By Hrach Melkumian
Galia Amirkhanian has no electricity and running water in her apartment and little interest in a rare visit to her economically depressed town by senior officials from Yerevan. This unemployed mother of seven in Alaverdi, northern Armenia, has long ceased to believe in government promises of a better life as they have meant little to her family so far.
"Why should I care about government officials when they don't give me benefits so that I can pay for electricity and water bills?" she explained as Armen Khachatrian, the speaker of the Armenian parliament, toured the town with his entourage last week. "I am raising seven boys. The government will think about us only when it comes to drafting them to the army."
Amirkhanian's elderly neighbor, Martun Shakhkulian, was no more enthusiastic as he watched Khachatrian's motorcade drive through Alaverdi's battered streets. "They just come and go for nothing. What have they given to the people?" he asked, reflecting the dominant mood in his community mired in poverty just like much of the country.
This pessimistic mood contrasted with Khachatrian's customary upbeat statements about the state of affairs in Armenia. "Life here has certainly improved," he told reporters accompanying him on the trip to Lori province, which comprises Alaverdi. "I'm not saying that this is enough, that everybody is happy. But there can be no comparison with the situation that existed two years ago."
The main source of Khachatrian's optimism is the local copper factory, Alaverdi's largest employer. Thousands of people used to work there. Like many other Armenian industries, it went into decline following the collapse of the Soviet Union but resumed its activities in the late 1990s after being purchased by a Liechtenstein-registered private company which is now called the Armenian Copper Program.
The factory's reopening was thus a ray of hope for the town's 15,000 residents who had been left without a source of income. Its management now claims to employ up to 750 people. Locals say that the figure is inflated and that the factory often halts its work for several months. Whatever the truth, the factory is still far from regaining the Soviet-era production and employment levels.
There are few other functioning enterprises in the area. Only one business seems to prosper: dozens of restaurants and snack bars lining the 40-kilometer twisting road running from the provincial capital of Vanadzor to Alaverdi. It passes through a picturesque gorge covered with forests.
The restaurant business has only a small place in the Lori governor Henrik Kochinian's vision of economic development. Kochinian believes that it can be achieved through reviving the region's once thriving industry, which was concentrated in Vanadzor. But with no substantial investments looming on the horizon for the local economy, that appears to be a long way off.
Lori's economic woes are compounded by the persisting after-effects of the 1988 earthquake, the epicenter of which was close to the provincial town of Spitak. Vanadzor was also hit hard by the disaster and still bears its scars. As many as 3,000 families in Lori's urban communities are still awaiting new housing. A similar number of housing units has yet to be rebuilt in rural areas.
According to the regional administration, 11.5 billion drams ($21 million) worth of construction work will be carried out this year and 7 billion drams next year. "The problem of the disaster zone will be finally solved," Kochinian said.
The government, however, can hardly tackle the more serious employment problem as fast as completing the protracted rebuilding of homes destroyed by the earthquake.