By Shakeh Avoyan
A leading pan-Armenian charity said on Friday that it plans to all but complete the construction of a strategic highway running across Nagorno-Karabakh in the next two years with funds raised at its latest annual telethon.
The All-Armenian Hayastan Fund, mainly financed by the Diaspora, netted a record-high $11 million in donation pledges during the November 25 fund-raiser broadcast live from Los Angeles.
Its executive director, Naira Melkumian, said she expects at least 90 percent of the pledges to materialize into cash in the coming weeks. She said the fund will need only $1.5 million to finish by 2007 work on the 170-kilometer road that will connect the northern and southern sections of Karabakh through the capital Stepanakert.
The Armenian and Karabakh governments say the “backbone” highway will facilitate communication between residents of those areas, boost the local economy and further improve the unrecognized republic’s security. Nearly 100 kilometers of it have already been built since the project’s launch four years ago.
The money promised to Hayastan is about twice the sum collected at the previous Los Angeles telethon in November 2003. Melkumian, who previously served as Karabakh’s foreign minister, described the figure as “unprecedented,” attributing it to “economic progress” witnessed by Diasporans visiting Armenia and Karabakh.
“You know there is an unprecedented influx of tourists from the Diaspora to Armenia,” she told journalists in Yerevan. “They come, see a bustling and beautiful Yerevan and are beginning to realize that the country is changing.”
But Melkumian also acknowledged that the bulk of the donations, $7.5 million, again came from a small number of wealthy ethnic Armenians living in the United States and other countries. One of them, Louise Manoogian Simone, made the single largest contribution of $2 million. Simone’s Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) has separately spent millions of dollars on charitable work in Armenia.
Hayastan was set up in 1992 by then President Levon Ter-Petrosian to finance various infrastructure projects in Armenia and Karabakh. It was supposed to become a grassroots charity largely dependent on thousands of small-scale contributors. But as one of the members of its governing board, Armenian-American businessman Hirair Hovnanian, admitted last May, this goal has never been achieved.
“I think that in the beginning the idea was different from what we have now,” Hovnanian told RFE/RL. “It was hoped that all Armenian families would pay small sums, but I think this hasn’t quite worked as the bulk of the money comes from those individuals who make big donations.”