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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hard Times in Armenia

Armenia, the birthplace of Christian nationhood, is a hellish place these days. Starved of essential fuel imports, the economy has collapsed. Schools, institutes and factories are closed. Temperatures regularly touch minus 15 degrees Celsius. Homes and hospitals rarely have gas for cooking, central heating or hot water. Power cuts are routine.


A lack of petrol means that farmers cannot transport food to cities. In the capital, Yerevan, there are few cars on the streets, and the underground is more often closed than open. Planes occasionally fly in with humanitarian aid, but not enough to make a difference. In the north of the country, an estimated 70 percent of those who lost their homes in the 1988 earthquake are still in temporary housing because there are no raw materials for reconstruction.


The war with neighboring Azerbaijan is the biggest contributing factor to Armenia's plight. It has left only one real link to the outside world through unstable Georgia, where convoys and trains bound for Armenia are regularly attacked and pillaged.


The Armenian situation worsened last month when the gas pipeline from Georgia was blown up (presumably by Azeris). The Georgians had already built a provisional bypass pipeline, and are working hard to repair the original, but even then it will remain an unreliable source of energy.


Armenia is at the very end of a gas supply network that passes through many other former Soviet republics. In recent months the flow has been cut because of interrepublic disputes about gas transit payments, and because of ethnic unrest in the northern Caucasus.


The Armenian government has made threatening noises about reopening the country's nuclear reactor, which was closed after the Chernobyl accident. The possibility scares, the daylights out of neighbors like Turkey, which has said it would supply Armenia with electricity during the winter to obviate the need for earthquake-prone Armenia to run the considerable risk of going nuclear again.


Given the history of enmity between Turk and Armenian, that agreement was nothing short of extraordinary. Light at the end of a long, dark tunnel so bright it makes you blink. Unfortunately no electricity has been supplied yet. Ankara says this is because of technical problems. That is probably true, but it is also true that the deal has been heavily criticized in Turkey, where public opinion strongly supports Turkic-speaking Azerbaijan.


Armenia is desperate to improve relations with Turkey. Last October, Armenia's Californian foreign minister, Raffi Hovanisian, was fired because of his vocal opposition to closer links with Turkey. Diaspora Armenians like him are most fiercely against closer ties because their ancestors were forced to flee the Turkish massacres of Armenians at the beginning of the century. Armenians from families that did not leave Armenia are, by and large, more realistic about the need to get on with modern Turkey. The tortuous mountain road to Iran is impassable for much of the year, so Turkey is the only neighbor that can help.


The first chink of light came last autumn when, after a parliamentary struggle in Ankara, the Turkish government agreed to allow U. S. and European wheat to be delivered to Armenia along the old czarist railway that links the two countries. This has not prevented the introduction of bread rationing in Armenia, but it was nevertheless an act of immense symbolic importance.


Of course, linked to the question of better relations with Turkey, the biggest relief to the Armenian economy would be an early resolution of the war with Azerbaijan. In spite of Armenia's catastrophic economic situation Armenian troops and irregulars continue to fight. Armenian tanks and helicopters have fuel while Yerevan's hospitals often do not. If anything good can come of Armenia's present crisis, it should be the realization that the conflict is destroying Armenia's attempts to become a viable independent state. The onus is on the Armenians to extend an olive branch before it is too late.


Alexis Rowell is the BBC correspondent in the Caucasus.