Downtown Ijevan, overlooking the Aghstev river, an important resource for hydroelectric production (courtesy of Mateos Hayes)

Bringing Tavush into the 21st Century: An Interview with Governor Hayk Chobanyan

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Hayk Chobanyan, the Governor of Tavush Province, discusses the challenges of economic development in a province under fire.

By Mateos Hayes

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

(Editor’s Note: This is part two of a three-part story on Tavush. The interview and writing took place before the start of the September 27 attack on Armenia and Artsakh.)

BERD, Tavush Province, Armenia  — Sharing a 152-kilometer border with Azerbaijan, Tavush Province faces a volatile and precarious geopolitical situation, forced to contend with the ever-present threat of enemy artillery fire combined with the daily practical challenges of development in a remote and agrarian landscape. Assuming his office of governor of Tavush in 2019, Mr. Chobanyan has had to contend with these challenges head on, especially in the wake of Azerbaijani shelling in July of this year.

Chobanyan speaks at Economic Development Conference in Aygepar on August 29, 2020 (courtesy of ArmenPress)

Over the course of this incident, Azerbajani artillery emplacements targeted several civilian structures, including kindergartens, 94 residential structures, and a factory manufacturing masks for the coronavirus pandemic. This attack made plain the challenges of economic development in a land where any structure deemed high value can become the target of enemy shelling.

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Speaking to the Mirror-Spectator at the municipal government building in Berd – one of the cities targeted in the July attacks – Chobanyan explained the importance of economic development to ensure the region’s long-term defense and prosperity.

As Chobanyan explains, the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict is deeply intertwined with the post-Soviet history of the province, as Tavush has had to contend with a hostile neighbor since Armenia’s independence. With 42 towns in its border zone, some of which are located less than a kilometer away from neighboring Azerbaijani communities, Tavush is especially close to the conflict.

For this reason, Chobanyan considers it especially critical to engender a sense of security and confidence in communities under threat. One aspect of this is maintaining the presence of an effective and professional defensive force in the form of the Armenian Army’s presence, while another is the raising of living standards. For instance, one way to raise the quality of life is to increase salaries in the region, thus allowing residents to care for their families and be self-dependent. Another critical aspect connected to quality of life highlighted by the Governor was quality of housing.

Quality of Life

As Chobanyan explained, “the July shootings and ensuing reconstruction in communities such as Aygepar has revealed that we have much to do to bring buildings in the province up to code. Our buildings were constructed in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, and so we need to do more to modernize these structures and make them more desirable places to live.” To address these issues, the Tavush provincial government is working with the central Armenian government to develop housing construction programs, and programs meant to encourage entrepreneurship.

A field of grapes in Aygepar. A winery which operated here during the Soviet period is now defunct due to the conflict (courtesy of Mateos Hayes)

Finally, Chobanyan pointed to education as a critical factor in the region’s economic development, stating, “it is not possible to speak of development in the 21st century without also including education as an area of focus.” Chobanyan declared that more must be done to develop and renovate educational facilities in the province, especially in the border region. To address this, Chobanyan outlined collaborative projects with Yerevan intended to renovate and expand existing educational facilities.

The governor also pointed to the Armenian diaspora as a major asset in development efforts in Tavush. Financial and volunteer support from diaspora communities increased significantly in the wake of the July events, and Chobanyan stated that he was working to attract “the huge resource that is the expertise, education, and vocational skills of the diaspora.”

He explained how he has focused on attracting greater support from the Armenian diaspora through a variety of programs meant to encourage members of the diaspora to invest in Tavush and even live there. Because of the diverse origins of the Armenian diaspora, these efforts focus on creating opportunities and platforms for members of the diaspora from all walks of life; “We have put in place programs to support members of the diaspora who return so that they feel as much at home here as someone born in Tavush does.”

Great Potential

While Chobanyan recognized that his province was among the least industrially developed in Armenia, he also stressed that there were many avenues for development, all of which promised huge potential growth for Tavush.

Namely, Chobanyan pointed to Tavush’s strategic position as an international crossroads: “We are 300 kilometers away from the nearest railway station in Russia, and 350 kilometers away from the Georgian Black Sea Port of Poti. Thus, we are at an important logistical crossroads.” Chobanyan believes more must be done to capitalize on this opportunity, and he hopes to develop logistics centers in Bagratashen, a town which is on the border with Georgia, and in Azatamut, which lies between Ijevan and Berd. “Both of these communities have the potential to grow, but there must be more economic and industrial development,” the governor explained.

1. Forests in the mountains near Aygehovit, which present a bountiful natural resource for the province (courtesy of Mateos Hayes)

Chobanyan also pointed to the bountiful natural resources of Tavush as another source for economic development: “Sixty percent of our territory is forest. If we were to harvest all fruits, berries and other crops yielded by this resource, we could have 500 million dollars’ worth of clean, organic produce annually. This is another way in which we can increase the quality of life of our residents.”

‘Teach One to Fish

Chobanyan characterized the work of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as crucial for the development of Tavush. However, he also believed that the work of NGOs in Tavush needed to become more focused on economic development, and not just on social assistance. In the words of Chobanyan, NGOs “need to not just give fish but teach one how to fish.” Nonetheless, Chobanyan is encouraged by the participation and activism of youth in NGOs, who are applying the modern tools of the internet generation to developing Tavush: “Thanks to this involvement, we now have the potential to greatly develop our cultural education and entrepreneurship resources.”

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