String of natural calamities poses major challenge for cash-strapped government.
By Ashot Beglarian in Stepanakert
Devastating hailstorms are the latest in a series of acts of nature that have tested the ability of Nagorny Karabakh’s government to provide an adequate response.
The heavy hail which fell for a week throughout the region caused serious damage, especially in the Shaumian region. Melons and other fruit were destroyed, and livestock and poultry suffered badly. Seventy per cent of roofs were damaged, windows were broken, and roads became impassable.
“Some of the hailstones were the size of billiard balls,” said a resident of the village of Artem. “I’ve never seen anything like it. All our work has gone to waste. I don’t know what to do.”
The authorities immediately set about dealing with the situation, in particular repairing the roads. Villagers were promised construction materials to fix their roofs and other damaged property. But many realised that the government’s resources were limited and it would be left largely up to them to sort out their problems.
This was only the latest in a series of disasters that have hit Nagorny Karabakh, a de facto independent republic in the southern Caucausus, surrounded entirely by Azerbaijan just south of Russia, and drained the resources of the current government, formed last autumn.
An outbreak of African swine fever late last year resulted in the death of most pigs in Nagorny Karabakh. The Martakert and Askeran regions in the east were especially badly affected.
The incoming prime minister, Ara Harutiunian, launched an emergency scheme under which sick animals were slaughtered and buried to prevent the epidemic spreading.
The swine fever was eventually contained, although some new cases are still being recorded, especially in the southern Hadrut district.
The farming sector suffered significant losses, and most Karabakhi families celebrated New Year without the traditional pork dinner.
Farmers received compensation for slaughtered livestock, and the government imposed controls over the production of meat from uninfected pigs.
“We shouldn’t leave villagers to face these problems alone,” said Harutiunian, promising that his government would buy up healthy pigs for 800 drams (around 2.50 US dollars) per kilogram.
One legacy of the outbreak is the unlikely sight of Australian pork chops on sale in the local capital Stepanakert.
“They look more attractive and they’re probably easier and quicker to cook. but they don’t taste the same,” said Hrach, a local butcher. “People are afraid to buy local pork, even though the meat that we receive has been guaranteed as safe.”
It is not just a matter of health – the retail price of Karabakh-produced pork has doubled to 3,000 drams (just over 10 dollars) a kilo, making it 1,000 drams more expensive than the imported meat.
The damage caused by another crisis, the heavy winter frosts, continues to be felt. Temperatures dropped to minus 20 degrees, villages lost their electricity supply, roads were blocked and apartment blocks in Stepanakert were deprived of water.
The power cuts and road blockages were overcome fairly quickly, but the low temperatures paralysed a water system that had been barely repaired since Soviet times.
Several areas of Stepanakert had no running water throughout the winter, and some housing blocks were supplied with water from fire engines. The government promised to construct an all-new water system for the city and invited experts from the Armenian capital Yerevan to help plan it.
Nagorny Karabakh had barely recovered from the winter crisis when a severe storm caused yet more damage on March 22. Roofs were blown off, and trees, electricity lines and even gravestones were blown over. In some villages, whole houses were destroyed. No one was killed, but 12 people were injured.
Once again, Prime Minister Harutiunian found himself in charge of the clear-up operation. The damage was estimated at around 250 million drams, or 850,000 dollars.
“The damage is immense,” said Harutiunian. “It’s the first time we have encountered a situation like this since the war ended [in 1994] and we were basically unequipped to deal with it.”
Armenia stepped in with help, sending 80 builders to help with the reconstruction work. Construction materials were also sent, although some Karabakhis were unhappy with the way it was handed out.
“Unfortunately, the materials were distributed in such a way as not to offend anyone,” said Samvel Narimanian, who lives in the town of Martuni. “Everyone got something, but there wasn’t enough to do full reconstruction and repairs. So a lot of people had to buy the material that was missing.”
Some government officials agreed, saying certain people claimed funds when their houses were not badly damaged.
One positive outcome of the storm is that many apartment blocks in Stepanakert have acquired solid new roofs.
In their different ways, these serial catastrophes have not only damaged infrastructure which was only just recovering from the 1991-94 war, but have deflected the government from pursuing its ambitious plans to revive the economy.
Ashot Beglarian is a freelance journalist in Nagorny Karabakh.