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The village of Salvard, 220 km from Yerevan in Armenia’s southernmost province, Syunik, lies near the border with Nakhchivan, Azerbaijan. With no gas connection and just a dirt road leading to the village, for years the young have migrated away; the local residents who have remained behind say the village is dying.
‘Where should I go? I won’t go anywhere; there’s nothing better than our village, but to tell the truth, I don’t know how life is outside our village — in the city’, says 60-year-old Gohar Galstyan.
It is mainly the over 50s who have stayed in Salvard; local residents say the young people leave the village as soon as they can.
While the provincial authorities say the village’s population is 418, locals say the true number of people living there is less than half that.
The first mentions of Salvard can be found in 1828, when a group of families moved from the Khoy and Salmas provinces of the Persian Empire and formed the village.
Though it is only 14 kilometres from the provincial capital, Sisian, the road is destroyed and there is no public transportation available — in order to leave the village, people need a car of their own. There is no natural gas supply.
People say the authorities have forgotten about Salvard. Nobody remembers when a state official last visited and tried to address the village’s problems.
‘I have three children — two girls and a boy’, says Gohar. ‘My daughters were lucky; they got married and left. My son has not got married yet; no bride would want to get married in our village.’
‘There are about ten young men living in the village today who cannot find brides. Who would agree to live in Salvard? I can’t imagine my life anywhere else, but I dream that at least my son will go and live a normal life. Salvard is no place for young people. It’s a retirement home-village’, says Gohar.
‘The best years of my life were spent in this village’
Salvard, sitting at 2,000 metres above sea level, has favourable conditions for cattle breeding. Grass and water are abundant in the mountains, but the number of livestock breeders declines each year.
Locals say they have problems selling dairy products and meat. Every family in the village keeps one or two cows just to satisfy their own needs.
‘We have to wake up at 5:30 in the morning. We feed the livestock and give them water, send the cows to the pastures, and then attend our everyday matters. At noon, our work is over.
‘It wasn’t like this before: who saw a man in the village being idle, sitting under a wall, and smoking in the afternoon? Now we have nothing else to do’, says 49-year-old Andranik Galstyan.
Andranik sees no future in the village. He plans to move his son to the city soon. He considers cattle breeding to be a very difficult and unprofitable business but says there is no other job available.
‘There are five workplaces in the village, half of which are for representatives of the village municipality, while the other half work at the school. We are astonished that the school has survived. But this year was a record year for our village. We had three first year pupils at once; there has been no such thing in recent years’, says Andranik.
Andranik’s wife, Svetlana Shirinyan, helps him with everyday life. She, like many of her fellow villagers, has just one dream — to leave the village.
‘The best years of my life were spent in this village. I’m getting old without having lived a normal life. It may seem ridiculous, but in the 21st century, I dream that the day will come when I’ll be able to make a cup of coffee on a gas stove, and that I will also get warm from it’s blue glow. I dream that I will not have to leave the village to buy a kilo of sugar. I feel like an alien in this life’, says Shirinyan.
In Salvard, there is only one small shop, where basic necessities are sold. The shop is not always open, and when it is, it closes at 19:00.
If residents go to the city, they return with a lot of supplies: they buy food, medicine, and other essentials, fearing that next time they may not be able to get out of the village.
Emptying villages capture the state’s attention
In 2011, Armenia’s government launched a community consolidation programme with the aim of pursuing a more geographically proportionate development policy.
The stated aim of the programme was to provide more high-quality and affordable services to communities and to more efficiently use the combined resources of consolidated communities (human, financial, land, etc.).
After many discussions, the first enlargement took place in 2017.
The government’s decision, however, was not accepted everywhere. Several regions held simultaneous protests, during which villagers argued that by taking this step, the villages would not really develop, but would die.
Many feared that uniting 10 or more villages under one village administration would lead to schools, kindergartens, and village municipalities closing. This, people argued, would lead to villages emptying, especially if there were no good roads or public transportation available.
Salvard was one of these enlarged villages. Two towns and 30 villages became one unit, but many local people say nothing has changed.
When Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan visited the Syunik Province in July 2018, a group of local residents introduced the enlargement programme to him and he noted that it really did not give them any benefit.
‘No consolidation process should be implemented without the consent of the communities. In the enlarged communities, nine months is not enough to treat this issue. Let’s wait 1–2 years. The other communities will also see whether the consolidation has had any result or not’, Pashinyan told those gathered.
Pashinyan won a sweeping victory in December’s parliamentary elections, forming a new self-styled ‘revolutionary government’.
In Salvard, villagers say they hope the new government will have a realistic community development programme, not one written on paper that accomplishes nothing.
This article was prepared with support from the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) Regional Office in the South Caucasus. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of FES.