The Armenian parliament will start debating on Friday a government bill that would reduce from 441 to 37 the number of the country’s local communities. Most of them already consist of multiple villages and/or small towns consolidated by the former government.
The new administrative units would essentially match Soviet Armenia’s districts that were dissolved and merged in the mid-1990s into ten provinces run by governors appointed by the central government. The provinces comprise communities with elected mayors and local councils.
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s cabinet drafted the bill this summer, saying that it will improve local self-government and make budgetary spending on communities more efficient. Pashinian said the measure is the result of a “political decision” made by his administration and will not be reversed if it sparks protests.
Such protests have been staged in recent weeks by residents of some mostly small and rural communities across Armenia.
“Enlarged communities have more possibilities and resources to organize themselves and address local self-government issues more effectively,” Deputy Minister of Territorial Administration and Infrastructures Vache Terterian insisted during parliamentary hearings on the bill held on Wednesday.
Local government officials attending the hearings strongly disagreed, saying that the new administrative division sought by the government is illogical. They also criticized the government for not consulting with local residents and administrations and demanded that the bill be put on hold.
One of the disgruntled officials, Emilia Martirosian, represented the administration of Margahovit, a village in Lori province. The government wants to make it part of a Lori community centered around the larger village of Pambak.
Martirosian argued that Margahovit and Pambak have no common administrative boundary or a road directly connecting them. “On what grounds are you going to unite Margahovit with Pambak?” she asked.
In Gegharkunik province, the government wants to merge the village of Tsovagyugh with Sevan, a town located 17 kilometers south of it. The Tsovagyugh mayor, Armen Amiraghian, claimed that fewer government-funded infrastructure projects would be implemented in his village as a result.
“Tsovagyugh will not develop, but Sevan and other towns will,” Amiraghian said. “There won’t be any development in villages.”
Other community heads saw political motives behind the community consolidation which would require the conduct of fresh local elections.
One of them, Hakob Avetian, runs Geghamasar, a Gegharkunik community comprising several villages close to the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. Under the controversial bill, they as well as three dozen other villages would be incorporated into the nearby town of Vartenis.
Avetian said during the hearings that the government wants to oust him in this way because he supported the main opposition Hayastan bloc in the parliamentary elections held in June.
Edgar Ghazarian, a former governor of Vayots Dzor province very critical of Pashinian, said the government is seeking to unite the provincial town of Vayk with Zaritap, a nearby rural community, for the same reason. He pointed out that the mayors of both communities also supported the opposition during the parliamentary race.
Sergei Bagratian, a pro-government lawmaker from Vayots Dzor, dismissed Ghazarian’s claims. He said that the current authorities are on the contrary trying to “correct” politically motivated mergers carried out by their predecessors.
The former government consolidated and enlarged local communities in 2016-2017 on a smaller scale. It too met with resistance from many of their residents.