Armenians Vote With Wolf at Door

Times Staff Writer

They pile wood like treasure in the dilapidated apartment buildings here. In one freezing, spartan apartment, several hefty stumps wait for 14-year-old Anzhela Kalinina to chop them into small pieces and stack them next to the kitchen heating stove.

For Anzhela and her mother, Natalia, the wood could not have exacted a higher price. After buying fuel, the elder Kalinina, 41, cannot afford to feed her three other children, so she sent them to a local orphanage in this small town northeast of the capital, Yerevan.

"We had a family meeting," Anzhela said softly, recalling her mother's wrenching decision. "She said, 'I'm doing it for your health, so there'll be enough for you to eat.' We didn't want to be apart. All of us cried.

"When my mother came home after taking them there, I thought she was on the verge of dying. She just lay in bed and cried all the time."

Poverty is an unregistered voter as Armenia goes to the polls today in the second round of a presidential election that has been marred by intimidation and mass arrests. Although opinion polls in Armenia are either unreliable or biased, most analysts predict a victory for President Robert Kocharyan over his opponent, Stepan Demirchyan. The only wild card is the chronic poverty and the possibility that the embittered poor might lash out at the incumbent.

Gavar, a collage of shabby gray blocks imposed on the pristine snowy landscape near Lake Sevan, offers little in the way of employment. Kalinina, a former seamstress, suffers from a degenerative illness whose name she does not know but that prevents her working. The illness makes it difficult for her to gasp out the words expressing the grief of having to part with her children.

"I felt physically ill," she said, choking with effort as she described the separation. "There was no way to survive. My husband died, and I didn't have money to feed my children."

Kalinina, who is Russian, married an Armenian in Baku, the capital of neighboring Azerbaijan, which they fled in 1991 as refugees from the ethnic strife of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Cold and poverty killed her husband, a security guard who died in 1997 of complications from gangrene caused by frostbite.

"He froze his feet. He had to walk [7 1/2 miles] to work and back three winters in a row," Kalinina said.

Upon her husband's death, Kalinina's condition worsened sharply. Then 8, Anzhela was left the most able-bodied person in the family. She and the other children had to help with baby Artur, then 6 months old, and with carting water from the town well and cutting wood in the forest. Now, Anzhela says, she is too busy caring for her mother -- and too poor -- to go to school.

Four years ago, pension payments were often delayed. Now, they come more or less on time, but wood gobbles nearly half the family's monthly welfare allotment of $20. Even in summer, that's not enough for it to live on, so Anna, 12, Andranik, 10, and Artur, 6, cannot come home.

Armenia is a country full of such stories, but as President Kocharyan likes to point out on the campaign trail, the economy is growing. It grew about 10% in January compared with the same month a year earlier, he says. Numbers like that leave many Armenians bewildered or frustrated.

Growth has put a veneer of affluence on the capital as thin as the icy sheen on the city's pavements. There is an equally thin layer of wealthy Armenians, but the society is polarized. The benefits of rising tax receipts and more than $1.3 billion in U.S. assistance since 1992 have barely trickled down to the poor, and more than half the population lives beneath the poverty line.

Yerevan has its success stories, like businessman Khachatur Sukiasian, 42, who boasts that he has used his position as a member of parliament to push for tax changes that benefit Armenia -- changes that have also worked to the advantage of SIL Group, his family's highly diversified business, and Philip Morris, whose cigarettes it distributes. SIL has interests in retail, software, food processing, furniture manufacturing and three pizza restaurants.

Sukiasian is an ebullient, energetic man whose career took off in the early 1980s when he joined the Communist Party. By the time he was 27, he was director of a Soviet computer company. At 28, he bought his first Mercedes.

"As a child, I saw American chewing gum, and it fascinated me. I wanted to bring American chewing gum and American toys to this country," he said. "As you grow up, your interests change. You first want a good bicycle and then a car, and if it's a car, it should be a Mercedes. Then you build a business or open a restaurant, and it should match the standard. I always pictured my life that way."

Sukiasian has a team of 12 bodyguards and plays chess with his friends three hours a night on an outsize board.

Suggest to him that the country's biggest problem is poverty, then ask him how to solve it, and Sukiasian launches into a discussion of flat taxes, customs duties and bureaucratic corruption. Half an hour of animated monologue later, all memory of what the original question was seems erased. One of his benevolent projects was bus stops for the people. A hands-on leader, he photographed Parisian bus stops, copied the design and planted the results like metallic mushrooms around the capital. Their side benefit was as advertising space for SIL Group.

Yerevanians thus wait for buses amid European elegance. But in towns like Gavar, there are people who for many years have been unable to afford a bus trip to the capital to see such wonders.

Twice a week, Gagik Azizian, 40, and Martik Khachaturian, 39, drag a cartload of wood cut from the shores of Lake Sevan home to Gavar by foot, a five-hour labor. Their clothes are full of holes, and their broken boots are secured with string.

Both worked in Gavar factories that closed in the mid-1990s. If they had money, they would leave for Russia, becoming two more statistics in the mass exodus that has deprived Armenia of much of its population since independence. But Azizian can't afford the fare to Yerevan, let alone Russia. He spits out his words bitterly, pointing at his boots in contempt.

"Is this life? We have no money to get to Russia. We don't even have money for bread," he said. "I have two kids, and they're freezing. You sometimes have to go down on your knees at the store and beg for bread, and still they don't give it to you."

Ask him about the connection between Armenia's poverty and its long-running conflict with Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which has left Armenia under trade blockades by both Azerbaijan and Turkey, and he shrugs.

Despite years of grinding hardship, he and Khachaturian plan to vote for the nationalist Kocharyan, who helped engineer the forced resignation of the previous president, Levon A. Ter-Petrosyan, in 1998 because he was willing to compromise with Azerbaijan on the Karabakh issue.

Under Western pressure, Kocharyan has been involved in long-running talks with the Azerbaijani leader, Heydar A. Aliyev, over Karabakh -- with no sign of settlement.

"I don't know why I'm voting for Kocharyan. Life won't change with a different guy," Azizian acknowledged.

Demirchyan, Kocharyan's opponent in today's poll -- the son of a Communist-era leader who was killed in a 1999 parliament shootout -- is little known to Armenians and is vague about policies.

Critics argue that Armenia's economy would look worse if one took out the external factors -- U.S. aid equal to about 20% of revenue and $1 billion a year sent home by Armenians living abroad.

Tigran Xmalian, 40, a filmmaker in Yerevan who has won international prizes for a documentary on Armenian history, sees culture as the country's biggest asset and, as its biggest problem, the failure of politicians to address economic polarization.

"Poverty is the big and painful question. You see brand-new limousines, and the other pole is real poverty. Here, the political parties tend the wealthy. They feed them and they look after the economic clans, and the poor part of the society is neglected," he said.

For some, the sense of alienation is so great that voting seems futile. Kalinina, her face distorted by the effects of her illness, rocks and laughs when asked how she will vote.

"What's the point of voting? If they bring my children back to me and my living conditions get better, then I could vote."

*

Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
58°