Donara Ghazaryan baking authentic flat bread (zhengyalov hatz) in Stepanakert’s market

Artsakh’s Economy: The Post-war Syndrome and Recovery Efforts

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STEPANAKERT/WASHINGTON – Every day Zorik Babayan sells souvenirs near Stepanakert’s iconic We Are Our Mountains (aka Grandmother and Grandfather) monument. When I approached him last month, there was only a small group of tourists, although the site was more crowded during my previous visits. Tourists from the US, Europe, or even China were not uncommon in Artsakh before 2020.

Artsakh’s iconic We Are Our Mountains monument. The site usually had many visitors before the pre-COVID and pre-war era.

“First coronavirus hit us. The borders were basically locked for months. Then the war started. We have had almost no tourists here last year. Now we have some visitors – a tiny number compared to what used to be before,” said Babayan.

Zorik Babayan, left, with his brother Vrezh Babayan at their souvenir store in Stepanakert

Perhaps another reason why there are fewer visitors is that the number of accessible tourist sites has been reduced due to the most recent aggression. More precisely, Shushi is under occupation, Tigranakert’s millennia-old archeological site and museum are lost, and Dadivank is accessible to only a limited number of pilgrims who must await quite a process of negotiations that the Russian peacekeepers have to conduct with the Azerbaijanis each time.

However, Artsakh has had a vibrant history, and therefore, despite losses, Karabakh still has many ancient monuments scattered throughout this millennia-old land, from Gandzasar Monastery to Amaras, where Mesrop Mashtots had set up a school 16 centuries ago. “Visit Artsakh, so that 100 thousand Armenian compatriots of this land will not feel they are abandoned,” wrote Artsakh’s Human Rights Defender Gegam Stepanyan on his Facebook page on June 29.

In Stepanakert’s market, I met Donara Ghazaryan, whom I interviewed during my previous trip to Artsakh in 2019. As before, she bakes and sells the delicious zhengyalov hatz – Artsakh’s authentic flat-bread rolls stuffed with herbs – right at the market center.

“During the combats, I was not selling zhengyalov hatz, she said. “I was collecting the herbs and baking rolls for the soldiers, not for sale. One day I was not here, and the missile struck the market. The explosion broke my fridge. Luckily we were not here; however, I had to buy a new fridge,” said Donara, pointing to the new refrigerator next to her.

Hotel Europe in Stepanakert

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According to Nagorno-Karabakh’s government, Artsakh has had only 997 visitors during the first five months of this year. Although by May the curve began to improve, the total number of visitors before COVID and before war was notably different, nearing 50 thousand tourists annually.

Those who carry Armenian passports can still enter Artsakh easily; the Russian peacekeepers and Artsakh’s patrols conduct routine checking only. However, “foreigners” might need to apply for visas in advance.

Aram Verdyan, left, with the author

“The economic situation in Artsakh before and after the war is significantly different,” said Aram Verdyan. Together with his fiancée, Aram became known as part of the first, and so far the only, couple who married in Dadivank after the territory came under Azerbaijan’s control. The images of their marriage flashed in Armenian media last December. Now Aram works as an adviser to Artsakh’s state minister (prime minister).

“The diaspora’s role in post-war recovery efforts can be huge. I don’t mean just donating to Artsakh, but rather connecting the business people of our diaspora with Artsakh’s business community in an attempt to advance the economy here,” added Aram while we were sitting in one of Stepanakert’s main cafeterias.

Whether through its IT industry, which can develop working remotely, business consultation, or sending manufacturing technologies – any form of cooperation can be helpful for the people of Artsakh, who love to work and learn, added Aram. Those who have a permanent job will more likely stay here. Those who merely get donations are more likely to go, summarized Aram as his professional opinion.

Later, after returning to the United States, I connected with Levon Gulyan, a young professional from Artsakh who aims to develop a website that will connect any potential investor from the diaspora with a likely counterpart in Artsakh. His organization, called the “High Technologies and Strategic Planning Center” of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, is setting up online resource that, as Levon worded it, “will serve as a platform, where investors will see various fields of opportunities: from IT to agriculture and the hotel industry.”

“We will retain only monitoring functions: if the investor is interested in how a business functions here, our organization will conduct the investigation and provide the results. We will supervise but not charge for it. Our sole goal is to create conditions for Artsakh’s progress,” said Levon at our Zoom discussion.

His ahimnadram.com website is nearly ready and an additional media presentation for diasporan media outlets is planned soon.

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