Located in the far south of the Siunic Region and bordering Iran, the territory of Meghri is as close as Armenia gets to Mediterranean conditions. With a significantly milder climate than the rest of the republic, the small territory (664 square kilometers) produces fruits not found in other parts of Armenia.
In addition to pomegranates and figs – found in lesser amounts in other regions – Meghri also produces lemons, persimmons, almonds and, recently, olives and kiwis.
The lower zone of Meghri is only 500 meters above sea level (compared to Armenia's average of 1,830 meters). The average temperature in Meghri is 14 (57 F), some three degrees Celsius warmer than the capital (51 F).
“With the proper conditions this strategically very important region could be fully involved in the republic market,” says Hovhannes Saadyan, top scientific officer of Yerevan State University.
About 1,000 Meghri residents work in the only stable industry, the Agarak Copper-Molybdenum Combine. Some 5,000 live in the region’s three towns. The rest, about 9,000, are almost all involved in subtropical farming.
But while Mother Nature has blessed the region with good growing conditions, man-made obstacles hamper efforts to exploit potential.
Meghri faces closed borders on two sides; Azerbaijan to the east and Azeri-held Nakhichevan to the west. With fruit-rich Iran to the south, the only practical market for Meghri produce is in Yerevan, 420 kilometers to the north, mostly uphill.
In Soviet times, before Nakhichevan was closed, the trip to the capital took about three hours. Plus, the Baku-Meghri-Yerevan railroad route was a reliable, short and inexpensive means of transport.
Today, however, a trip to Yerevan takes 7 to 8 hours by car and can be especially difficult in winter. Transport costs have to be added to the price of goods, adversely affecting Meghri farmers’ sales outside their region.
In fact, it is cheaper for fruit growers who enjoy similar cultivation conditions in West Georgia – who have the advantage of the Georgia-Armenia railroad – to reach the Yerevan market, than those from Meghri.
“This is a very important issue as it immediately affects vital activity of the whole region,” says Cultural Center of Meghri employee Michael Azatyan. “Practically, there are no production units in the city and the population has to ensure their incomes by agricultural production sales. The same also concerns 11 villages of Meghri region where more than 4,000 people live.”
Azatyan says that unless something changes, the population will decrease, as people will be forced to leave in search of better opportunities.
In 2000, the Government of Armenia adopted legislation aimed at reviving Meghri. Residents say, however, that efforts have mostly remained on paper, and even then their distinct district is included in overall plans for the entire Siunic Region.
The legislation “doesn’t reflect the specificity of the Meghri region,” says Meghri resident Sirun Sargsyan.
A previous initiative did, however.
In an effort to assist Meghri farmers, in 2002 the Ministry of Agriculture of the Republic of Armenia imposed restrictions on the amount of subtropical fruit that was imported from Georgia.
“The results were not long in coming,” Sargsyan says. “The year 2002 was really profitable for the residents of the region.”
But the program was only carried out in that year, and, without the restrictions, Meghri again struggles.
(According to Sirun Sargsyan, at the request of Meghri Municipality the Ministry said they didn’t continue the program due to some reasons connected with market relations.)
Rugged Meghri is in the region's most populated
Meghri’s potential harvest isn’t only above ground.
On March 11 of this year, the Government of Armenia approved the sale of the Agarak Copper-Molybdenum Plant. American company Compass Commodities will pay $350 million for the plant, with provision that it will invest $3.5 million in the first year.
Surely the Americans see potential in Meghri’s rich earth, but, like the region’s fruit farmers, they face considerable transport challenges.
Long before westerners discovered the ore field, the Soviets already knew that it was not enough to simply extract the ore. So, in 1949, the railroad conduit was built for the purpose of exporting the mineral.
“Serious investments are required for maintaining the southern ore belt of Armenia,” says plant director Mais Khachatryan. Northern ore sources in Alaverdi, Akhtala, Shamlugh are accessible to the Georgia-Armenia railroad, but: “Because of the blockade, the southern ore belt found itself at a considerable distance not only from Yerevan but also from alternative communications.”
While ore and subtropical fruit have long been Meghri’s strong suit, it’s very geographical location has introduced a new value of international consequence.
In recent years the area surrounding Meghri has been the subject of debate and speculation over a so-called “Meghri corridor”. The territory of Meghri links Azerbaijan with Nakhichevan, but since the Karabakh War, borders have been closed, cutting off transport between the Azeri-controlled territory and the Republic of Azerbaijan.
Third-party negotiators have discussed Meghri as a possible deal-maker in talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan – specifically, Armenia would give up Meghri as part of a compromise peace agreement to settle the conflict over Karabakh.
“Taking into account Meghri’s geopolitical position of the Southern Caucasus it would be amazing if the question of its perspectives was not discussed during Armenian-Azeri negotiations,” said the mayor of Meghri Misha Hovanisyan. “However, we should realize that discussion initiated from outside is one thing, while position of Armenian government on these developments is another. It won’t be a mistake if I say that population of the region for a long time has been ignoring different speculations concerning the subject of so-called ‘territorial exchange’ introduced from outside.”
Residents agree with the mayor, saying they do not take seriously any talk of their homeland becoming the lynch-pin of a peace deal.
“The Araks River, which by mutual agreement are used by Armenian and Iranian sides for the purpose of irrigation of lands, form a very deep canyon,” says a gardener in Legvaz, Movses Asatryan. The villager says foreign diplomats accredited in Armenia often come to admire nature and that “malicious tongues continue to insist that the wonderful landscape is not the only reason they visit. But we don’t pay attention to statements like that.”
Recently, even Kiwi are being grown in the "subtropical" region
“Nobody doubts that the ‘Meghri card’ was played during negotiations,” says deputy head of Agarak municipality Martin Hovakimyan. “However, it is regrettable that the card becomes trump in the hands of Armenian politicians. This is a dirty game of internal policy and there shouldn't be continuation of that game in the future.
“Finally, the consistent spread of rumors has a negative influence on the inflow of investments, which the Meghri region needs very much. There were cases when possible investments into the economy of a region were frozen as a result of consistent spreading of rumors like that.”
The mayor of Meghri reminds that for nearly a century, Meghri has been the focus of dispute over who has legitimate ownership.
“Since the signing of the Russian-Turkish agreement in Moscow on March 16, 1921 between Bolsheviks and Kemalists, as a result of which Nakhichevan, among other things, was separated from Armenia, Ankara and Baku have often been laying claims to Meghri and Siunic in whole,” Hovannisyan says. “So the population of the region has already become immune to ignoring such projects. C onsequently, the matter depends on businessman because if any region is geographically farther from the Armenian center then the center must be economically closer to it.”
Plant manager Mais Khachatryan believes “it is necessary to give offshore zone status to the region.”
Such a status would be incentive for investors to start small business in a tax-free zone.
“The year 2002 demonstrated that in case of proper economic policy towards Meghri it is possible to achieve many successes,” says Sargsyan. But in conditions favoring an open economy, Meghri loses.
And such conditions, Sargsyan and others here believe “can destroy the structure of the local economy, in which the absolute majority of the region’s population is involved.”
And many here, holding on to the tip of Armenia with unfriendly neighbors on two sides, believe any weakening of Meghri would be a big strategic mistake.