by Marianna Grigoryan
The woman's nimble fingers are skillfully kneading dough, sprinkling it with fragrant mountain herbs and putting it into an oval shape. After a while the pleasant and familiar smell of Artsakh jingialov-hats placed on a small stove spreads throughout the multicolored market of central Stepanakert.
"For many years I was working in a factory and the idea that some day in my life it would be my lot to be making jingialov-hats (a bread delicacy peculiar to Karabakh) never crossed my mind," says 52-year-old Naira Danielian, who has a small booth in the market. "I was very young when my mother taught me how to cook jingialov-hats. It's good I know now how to cook it, otherwise I'd have found myself at a loss."
The Minister of Social Security of Nagorno-Karabakh Republic Lenston Ghulian says that many of Karabakh's 145,000 residents share hardships such as Naira's.
"Some are engaged in agriculture or beekeeping," he says, "and in cities a big part of the population is engaged in service industry and trade. Times have changed and everybody in their own way tries to find a way out of the present situation."
The concept of a "consumer basket"—a sociological barometer for measuring daily needs—has not caught on in Karabakh. Unofficially, though, Ghulian says about $50 monthly per resident is necessary for a "normal" life.
Increases in salaries were put in place in Karabakh at the beginning of this year, however the average wage earner cannot support a family.
The Minister says it is difficult to say what percentage of the population fits typical definitions of "needy" or "socially vulnerable", as no defined system for such measurement is in place in Karabakh.
"We can only roughly say that approximately 50 percent of the NKR population is in very difficult social conditions and unemployment is one of the main causes," says Ghulian.
Anahit Danielian, who lives in Shushi, says unemployment remains one of the most painful issues for the majority of residents.
"In our family I'm the only one who has work and I earn 15,000 drams (about $25 per month)," says Anahit, who sells candles at the church in Shushi. "In this regard I can say that we are lucky, because there are people who haven't been able to find work for many years. With my salary and a few beehives I, my husband and our three sons exist."
According to official 2003 statistics, the unemployment rate is approximately six percent in Karabakh—primarily made up of women who have not had jobs since Soviet times.
But the official figure is useless in determining Karabakh's reality, because the number only concerns those who have registered at employment centers. The great majority have not.
Pre-independence and pre-war, Karabakh was the site of textile factories, medical equipment production, shoe factories and other industry using mainly imported raw materials and providing steady jobs and incomes. Only a few such places operate today, and those only at a fraction of their previous capacity.
Outside the capital, most rely on agriculture for their family needs and for additional income. Slowly, though, industry is returning to Karabakh, which now includes a furniture factory, a wine factory and a vodka distillery producing the republic's regionally-famous mulberry liquor.
"These companies bring not only freshness into the life of Karabakh but also provide people with work and instill hope for a better tomorrow," Minister Ghulian says. "Everything slowly gets back on a normal routine."
For the vast majority of Karabakh's women, today's "normal routine" means no jobs. Ninety percent of the unemployed are women, and many of those are widowed by war, or have husbands who left to find work abroad and didn't return.
But there is help for those with an enterprising spirit. In 2001, the United Methodist Committee on Relief won a $2 million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development to implement a business program especially for the women of Karabakh.
The "Sustainable Assistance for Women" program makes it possible for women in 42 towns and villages to get loans ranging from $300 to $3,000, repayable at two percent interest.
So far, 7,468 loans have been granted, 98 percent of which averaged $340.
According to Nara Ghazarian, who oversees USAID's work in Karabakh, about 60 percent of the loans were taken for purchasing livestock. One woman, however, has used the loan program to open a floral business. With money earned after taking her first loan, she qualified for and received a larger loan and has opened a second shop and is planning for a third loan to make improvements in her business.
Ninety-eight percent of the borrowers have paid off their loans.
"We had a lot of concerns in the beginning, because the idea of making loans is a new idea for NKR," Ghazarian says. "But the women are very responsible, and the repayment rate is a good indication of that.
With at least some sustenance programs in place in the job force, the Social Security minister says attention is now being focused on finding provisions for pensioners and for encouraging an increase in the birth rate.
According to data of the National Statistical Service of NKR, there are more than 28,000 civil service pensioners in the republic.
The average pensioner gets around 6,600 drams (about $11.50) a month.
