By Marianna Grigoryan
Armenia may start promoting an “Australian-style” model of development for the separatist territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Britain, of course, first colonized Australia in the late 1780s with ships loaded with prison convicts. The use of convict labor was seen by British officials as a cheaper alternative to slavery for creating the distant colony’s infrastructure.
Flashing forward to the present, lawmakers in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, are expected to begin debate in the near future on a bill that would give white-collar criminals the option of serving time in prison or resettling in “free territories,” a term that many Armenians believe refers mainly to Karabakh. The separatist territory broke free of Azerbaijan’s control, with Yerevan’s assistance, in the early 1990s. Efforts since then to reach a political settlement between Armenia and Azerbaijan have become stalemated.
Over the past two decades, demographic stagnation in Karabakh has posed a national security-challenge for Yerevan. As a result, officials, both in the territory and in Armenia proper, have supported a variety of schemes, including a mass wedding, to encourage population growth in and around Karabakh.
Pushkin Serobian, chair of the August 23 National Alliance,” a non-governmental organization, was closely involved in the drafting of the bill. He expressed confidence the measure would receive serious consideration by parliament. He argued that allowing convicts to resettle in “free territories” would address several social problems at once – not only potentially bolstering Karabakh’s demographic profile, but also improving conditions in Armenian prisons, keeping families intact, and improving the odds that the convicts themselves would once again become productive members of society after competing their sentences. “I don’t think there will be any problem,” Serobian said, referring to the bill’s prospects for passage.
“By resettling people with their families in the free zones, we would prevent the final break-up of their families,” continued Serobian. “The families would consolidate, while resettlement in frontier areas would strengthen the border and its infrastructure.”
The bill indicates that only those convicted of non-violent crimes would be eligible for resettlement. Bakur Karapetian, a writer and advocate on behalf of Karabakh, estimated that 1,000 families could be resettled in “free territories” under the provision. He told journalists back in November during a news conference; “I’ve talked to many convicts, and all of them definitely agreed to settle and work in the areas the government considers appropriate for them.”
To some, such as political analyst Richard Giragosian, the proposed legislation is far from a panacea. He questioned the potential demographic benefits, saying that the measure does “nothing to create jobs or economic opportunity, which are essential for any increase in population.” More broadly, he contended that the bill, if enacted, could damage to Armenian national interests by creating an impression that Yerevan was intent on permanently possessing Azerbaijani lands adjacent to Karabakh that are currently under Armenian occupation.
“It could be perceived as a decision to officially “occupy” the Armenian-held areas, which until now, have not been officially resettled or developed,” Giragosian said.
The resettlement aspect of the bill, to a certain extent, is overshadowing the issue of prison overcrowding. According to the data of the Ministry of Justice, there are 12 penitentiaries and one alternative correctional institution in Armenia, housing over 4,500 prisoners. Most facilities are antiquated. Many also have high rates of suicide. In addition, many prisoners, upon release, fall back into a life of criminal activity.
“Correctional institutions need serious reforms,” said Arthur Sakunts, a rights activist and head of Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly’s office in the city of Vanadzor. The bill has the potential to “change the situation” concerning prison overcrowding, Sakunts added. At the same time, it is in need of amending in order to more precisely define the meaning of “free territories.”
“The bill should refer to Armenia’s territories; there are many free territories here as well,” Sakunts said.
Hovhannes Sahakian, an MP and senior member of the governing Republican Party, echoed a need for amending the bill. “This is a good idea, but we should avoid territorial restrictions and propose an alternative to convicts,” Sahakian told Eurasianet.org. “This must be done to escape unnecessary speculations.”
Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter based in Yerevan.