The village of Koutakan lies 15 kilometres north-east of the town of Vardenis, not far from the Azerbaijani border.
Most local residents call the village by its old name – Gyunashli. It was once populated by Azeris and now by Armenians forced to flee Azerbaijan. The village, at 2,100 meters above sea level, has around 150 residents. It once had triple that number.
One of the main reasons for the decrease is the scarcity of land.
Koutakan Mayor Aharon Abrahamyan says that 500 hectares of the community’s 1,230 hectares was privatized back in the early 1990s. The land was divided up amongst 40 families. Another 700 hectares was leased to twelve individuals.
Local residents claim that the mayor at the time allocated the 700 hectares to friends and relatives.
Today, twenty Koutakan families, including young ones, have no land.
The MaxFruit Company had leased 156 hectares; 105 hectares was leased by Vladimir Khachatryan, brother of the former mayor; 65 went to Kajik Avetisyan, a friend of the former mayor. Former Mayor Mikayel Khachatryan himself has 100 hectares. They all have twenty five year leases.
“My husband was in the war and came here in 1996. All the land had been privatized without any advance notification. None of the rules were followed,” says Deputy Mayor Karmen Gevorgyan.
Her family only received one-third of a hectare. They grow potatoes on the land. Grains can’t be grown on such tiny plots.
Residents have complained about the illegal actions of the former mayor, but to no avail.
Max Fruit had for years been farming on the 156 hectares it had leased. Last year, however, it didn’t pay the rent nor did it return the land to the community. The new mayor voided the contract in order to allocate the land to the villagers.
An auction was conducted and 75 of the 156 hectares have been distributed to 23 families that had no land. The land has been leased to them. The privatization process is too expensive for the villagers to pay.
At about the same time a character names Mkoyi Samvel showed up and warned the villagers not to work the land, threatening to set it ablaze if they did.
Residents describe Mkoyi Samvel as a large-scale farmer who presented himself as a shareholder in MaxFruit.
Mayor Abrahamyan says he has no time to waste on Mkoyi Samvel because the contract with the company has been legally nullified.
The deputy mayor says that Mkoyi Samvel has been a thorn in the side of the community since the land was first leased to MaxFruit.
“There was a man from Vardenis who had ploughed and sown the land. Samvel shows up and tells the farmer to stop all planting or else he’ll run him over with a tractor. Samvel maintained the land was his but failed to show any documentation.”
None of the proper state agencies have bothered to study the land issue in Koutakan. They don’t seem at all interested to get to the bottom of why the former mayor divvied up so much land to friends and relatives.
As a result, many ordinary village families have no land to grow food for consumption or sale. No wonder the village, on the border with Azerbaijan, has shrunk from 5000 to 150 residents.