Documentary : Winter Freezes Yerevan's Fragile Hopes for Progress : Armenian capital is a frightening study of how a modern, industrial city can be brought to its knees.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In this shivering, snowy, blockaded city, people do their complaining with humor and by candlelight. Question: What's the best kind of birth control in Armenia? Answer: Who needs birth control when we all live in overcoats?

Armenia was once considered among the most promising of all the former Soviet republics. Now, in this newborn nation it is simply too cold to undress. People sleep in their clothes and fantasize about a hot bath.

The politics of this debacle are not simple. Armenia became independent 17 months ago but has been steadily waging an undeclared war with neighboring Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous enclave populated mainly by ethnic Armenians but located inside Azerbaijan.

Christian Armenia accuses Muslim Azerbaijan of trying to drive out the ethnic Armenians in order to seize their lands in Nagorno-Karabakh. Energy-rich Azerbaijan accuses energy-poor Armenia of territorial aggression and has cut off all shipments of oil, gas and food to its landlocked neighbor.

Starved for gas and electricity to keep factories running, Armenia's economy is collapsing. It lacks even enough fuel to keep airplanes flying on a regular schedule. Jets arrive from Moscow and sit on the tarmac for hours or days until fuel arrives.

Meanwhile, back in the Russian capital, the wait for a seat on a flight to Yerevan can stretch to three or four days. Three years ago, Western businessmen flocked to Armenia in search of investment opportunities. Now it seems only relief workers and journalists want to go.

The longer I spent in Moscow's dingy Vnukovo airport waiting for a plane to Armenia, the more I thought of another old saw. Question: How do you spot a journalist? Answer: At the scene of any horrifying calamity, when all sane people are running for their lives, the journalist is the idiot hellbent for the disaster zone.

* Aeroflot is every bit as awful as its reputation. Its former Communist bureaucracy has devolved into a dollar-devouring parody of capitalist inefficiency. Today, the airline offers Third World service at First World prices.

Though three flights a day are scheduled to Yerevan, some days none depart. Undeterred, Aeroflot continues to sell out for all three flights. A resulting mob of frustrated ticket-holders spend their days trying to beg, cajole or bribe their way aboard.

After three days at the mercy of Aeroflot's surly staff, we are finally hustled onto a bedraggled jet whose interior was painted dark gray in, say, 1956. It's now peeling. Some seats are broken. Others lack safety belts. Suitcases are piled three feet high in the aisles, blocking emergency exits. Smoking is forbidden, but everyone does it anyway--especially in the bathrooms.

The pilots, however, are Armenian and friendly. Asked how they are surviving the acute shortages back home, they tell of shaving by kerosene lamp and cutting trees for firewood. One pilot cheerfully confides that he smuggles gasoline for his car into the hold of every flight back to Yerevan--including this one.

"Isn't that dangerous?" I ask.

"No, I know how to do it safely," he answers. "I use canisters that are hermetically sealed."

Other pilots want to know why the West seems so indifferent to Armenia's plight.

"Why is the whole world shouting about the 400 Palestinian people who were deported (from Israel) when they don't care about the Armenians who are suffering because of the blockade?" asked pilot Alexander Teocevich, 42. "Why can they protect Kuwait and not us? Because we don't have oil."

* Yerevan is a frightening study of how fast a modern, vibrant, industrial city can be brought to its knees. The ancient, cultured capital has had no heat throughout this unusually bitter winter. When it isn't smoggy or snowing, people can lift their eyes to the snow-topped peak of Mt. Ararat. But these days, they are more likely to be looking down at their frozen feet.

It's a good day when each neighborhood gets four hours of electricity. One or two hours is more likely. Only a small fraction of the city's telephones are working. Bread is rationed. Other food is available, but at such wildly inflated wartime prices that ever fewer Armenians can afford it.

The price of a gallon of imported gasoline is roughly equal to the average Armenian's monthly salary. Official gas stations closed long ago. Our driver stopped every few kilometers for bargaining sessions with the green tanker trucks that sell smuggled gasoline.

Government officials insist that despite the crisis, no Armenians have frozen or starved to death. But day after day of grinding cold, shortages and privation have left many people at the end of their endurance.

To ask questions in a Yerevan bread line is to risk provoking a riot. A crowd of people rush up to tell their troubles and shout down their fellow citizens. Yerevanis say the bread lines have actually gotten shorter now that a rationing system is in place. Still, 70-year-old Khnarik Geverkian waited five hours in subfreezing temperatures to buy her family's rations: 250 grams, or less than a quarter of a loaf per person per day.

"Today, I paid 1,600 rubles for one kilogram of cheese and one chicken," Geverkian said. Her monthly pension is 1,200 rubles. "How can we live?"

After hunger, there is no human drive stronger in Yerevan than the quixotic desire to keep your feet warm. No gas or oil means no central heating, which means no radiators on which to dry wet socks. If you can afford an electric stove, it will warm you--but only if the power happens to come on when you are home.

Armenians are famous for their fortitude. On my third day tramping through greater Yerevan, I asked my translator whether he had grown inured to the discomfort.

"Are you kidding?" he said. "My feet have been aching for three days."

Armenians are also famous for their hospitality. Not only will they offer visitors their last scrap of food, but if they have a kerosene or wood-burning stove, they will invite their guests to take off their boots and warm their feet. Even more graciously, they will pretend not to notice the ensuing smell of fetid foot and roasted sock. But a good guest must at last go home.

I was secretly pondering the sock problem while interviewing a former British army chaplain at 11:30 p.m. in a stone-cold hotel lobby. Our breath came in clouds and our tea chilled almost as fast as we could drink it.

The minister, now organizing relief efforts, was arguing that the siege of Armenia, though painful, is not nearly as agonizing as the London Blitz of World War II. I interrupted him and asked if his British army training included any tricks for warming up frozen feet before bed.

He counseled vigorous exercise to stimulate the cardiovascular system--but not enough to break into a sweat. Dive into your sleeping bag while still warm.

At midnight, I do jumping jacks in my hotel room by candlelight. It works. I wonder if the Armenians have tried this.

* Adversity breeds tall tales. The city grapevine has it that packs of starving dogs, abandoned by owners who can no longer feed them, are roaming the streets at night "eating" pedestrians. Alas, I have neglected to pack dog repellent.

Government officials insist that no one has been killed by dogs, though they say there have been isolated bites. The militia has orders to shoot any strays found on the street after midnight, and the local press reports that hundreds of dogs have already been done in.

Nonetheless, we spot a pack of nine canine delinquents in a city square at 8:30 a.m. They chase cars, including ours, and harass pedestrians. One man fends them off by pelting them with snowballs.

"They look a lot hungrier than they used to," says a U.S. diplomat. "I have not had any problems, but I've taken to carrying a stick around with me."

* Some Armenians now believe that breaking out of the Soviet Union was a mistake. But it is unclear whether the blockade has eroded public support for Nagorno-Karabakh.

An Armenian former military officer says he thinks the war with Azerbaijan is ill advised and unwinnable--then asks not to be named because "they will kill me in the street."

Others say they will never abandon Karabakh.

"Despite the fact that we have no gas, water, light or electricity, we will go on fighting," said Dias Kholyan, whose family spends nights huddled around a wood-burning stove. Added his wife, "I'm not going to change my opinion, even after a thousand winters worse than this one."

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