Fuel Blockade Has Armenia on the Ropes


In the third winter of a crippling wartime blockade, this energy-starved city has no fuel to heat its central maternity hospital.

Women in labor are wheeled into delivery rooms swaddled in sweaters and scarves. Nurses tuck hot water bottles into incubators to keep premature infants from freezing. Fuel is too precious to waste on such luxuries as laundry. Hospital workers wash sheets and diapers--3,000 a day--in icy water by hand.

"When we haven't any electricity, we pump the anesthesia by hand," said Dr. Levon Hakopyan, chief of obstetrics at Markaryan Hospital. "If this happened in America, you would do the same thing."

Born 17 months ago from the shards of the Soviet Union, the republic of Armenia is now embarked on two wars, one hot, one cold. To its east, Christian Armenia is waging an undeclared war against its ancient Islamic enemy, Azerbaijan. At home, the fledgling democracy is struggling to keep its 3.4 million people from freezing or starving to death.

Bread is rationed. Each person is allowed to purchase only about a quarter of a loaf per day. Other food is available, but the blockade has driven prices up to 10 times prewar levels, and fewer people can afford it.

"My kids haven't seen an egg in five months," said Genrick Sahakyan, 53, one of about 100 people who stood shivering for several hours in a Yerevan bread line last week. "Meat and butter we see only on TV."

Electricity is rationed too, with each neighborhood receiving power for an hour or two a day. A tiny percentage of the country's telephones are working. Ambulances are stationed around the city and must be summoned by neighbors on foot.

But heat is the dearest commodity of all. Apartments, offices and government buildings have none. Schools are closed. Exhausted by the grinding cold, people spend their days foraging for firewood. They haul it home in wheelbarrows, on sleds and on their backs.

Thousands of trees have been sliced down across Armenia. Even Yerevan's stately parks and boulevards have been denuded.

"It's a crime," said passerby Haikaz Petrossian, surveying the wreckage of one city park. Where apricot, plum and mulberry trees grew three months ago, acres of raw tree stumps now jut through the snow. "One of the only good things the Communists did was plant a lot of trees."

Yerevan's chief ecologist, Rita Aivazova, said the blockade has caused severe ecological damage. Smoke from wood, oil, kerosene and even scrap wood and paper fires hangs over the city. The tree-cutting may increase erosion and pollution. It could also cause climatic changes, making summer hotter, drier and dustier, she said.

But such concerns are eclipsed by the need to survive until summer. Landlocked by indifferent or hostile neighbors, Armenians feel besieged.

Three years ago, Armenia was considered the former Soviet republic most likely to succeed. But Soviet centralized authority masked a terrible weakness: Ninety-five percent of Armenia's energy was imported, and most of it arrived through Azerbaijan.

Armenia has not received any gas or oil from Azerbaijan in a year and a half, according to Energy and Fuel Minister Steve V. Tashjian. Iran's Islamic leaders have joined this unofficial blockade.

Turkey, whose relations with Armenia were poisoned by the 1915 massacre of Armenians by Turks, has allowed a few humanitarian shipments to pass. Its borders have remained sealed except to smugglers.

During a visit to the United States last week, Turkish President Turgut Ozal promised to allow transportation of food, fuel and medicine to Armenia. However, Turkey has yet to fulfill a November agreement to sell $1 million worth of electricity to Armenia.

Armenia has no political quarrel with its northern neighbor, Georgia. But supply lines from friendly Russia have been cut off in Georgia by civil war, bandits and saboteurs. Last week, Georgian authorities charged three ethnic Azerbaijanis with blowing up a gas pipeline Jan. 23, severing Armenia's last energy link to the outside world.

A temporary patch on the pipeline was finished last week, but by then Armenia's economy was in free fall.

"We are able to get only 30% of the fuel we need into Armenia," said Tashjian, an Armenian-American on leave from his job at Southern California Edison Co. "People have only two hours of electricity a day. Industry cannot function at all."

Tashjian was receiving visitors in his overcoat. His office was without power, and the temperature was exactly at the freezing point. A candle stood next to the fax machine on his desk. His family is still living in Los Angeles, but Tashjian said he intends to keep his job in Armenia "until I drop dead from the cold."

If Parliament approves, Tashjian said, the government intends to reopen a nuclear power station that was closed because of safety concerns after a devastating earthquake in 1988. Though environmentalists are likely to fight the move, Tashjian insists that the plant is safe--and that Armenia has no alternative.

All but four of Yerevan's major factories have shut down for lack of energy, throwing more than half of city residents out of work, government officials estimate.

The Luis lighting factory, for example, employed 11,000 Armenians and produced 12% of the Soviet Union's light bulbs, fixtures, headlights and street lights. It ran four kindergartens, a vacation resort for workers and even its own hairdressing salon.

Last week, the factory was idled by gas shortages. The kindergartens are closed for lack of heat. Some of the more than 300,000 refugees who have fled ethnic violence in Azerbaijan are living in the vacation cottages. Factory workers have been sent home on two-thirds of their base pay--about 1,200 rubles, or $2, a month.

Andranik Torosian, a factory supervisor, insists the new government's policies have brought war and ruin, and says Armenia's independence is not worth the price.

"With our neighbors, Armenia can never be independent," he said. "The best solution would have been to stay in the U.S.S.R. Armenia today is in poverty."

Others insist that Armenians have a history of overcoming hardship. They need it, as hardship is the norm. A small, aluminum wood-burning stove, hammered out in home workshops and sold on street corners, costs about 5,000 rubles--three times the average monthly wage. Most cooking must be done by candlelight. Regular baths are a distant memory.

City buses run less often because of the exorbitant price of imported gasoline. Last week about 150 people shoved and elbowed each other on a slushy street corner trying to cram into one overloaded bus.

"I've been waiting for two hours," said Sveta Sergeyeva, 48, who faced a five-mile walk home in the snow. "I left work early to try to get home by 3 p.m. to cook something for the kids, because the electricity comes on at 3. . . . Now I'll have to wait another two hours, and if I can't get on I'll have to sleep at work."

Sergeyeva has no stove, and since it's too cold to undress at night, she and her husband and their two teen-agers all sleep in their clothes.

"In the morning we get up, put on our boots and walk back to work," she said.

Outside the capital, conditions seem even worse. Residents said not one factory was operating in Massis, an industrial area 15 miles south of Yerevan where many ethnic Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan are living in poverty.

Cold and shortages of fuel have also compounded the misery of the tens of thousands of rural Armenians left homeless by the earthquake and still living in shacks, relief workers said.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World