By Hrant Aleksanian in Stepanakert and Shakeh Avoyan
According to official data released in Stepanakert, the population of Nagorno-Karabakh increased by one percent in the firs half of this year to just over 143,000, helped by a high birth rate and an influx of settlers from Armenia.
The figure, which exceeds most unofficial estimates, is slightly higher than the number of Armenians living in the disputed territory before the outbreak of the conflict with Azerbaijan in 1988. They made up approximately 75 percent of the population of the then Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO). The NKAO’s ethnic Azerbaijani minority was forced to flee the region during the ensued bitter war.
The Karabakh authorities have registered over 1,400 births in the first eight months of the year, considerably more than during the same period last year. They also say that that the positive difference between those who moved into and left Karabakh stood at 823 in the first half.
The absence of independent sources makes it hard to gauge the credibility of the government’s demographical data, questioned by some observers. The out-migration is thought to have been substantial from northern Martakert district, most of which was under Azerbaijani control from July 1992 to February 1993. The area is still reeling from the devastation caused by fierce fighting and widespread looting.
Officials in Yerevan, meanwhile, say that more than one thousand families from Armenia have taken up residence in Karabakh since 1994. Most of them are former refugees from Azerbaijan and low-income villagers that are attracted by Karabakh’s milder climate and fertile agricultural land.
Part of the settlers resides in the Armenian-controlled Lachin district in Azerbaijan proper straddling Armenia and the self-proclaimed republic. Lachin, which was fully populated by ethnic Azerbaijanis before its capture by Karabakh Armenian forces in May 1992, now has at least several thousand residents. The authorities in Stepanakert and Yerevan have ruled out its return to Baku, viewing it as the shortest overland link between Armenia and Karabakh.
According to the Armenian government’s Department of Migration and Refugees, as many as 100,000 Armenian families are ready to move to Karabakh. Lack of funds means that only a small part of them will obtain this year government assistance for the resettlement, financed and strongly encouraged by the leadership of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. A family of settlers typically gets a low-interest loan worth 200,000 drams ($365) for farming purposes and a house in a location determined by the NKR government.
NKR Prime Minister Anushavan Danielian has said he will seek to increase Karabakh’s population to 300,000 by the year 2010.