By Ruzanna Stepanian
By all accounts, Hrant Sargsian is one of hundreds of thousands of people who are supposed to be the main beneficiaries of $235.65 million in additional economic assistance to Armenia approved by the United States. He is poor, lives in a rural area, and has trouble irrigating crops grown on his modest plot of land.
But just like many other residents of Marmarashen, a village in the southern Ararat region, the 68-year-old subsistence farmer does not think that his plight will improve as a result of rural infrastructure projects to be implemented under the U.S. Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) program. “Charles Aznavour,” explains Sargsian, “too raised money for Armenia but we didn’t get a single penny.”
“Now they say they want to sort out our drinking water and irrigation,” he says. “But they won’t. The sum may reach Armenia, but we won’t see [any benefit of] it.”
The cynicism is echoed by farmers throughout the fruit-growing Ararat Valley, Armenia’s most developed agricultural region stretching along its border with Turkey. Long neglected by the regional and central governments, they have been left alone in coping with enormous problems that plagued Armenian agriculture following the Soviet collapse.
There is a widely held belief among local residents that much of external aid to Armenia has been embezzled by corrupt government officials and that the U.S. aid will not be an exception. The popular mood in other regions of the country, where farming conditions are more difficult, is hardly more positive.
“If the entire sum reaches its destination that will be good, but I am skeptical,” said a farmer in Mkhchian, another Ararat Valley village. “Only 10 percent of the aid will serve its purpose.”
“How many ministers do we have? They will distribute that money among themselves,” claimed another local resident.
Armenian and U.S. officials insist that as much as 75 percent of approximately one million Armenians dependent on farming will directly benefit from the five-year program. They say Armenia’s widespread rural poverty will fall by 6 percent as a result. In addition, the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation, which runs the scheme, has pledged to closely oversee the use of the MCA funds to rule out their possible misappropriation and other corrupt practices.
Most of the sum, $146 million, will be spent on refurbishing Armenia’s Soviet-era irrigation networks. Another $67 million would go to pay for capital repairs of about 1,000 kilometers of rural roads that have fallen into disrepair over the past decade. A Millennium Challenge Corporation statement last said that these two projects will “significantly increase the annual incomes of rural poor.”
But local farmers say better roads and irrigation alone are not a fundamental solution to their woes. They say they will still lack access to cheap credit and fertilizers and struggle to pay for water and the basic utilities. Nor will be they be compensated by the state anytime soon for hail or cold snaps that regularly destroy their crops. Agriculture insurance remains practically non-existent in Armenia.
“As soon as farmers are able to get long-term loans from banks without any bureaucratic hurdles, they will get on their feet,” said a Mkhchian farmer. “That would be real poverty reduction.”
For farmers in the village of Masis, a key problem is not so much a lack of irrigation water as its prohibitive cost. “Water is available here,” said one of them, Ashot Ghazarian. “But it is so expensive that villagers can not afford it with proceeds from sales of their produce.”
Ghazarian says this is what prompted him and many other locals to sell their land and become agricultural laborers. Its main buyer, commercial farmer Zhora Galstian, already owns more than 100 hectares (250 acres) of the Masis land, a very big plot by Ararat Valley standards. But even he is unhappy.
“More villagers come and ask me to buy their land but I don’t want to,” explains Galstian. “What would I do with it? I already earn few revenues despite working much harder than any city businessman.”