Aiding Nagorno-Karabakh’s young to stay home and multiply

Aiding Nagorno-Karabakh’s young to stay home and multiply –

By Mary Boland

Irish Times

Gayaneh Grigoryan and her son Valerie (5) with images from her wedding day in 2008, when she and Avanes got married along with 673 other Armenians

As weddings go, Gayaneh and Avanes Grigoryan’s day out in 2008 was far more than a celebration of a union. Not because when they said “I do”, 673 other couples were exchanging the same words beside them but because by taking their vows alongside 1,346 fellow citizens of their native Nagorno Karabakh, they were declaring their love for each other – and for their country.

“I adore my homeland. The worst thing in the world will be if we will be made to leave Karabakh. I can’t breathe without Karabakh,” says Gayaneh (29) as she flicks through a magazine published to commemorate the day in October 2008. “And having children means that feeling is getting even 100 times more strong.”

Nagorno-Karabakh’s “big wedding” was organised to encourage ethnic Armenian couples to settle down and multiply in this self-declared, unrecognised republic. Sandwiched between the former Soviet states of Armenia and Azerbaijan, which went to war over the enclave between 1991 and 1994, the de facto autonomous statelet is run by ethnic Armenians.

A shaky ceasefire is in place since the conflict, which cost some 30,000 lives and displaced a million people. Azerbaijan maintains its claim to the mountainous territory, which lies inside its official borders.

Almost seven years after the wedding, Gayaneh, now a mother of two, personifies the statelet’s nation-building strategy.

Sitting in her living room in the capital, Stepanakert, she is showing her son Valerie (5) photographs of his parents as bride and groom.

She works in a government ministry and is on leave following the birth of Tigran (17 months).

Avanes (30), while proud to have taken part in the wedding, is too shy to feature in a newspaper, and has disappeared for the afternoon.

Smiling couples

 “It was magic . . . Everyone wore the dress she wanted,” Gayaneh reminisces. “All of the wedding dress shops were cleaned out – you had to order months in advance, or go to [Armenian capital] Yerevan. It was the same for hairdressers, nail and beauty salons . . . people worked through the night.”

In the photos, row after row of smiling couples are seated at long tables in Stepanakert’s sports stadium, destroyed during the 1991-94 war and rebuilt for the occasion.


Gayaneh and Avanes Grigoryan during the big day out in 2008

Earlier in the day they had split into groups for religious ceremonies in churches at Gandzasar, in Martakert Province, and at Shushi, near Stepanakert. There are shots of white lace, taffeta and chiffon cascading down the arena steps, and of beaming newlyweds posing with Levon Hayrapetyan, the Russia-based businessman and philanthropist behind the event.

It was during a visit home in 2008 that Karabakh native Hayrapetyan – who is under house arrest in Moscow since last year following allegations of corruption – overheard a man saying his son wanted to marry but had to wait until their calf was bigger so they could sell it to fund the wedding.

Deciding that the region’s dwindling population and ailing economy needed a boost, the businessman offered couples an attractive incentive to stay instead of leaving to find work in Armenia and beyond.

With monthly salaries averaging around €45 back then, he offered $2,000 (€1,837) to each pair to marry. The enclave’s statistics office lists the current average monthly salary as €250.

He paid a further $2,000 to each of the 674 couples on the birth of their first child and $3,000 (€2,755) on the arrival of a second.

The scale increases right up to $100,000 (€91,823) for child number seven, and locals say that couples who have twins will get an apartment. Those living in rural areas also received a cow. The payments are in addition to lower grants from the government, available to everyone, to marry and have children.

Popular man


Unsurprisingly, Hayrapetyan is possibly the most popular man in the enclave. “I think that Levon is a person who really loves his country, who really wants to see his country progress and be happy and be peaceful,” says Gayaneh. “I don’t know anybody in Karabakh who will say they don’t love him.”

The population has since risen from 139,000 in 2008 to some 147,000 today – still far short of its pre-war 200,000.

Whether Gayaneh and Avanes would like to continue to have children, and perhaps even hit the $100,000 jackpot, is complicated by Nagorno-Karabakh’s unresolved situation.

“This problem is so close to me. My uncle was killed in the war,” she says. “I was only four or five at the time, but I remember strongly two things about my childhood: I remember I was very afraid, and that there was nothing to eat.

“So my lottery prize is my husband and my family life,” she says, smiling.

“We’re not thinking about the money . . . We are people – we want to have children; it’s instinct.

“But when you have children in such a territory as Karabakh, where you don’t know is it peace or war, you worry for them . . . Maybe, in some part of the world, there are places where life is easy and there is no danger of war.

“It doesn’t matter. The best place to be is Karabakh.”

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