working to make its operations more focused and streamlined in Tavush. The pandemic has caused the organization to redouble such streamlining efforts. As stated by Anahit Hakobyan, Village Programs Manager for COAF, the foundation is focusing its resources on developing “a holistic program, whose goal will be to develop rural communities [of Tavush] by focusing on multiple aspects such as education, increasing the capacity of local health facilities, improving child family services, and developing local economies and infrastructures.” COAF’s presence in Tavush is currently limited to English classes in the seven border communities it serves, and its new program is currently in its pilot stage.

Negative local attitudes were another common theme discussed by regional leaders. Bishop Galstanyan said there is a need to combat through spiritual education what he described as a pessimistic culture which pervades border villages. This culture has imbued locals with a feeling of helplessness, in which locals feel powerless to ameliorate their situation. As Bishop Galstanyan explained, “Everyone used to look at the people [of Tavush] as always in need, unable to help themselves, as stuck in poverty. They cannot work, they cannot do anything. We are working to change that.” Inga Harutyunyan echoed this sentiment, speaking of the importance of providing and promoting opportunities for residents of border villages to become self-dependent.

Whether by engendering entrepreneurship or reawakening spirituality in Tavush, regional leaders agreed that the amelioration of local attitudes was an important aspect of development in the region.

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