Suren Babayan from Dashtavan, in the southern Armenian province of Ararat, has always paid his water bills on time. Believing that punctuality and precision pay off, Babayan keeps copies of every payments made from 2004 to today as proof of his reliability. So when Babayan recently received a letter from the Armenia Water and Sewerage Company informing him that he had an outstanding water bill balance of between $260 and $1300 -- in a nation where average annual incomes hover at just over $5000 per year -- the Dashtavan villager was a little concerned.
“We have paid every month. We have not skipped a single month,” Babayan says.
Babayan’s is not a unique case in Armenia, where one of three local state-owned (but French-managed) water suppliers has subjected hundreds of households to punishing arrears. In extreme cases, the company has gained notoriety for freezing the assets of villagers and raiding the pensions of elderly customers in order to collect what it claimed were unpaid water bills.
Local uproar over the company’s practices led journalists from RFE/RL’s Armenian Service, Radio Azatutyun, into an extensive investigation of Armenia Water and Sewerage. Radio Azatutyun collected the stories of dozens of villagers like Babayan, and consulted lawyers and experts who found that some of the company’s policies were in violation of Armenian law.
RFE/RL’s reports quickly drew the attention of Patrick Lorin, Armenia Water and Sewerage’s CEO, who offered to sit for a full-length interview with Azatutyun to comment on the growing controversy. But Azatutyun editors in Yerevan had another idea: why not facilitate a town hall meeting between Lorin and his irate customers? So on February 3, with cameras in tow, Lorin met face to face in Dashtavan with scores of villagers who accused his company of breaking the law.
At the meeting, Lorin was joined by the regional Ararat governor, Edik Barseghian, and top representatives of the company’s local branches. Lorin and other company representatives maintained that the arrears charges levied against the villagers of Dashtavan were valid. But Governor Barseghian pressed his constituents’ claims, alleging that the company retroactively revised its estimates of household water consumption. The meeting changed Lorin’s mind; he promised that his company would recalculate the villagers’ bills.
An advisor to the regional government told RFE/RL last week that local administrators would help villagers to file their own complaints against the utility for illegally seizing pension checks to pay for the alleged arrears. The victory for villagers in Dashtavan has raised hopes in other rural communities that their similar arrears liabilities may be erased.
-- Kristyna Dzmuranova