Oct 2, 2004

Grounded: Abovian's "satellite town" has lost its orbit

By Arpi Harutyunyan
ArmeniaNow correspondent

The hometown of his memory hardly resembles the place where Aram Khachatryan
lives today.
''Biureghavan was the richest city of our region," says the 67 year old
retiree. "We used to make huge production for the republic. And we used to
live in such conditions that we couldn't complain."
Now, there's little to do but complain. And few are listening.
There is hardly a city, town or village in Armenia that hasn't suffered the
destructive fallout of political, social, economic upheaval. Some 15 years
since socialism started to crumble some societies have fared better than
others. In Biureghavan, a settlement of 5,000 or 11,000 depending on who you
listen to, about 16 kilometers north of Yerevan, recovery seems as distant
as Khachataryan's memory of a different time.

The mayor sees a different picture than his citizens.
"Our city was one of the best places in Armenia," recalls 72 year old Asatur
Manukyan. "People had no problems. We had good jobs and we lived in good
conditions. Every man had several jobs and maintained his family very well.
People from the city even used to come here, work and again return."
If it is now forgotten, Biureghavan was once one of Armenia's per capita
leaders of manufacturing.
The town covered 250 hectares of residential area and an area nearly half as
big (120 hectares) in factories.
At its peak, Biureghavan was home to 27 factories and enterprises.
''Thanks to technologies created by our specialists we began producing
cut-glass from Armenian stones," explains Giulnara Sargsyan, head of the
Department of Education, Culture, Youth Affairs and Sport of the Biureghavan
municipality, adding that methods of stone production created in Biureghavan
were adopted by factories in the US, Italy, Greece.
Chandeliers produced in Biureghavan are hung in the Yerevan underground,
inside the Opera House and inside the Karen Demirchyan Sport Complex.
Unlike other Armenian towns, Biureghavan was not a settlement that grew on
the foundation of early settlers. Comparable to the history of cities in the
American mid-west, industry built Biureghavan.
It started out as an area of practically no vegetation about 60 years ago,
when the first labor dwellings were referred to as "mud settlements". In
those days, it was also occupied with prisoners who had been paroled and
given houses, called "white houses". Laborers who were working on nearby
health resorts were settled in Biureghavan and, later, refugees from
Until about 1968 Biureghavan was not thought of as a town, but as a workmen's
settlement - a place to live while work was carried out somewhere else. In
fact it was called "Arzni" settlement because most of its occupants were
employees of the Arzni water bottling plant.
But then came the factories. And with them, people. Hostels were constructed
and then permanent residences. And then more factories and more people,
drawn to the once "muddy settlement" to work at places such as Almakar
(stone processing) and Siunenergashin (producing electrical poles) and
Hayapaki glass factory.
In 1974, the town was given official urban status and its new name. (Named
for the largest factory which produced "Biuregh" . Literally, the name means
"Crystal Town".)
The population exceeded 10,000, almost all with jobs, and some with more
than one. Biureghavan had four schools, four kindergartens, a music school,
sports school, a vocational-technical school, hospital, cinema, library,
arena, public parks.
But for all its growth, Biureghavan was largely considered an annex of
Abovian, the regional center.
"That's why there is now a great difference between Abovian and
Biureghavan," explains Sargsyan. "It seems our city was Abovian's
satellite. We were producing and they were benefiting from it. And our
leaders were taking care of the essential social needs.''

Once industrial, now foodshops are Biureghavan's main enterprises.
In 1994 Biureghavan was given the status of a city. It celebrates its 10th
anniversary this year. But for most residents there is little to celebrate.
For, even before it was designated a city, Biureghavan, made redundant by
the collapse of the system that created it, had started to decline.
Production stopped. Debts didn't. The city plunged into widespread
unemployment. Personal savings held from the glory days, dwindled.
While some residents of other Armenian cities turned to agriculture and
cattle breeding for sustenance, Biureghavan - not suited for life on the
land - had nowhere to turn.
Mayor Shavarsh Sedrakyan says the city will have a modest celebration later
this year to mark its 10th anniversary.
It is a city without its own telephone code, no gas system, no 24-hour water
service, no city market, no church, no maternity home.
According to Vardan Avetisyan, head of the city health center, there is
little need for the latter.
"Last year, for instance, only 110 children were born, meaning one birth
every three-four days," Vardanyan says. "Before, there were more than 300
children born each year."
Biureghavan now has two schools of general education, one special school and
one kindergarten. All are in bad condition.
"They say children are our future. But today there are no conditions for
them," says Anahit Sargsyan, head of the kindergarten. "The building of the
kindergarten has never been fully repaired: toilets are in a bad state,
there is oil-cloth on the windows instead of glass, there's not enough
dishes, furniture and toys."
Place of leisure are out of the question. Beginning with evening hours the
town starts dozing. There is no cinema, theatre, concert hall, park or a
cafe. Youngsters complain there's nothing interesting in their town. "There's
no action here. Life is dead here. That's why youngsters spend their leisure
either in Abovian or in Yerevan. As for me, I would use the first chance to
move to Yerevan," says Ani Gasparyan, 20.
Today, in Biureghavan, not only the youngsters, but also men who take care
of families have nothing to do. Most of them are in Russia. Many have moved
with families.
"Half of the town is empty. There isn't such a building where four or five
doors are not constantly closed," says 67 year old Nikolay Sargsyan,
bitterly. "People leave for good. If you count now, there can hardly be more
than 5,000 citizens."
Nikolay gathers with other elderly to play nardi.
He moved his family from Yerevan to Biureghavan in 1969 and worked in a
factory. Now, other nardi players are his family.
"My whole family got separated. My children went to Russia. What could they
do? There was no job," Nikolay says. "Here, there are several private
enterprises where employees are being cheated, they make them work but pay
trifling sums."
His bitterness is not unique.
"We have no jobs. Men are playing nardi or cards, just to do something,"
says Misha Margaryan, age 65. "Many are in Russia and a significant part is
unemployed. Eighty percent of men have left here. Biureghavan has become
Armenia's poorest town."
While Misha's assessment exaggerates conditions, it is certain that life in
his town is far from what it used to be.
"Today, even women with their children are collecting bottles from the
garbage and sell them to live. In winter, we cut and burn the trees that we've
planted with our own hands, in order to get warm, otherwise we'll die from
cold," continues Yurik Manucharyan, who is 64.
Mayor Sedrakyan sees a different Biureghavan. He says that 50 percent of the
population is employed and that "we're pretty well provided for, socially".
Only four factories - each with about 100-150 jobs - are now in operation,
according to the mayor. Those four have been privatized, but the mayor does
not know who the owners are.
According to the mayor: "At present there are 11,500 people living in
Biureghavan. The number was the same before. During some period people would
go to Russia but now there is a certain influx."
His constituents laugh at the mayor's assessment, and say that because he
lives well doesn't mean they do.
Sedrakyan has made some improvements since becoming mayor in 2002. Trees
have been planted, there's a garbage pick up service, street lights have
been installed . . .
"Our republic is going up in a rocket and we're not falling behind,"
Sedrakyan says. "Biureghavan is in a rocket, too. I assure that in 2005 not
only the town will be well off, but all the citizens will be socially
provided. They will all have jobs."
But for the nardi players and the teachers in crumbling schools and the
families separated by hardship the "rocket" city, once a satellite of
progress, is going nowhere.