Reading yesterday’s headlines I came across a major news story of a Kajaran mayor in Syunik, Rafik Atayan, resigning from his position and from the Republican party in protest to the government’s decision to confiscate 181 hectares of land in the area. The land will be turned over to the German-owned mining company, Zangezur Copper-Molybdenum Combine (ZCMC). The lands will become an “open-pit mine,” meaning that all the dust created in the excavation process will drift and pollute the surrounding areas. Water supplies and agricultural lands will be ruined as well. The Armenian MP living the village, a former executive of the mining company, is obstinately indifferent.
The mayor’s protest is admirable but will ultimately prove nothing since his replacement will obligatorily sign the paperwork formalizing the new mining initiative.
Land has already been given to the Chinese in Syunik in a different government-backed plan, ironically nit to far from Tatev, which was anticipated to be Armenia’s top tourist attraction when it opened just over a year ago. There are still other controversial projects that are stalled or about to get underway in Teghut and Hrazdan.
The justification for opening the mine (and others) is the following, quoted from an article published by RFE/RL:
The German group [Cronimet, the parent company] insisted that the planned expansion of the ZCMC’s mining operations stems from “a number of agreements” with the Armenian government. That will also boost Armenian exports and “economic stability in the country, it said.
These types of statements have become totally laughable and even insulting. The monthly minimum wage in Armenia is absurdly low at 32,500 dram ($83) and a bill introduced by the ARF last month to nearly double it was shot down by the Republican controlled National Assembly. In other words, most people in Armenia — factory or mining workers being no exception — live hand to mouth. Most people can’t save up and have little or no pocket money to spend to benefit the economy. ZCMC prides itself as supposedly being the top tax paying corporate institution in Armenia (untold sums of collected taxes are, in turn, eaten), but that doesn’t mean government officials will not reap the benefits of kickbacks from profits. The money made in this deal (and others) will not be vested in the Armenian economy realistically simply because it will end up in several peoples’ pockets and foreign bank accounts instead at the expense of Armenia’s fragile environment. That’s the way things work in capitalist Armenia.
So let’s stop kidding ourselves that high exports in metals are good for the economy. When rural areas are still underdeveloped in and around Armenia, with some new settlements in Armenian-controlled territories doing without roads, running water and electricity as I wrote in a previous post, these statements from government officials are paradoxical. Mining businesses benefit the elite, while the rest of the country’s potential along with its ecological longevity suffer.
ON Friday December 9, Nareg Hartounian, the founder of the Naregatsi Art Institute, was arrested on suspicions of tax fraud. This arrest marks yet another circumstance of an Armenian from the diaspora being harassed or swindled by the authorities or people with ties to the government. On the same day of his arrest he was tried and sentenced to serve 60 days in jail. This complicated issue with the tax authorities has actually been ongoing for several months. Unsurprisingly, the refusal to pay a hefty sum has something to do with it.
Nareg is a fellow Armenian from the diaspora who lives and works here part of the year. He and his family have initiated multiple projects, both humanitarian and cultural, in and around Nagorno-Karabagh, even in parts of the Armenian controlled territories where he encouraged settlers to live. The Naregatsi Art Institute is a center for young, emerging artists, filmmakers, and photographers to display their works. Musicians even give concerts in the mini concert hall-like setting. Another center was opened in Shushi several years ago.
Hetq already published several articles about Nareg’s arrest, including letters from friends and acquaintences. In one of them someone mentioned that it was high time Armenians from the diaspora were left alone to do their business dealings or philanthropic work without the interference of the government or people with seemingly honest intentions out to make a buck. But Armenians born and raised here have been convicted on trumped up (or even invented) charges for years since there is no independent judicial system. It seems anyone from the upper echelons of the country’s leadership can make a phone call to the Minister of Justice to ensure that someone is tried and convicted by any means necessary. It’s not yet clear who exactly ordered Nareg’s arrest but the truth will hopefully come out in the coming days.
I have met Nareg on two occasions through a mutual friend. Unfortunately I have not learned about his efforts in detail from him, but I have admired Naregatsi and I hope Nareg’s arrest does not in some way interrupt the center’s longevity.
What can be done to help Nareg? Well there is an online petition for starters. There is also a Facebook page created to spread awareness, which as of this writing already has 1003 “likes.” But the only way for the government to resolve the issue once and for all is for the Armenian diaspora to cry foul en masse. That would entail getting leaders from philanthropic and political organizations to get involved. But the success of that effort is perhaps tied to how “liked” Nareg is in different circles and by people of influence.
As with many social and political issues in Armenia, when enough noise is made by people who oppose a controversial decision, the government eventually relents. Unless people become vocal about Nareg’s plight and demand his release, he will sit in jail for another 58 days and possibly face additional recrimination when he’s finally let out, if he doesn’t pack up and leave the country in disgust before then. Let’s work to get him out now.