Residents of about two dozen small villages in Armenia’s eastern Gegharkunik province blocked a local highway on Wednesday in protest against government plans to merge them into larger communities.
The Armenian government embarked on the mergers over a year ago, saying that they will improve governance in the affected communities and make budgetary spending on them more efficient. It also promised that Armenia’s Western donor supporting the process will provide them with financial aid.
The government met with strong resistance from some of the first 140 villages that were incorporated into 18 administrative units later in 2016. Their residents believe that the consolidated local governments will be less accountable and responsive to them.
Despite the controversy, the government continued the process this year. A bill submitted by it to the Armenian parliament this month would turn 328 other villages into 34 communities.
“We are against such a consolidation,” said one of the several hundred residents of the affected Gegharkunik villages who occupied a section of the highway passing through the nearby town of Vartenis. He and other protesters said it would hurt their mountainous communities, many of them populated by former Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan.
The protesting villagers also complained that the government did not consult with them before going ahead with the measure. Gegharkunik’s deputy governor, Andranik Hakobian, countered that Minister for Local Government Davit Lokian recently met the mayors of their villages and discussed the issue with them. “The village chiefs should have organized discussions [with villagers,]” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
Hakobian also stood by government assurances that the administrative restructuring will translate into infrastructure upgrades and better public services. The villagers remained unconvinced, however.
“We want our message to reach the president,” one of them told a deputy chief of the regional police department, Tigran Petrosian, who arrived at the scene.
The protesters agreed to unblock the road only two hours later, after government officials told them through Petrosian to send a delegation of their representatives to Yerevan. The delegation met with aides to Lokian and Prime Minister Karen Karapetian later in the day.
The talks proved fruitless, with representatives of the villagers saying that the government officials rejected their demands. They said they will again shut down the Vartenis highway on Thursday.