"It is not possible to live, getting only those few thousand drams," says the head of the Department of Social and Retirement Insurance of the Ministry of Social Security Vahram Arakelian.
Liza Asrian, 75, is one of the elderly cared for by the state in a retirement home.
"It is impossible to get along on the pension I get," she says. "You cannot even buy bread for a month. Here (in the home) at least they take care of me."
The director of the elderly home in Stepanakert, Irina Sargsian, says that old people suffered most of all from the war and changes in the structure of society.
"Extremely hard social conditions made the greater part of people in our elderly home come to live here," says Sargsian. "Years ago the situation was much worse and that's why the elderly home was created. Nobody could have ever expected that one day such an institution would be necessary in Karabakh. However today, thank God, it seems everything is stabilizing."
Maria Balian, 81, is one for whom life in her late years has become stable. After living alone in a village for seven years (she is originally from Baku), she moved into the retirement home in Stepanakert.
"Even if the salary for single elderly was 20,000 drams (about $35), it wouldn't be enough to meet our common needs," she says. "But now (living in the retirement home) we don't have to worry about that. When we wake up in the morning we don't worry about whether we'll have something to eat. And in the winters, we don't worry about whether we'll have heat."
"It is very good here. They even give me dye so that I can color my hair, and sometimes I ask myself if this is a home for the old or for the young."
The problem of caring for the elderly is exacerbated by the fact that Karabakhtsis tend to live longer than most in the region.
"If we held first place in birth rates then everything would be much better," Ghulian says.
Though efforts are being made to encourage procreation, Karabakh's birth rate—which showed a slight increase three years ago—has fallen over the past two years.
In 2001, 2,306 births were recorded (an increase of 81 babies). But in 2002 the number was 2190, a decrease of 116. (Figures for 2003 were not available at the time of this report.)
Residents of Stepanakert say that within recent years some families have decided to have children for the purpose of getting assistance from the government.
The government's population subsidies offer incentives for residents to have large families. For example, a family that has at least four children gets free electricity. With six children, a family is given a house. And if a family has 10 children, it gets a car.
"I have seven children and the government built a house for us," says Shushi resident Stella Hakobian. "However, it's not possible to take care of a family having only a house. I must also feed my children, send them to school, and it is very hard as they need clothes and shoes. But we cannot buy this stuff."
Director of Secondary School No. 8, Liudmila Hovhannisian, says that school can be the real mirror of society, where social conditions of children, the spirit of society, as well as immigration and emigration are reflected.
"Of course today there are many needy families," she says. "However, from year to year the situation is getting better. In 1994-95 half of our pupils were in extremely hard social conditions. But today only 250 to 300 pupils of the school's 1,200 live in hard conditions."
Hovhannisian says that only a few years ago there were children who wore summer shoes to school even during winter, as they had no second pair.
"I remember very well when 40 pairs of shoes were given to the school as aid and all those shoes were for girls," she recalls. "However, most of our pupils were boys, and we didn't know what to do and who we should have helped.
"It was hard those years and if those days there were families leaving the country then within recent years a completely different situation has occurred. Many people want to come back to their native land; they want their children to study in their native land."
Specialists say that education in Karabakh is on a good level and children's interest in education hasn't decreased. Many, though, are concerned about the low wages of teachers, who earn only an average of 17,000-19,000 drams (about $30-$34) a month, a wage, however, compatible to that earned in Armenia.
"It's impossible to live when you get such a salary. That's why teachers seek other ways for living and satisfying needs of their families. There are teachers who bake bread for income," says Hovhannisian. "Months ago it was said that teachers' salaries would increase, but they haven't yet. But prices for bread, macaroni and other foodstuff have already increased and in case salaries increase anyway it will turn out that nothing was changed."
The teacher says that while general conditions show improvement, as reflected in her students, there are still lingering reminders of war.
"The war resulted in many diseases that children are sick with now such as diabetes, different fears, stammering," she says. "Besides, the number of children who study at home has increased at least 10 times. They are mainly children whose mental abilities for some reasons are weaker than other children. The reason lies in stress and fears. That's why within the last year we have seen the necessity to have psychologists and speech therapists in schools."
Still, interest in education is high in Karabakh. A majority of high school graduates attempt to attend university. Few, however—perhaps conscious of the situation of their own teachers—study to be educators.