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Armenia: Telethon Finances Nagorno-Karabakh Road

Nagorno Karabakh, 11 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A brand new Armenian church overlooks Lachin, the administrative center of a district in Azerbaijan proper straddling Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Slightly below the church is a tortuous highway carved in mountains covered with forests.

It is the Lachin corridor, the shortest overland link between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. The first thing that strikes travelers is the high quality of the newly constructed road, very uncharacteristic of the former Soviet Union. The rocky terrain makes it all the more impressive. The highway, which is around 80 kilometers long, begins in the Armenian border town of Goris, crosses Lachin and goes all the way north to the Nagorno-Karabakh capital Stepanakert. The length of the Lachin section of the road is nearly 20 kilometers.

The Lachin district was captured by Karabakh Armenian forces in May 1992, putting an end to the disputed region's enclave status. The issue of the corridor features large in the Nagorno-Karabakh negotiating process sponsored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

For the Karabakh authorities backed by Armenia, there is no question of returning Lachin to Azerbaijan. They view it as a necessary element in security guarantees which the international community should provide under a future peace deal. Azerbaijan, for its part, has signaled readiness to accept international supervision of the district to allow unfettered transport on non-military cargoes through its territory.

Official ceremonies attended by Armenian and Karabakh leaders earlier this month marked the virtual completion of the highway's construction, financed by the Armenian Diaspora in the United States. The project has cost $8.85 million, almost all of which sum was raised at a telethon in Los Angeles in May 1996. More than 10,000 pledges were received during the one-day telethon, with contributions ranging from several dozen to several million dollars (the latter donated by Armenian-American billionaire Kirk Kerkorian). The fund raising was organized by the All-Armenian Hayastan Fund, set up in 1992 at the initiative of Armenia's then President Levon Ter-Petrossian.

As of mid-1997, the fund, which has branches in major Diaspora communities throughout the world, had spent $52.3 million worth on various projects in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. This mostly includes construction of highways, water mains, power transmission lines, hospitals, schools and houses.

At the heart of the fund's activities is the idea of "national dues," defined as a "compensation for (the nation's) losses and price for gains." "The fund is a medium for all Armenians to create their own future," reads a Hayastan booklet. "What was impossible for many centuries has become a possibility today." In Karabakh alone, Hayastan has implemented some 20 infrastructure projects. The fund's short-term priority is to raise $2 million to complete the remaining 10 kilometer stretch of the Karabakh highway, linking Stepanakert to Shusha. One of Hayastan's future projects is to construct another highway between the north and south of Karabakh.

Meanwhile, in the Lachin district the demographic situation is constantly changing. Deserted of its Azerbaijani population that fled it in 1992, the area has seen ethnic Armenians settling there. Many of them are those Karabakh Armenians whose villages remain under Azerbaijani control. There also those from Armenia proper. Lachin may already number as many as several thousand residents, although there is no precise statistical data on that.

The territory is run by a district administration appointed by the government in Stepanakert. The replacement of Azerbaijani geographical names with Armenian ones symbolizes recent year's change. Traffic signs no longer carry the name Lachin. It has been replaced with Berdzor, the town's "historical name," as Armenians claim. It appears that with the Lachin road's construction, this trend will accelerate.