Birth rates are reportedly booming in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh after the launch of an Armenian-Diaspora-financed program that offers cash payouts of at least $2,000 for each baby born.
Russia-based, Karabakh-born entrepreneur Levon Hairapetian, along with Ruben Vardanian, the chief executive officer of the Russian investment bank and asset management firm Troika Dialog Group, laid the groundwork for the program with a pledge of $2,000 for each child born to those who took part in a mass wedding for 700 Karabakh couples. Hairapetian financed the mass nuptials in 2008. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The amount paid will increase with each subsequent child born.
With average monthly salaries in Karabakh a mere $50, according to local statistics, the Hairapetian offer apparently has proven too good to pass up. Sixty-one percent of the couples who took part in the 2008 wedding had children as of January 2010.
The region's de facto government has also added to the payouts. Under Karabakh's so-called "birth encouragement" program, newlywed couples now receive $300 for their first child, $600 for their second child, $3,000 for their third child and $4,000 for their fourth child and any subsequent children. The payments also go to couples who did not take part in Karabakh's massive 2008 wedding.
The region's de facto minister for social welfare, Narine Astsatrian, credits these baby bonuses for an estimated 31.5-percent spike in the birth rate for 2009 (2,821 babies born) compared to the 2007 level (2,145 babies born).
"The birth rate has undoubtedly increased," she said. "And the big wedding has indeed contributed to it."
Karabakh's population plummeted in the 1990s after a six-year war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the region. The conflict prompted the exodus of thousands of ethnic Azeri and ethnic Armenian residents. Independently confirmed figures for the region's current population are not available, but the de facto government puts the number at some 145,000 people. A 1989 Soviet census put the Karabakh population at 200,000 residents.
Boosting the population has become a priority for Karabakh's de facto government, which expresses increasing unease at comments from Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev that Baku does not exclude the use of force to regain control over Nagorno-Karabakh. The claims are part of a three-way dispute among Armenia, Karabakh's protector, and Turkey and Azerbaijan over plans for Turkish-Armenian diplomatic reconciliation. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive].
That unease has put the emphasis on making life easier for those individuals who have elected to stay in the disputed territory. Karabakh's de facto government in 2009 boosted social welfare outlays to some 27.2 percent of all spending (roughly 16 billion Armenian drams, or about $41.9 million) -- a figure 2.5 billion drams more than the entire budget for 2005.
The source of those funds is not entirely clear; de facto social welfare minister Astsatrian stated that the de facto government has only an administrative role in the baby-bonus program.
Aside from the baby-bonus payouts, Gohar Hakobjanian, the director of the only maternity hospital in Karabakh's capital, Stepanakert, also credits an improved post-war economy for the recent birth spurt. Statistics from Karabakh's de facto government to back that claim are hit and miss - the de facto Karabakh Republic's mission to Washington claims foreign investments of roughly $35.1 million and an economic growth rate of 10.4 percent.
"The situation has now changed drastically," Hakobjanian said. "You can see many pregnant women in Stepanakert now." Not all of them are first-time mothers, she added. To accommodate the reported boom, another maternity hospital will be built in Stepanakert in the next two years, she said.
It could well come in handy. Holding her seven-month-old daughter in her arms, Siranik Hairapetian, a 20-year-old bride from the Karabakh village of Khtsaberd who took part in the 2008 mass wedding, says that she and her husband are "very glad" about the baby bonus payments. Altogether, the Hairapetians (no relation to Levon Hairapetian) have received $5,000 since their marriage -- $2,000 from the wedding organizers; $1,000 from Karabakh's de facto president, Bakho Sahakian; and a $2,000 payment upon the birth of their daughter, Maria.
Commented maternity hospital director Hakobjanian: "Life in Karabakh is changing for the better."
Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter based in Yerevan.