by Louise Manoogian Simone
Exhaustion, tension, depression, fear. The euphoria of independence is a distant memory as everyone tries to recover from a grueling, debilitating winter. Again and again one hears “I guess if we got through these past four months we can get through anything.”
With no heat, hot water or gas, limited fuel, intermittent electricity, skyrocketing inflation, blockade and the escalating war in Karabagh, the downturn since my last trip in October is dramatic. Survival is all that is in the hearts and minds of 3,500,000 people in Armenia.
For the handful of elite, BMWs, Mercedes and multimillion ruble homes have become prized possessions. For everyone else the subsistence of the family is a day in and day out struggle. Monthly salaries of 100, 200 and 500 rubles have been doubled, tripled and quadrupled in the past six months to no avail. A quick trip to the market is a small indication of the rapidly rising prices. Two dozen eggs – 120 rubles, 10 oranges and 10 tomatoes – 400 rubles, bread that used to sell for kopeks – 3 to 4 rubles, meat that was once 7 rubles a kilo now 125, butter, milk and flour, a luxury. Only the 30% increase in harvest last year, a direct result of the privatization of farm land, has prevented hunger as village families stockpiled food for the winter.
The first morning we ate breakfast in the hotel, it was a shock. Normally costing eight or ten rubles we were handed a bill of 300 rubles for four people. For us the cost was as usual … barely three U.S. dollars. You have to carry five thick inches of 50 and 100 ruble bills to get through the week and that’s only to eat.
U.S. government food aid, shipped a month ago, is still being held by Turkish authorities who purposely release only a few carloads at a time. Hundreds of tons of perishable food, purchased in other republics by the Armenian government, have been blockaded at the border by the Azerbaijanis.
Colder than normal, the winter was fierce. Sealing windows and doors, residents attempted to keep warm by purchasing kerosene heaters, a safety hazard with small children in the house, or “Franklin” stoves, carrying hard to come by wood up many flights of stairs. Marble floors and pillars in many buildings are cracked or shattered from the freezing temperatures. With factories, schools and institutions closed, water pipes were drained to keep from bursting.
Rickety buses and trams, often dangerously tilting to one side and spewing black fumes, are jam packed with passengers as people forego the use of cars. Fuel, in short supply, is now 35 rubles a litre, 800 rubles to fill a tank. It can easily cost a month’s salary to drive from Leninakan to Yerevan. Everyone stores an extra container of fuel in the trunk, just in case, the smell pervading the entire car. In ten years of visiting Armenia I have never seen so little traffic in the streets. At night the town is deserted.
The state of health care is alarming. Medical treatment and surgery is down to only the most urgent cases because medicine and anesthesia are so scarce. Even in the best of times a mere 30% of the demand was available, and of that amount 70% purchased by Moscow in rubles or in trade from East Germany and Eastern Europe. Patients are now told to find their own medicine if they want to be treated in the hospital. Without foreign currency there is no immediate solution. Lack of electricity has forced institutions to resort to Russian or Armenian made generators. Bulky, noisy and maximum 200 KVA, it takes 10 minutes to restart electricity when power is interrupted, causing critical delay during surgery.
Unemployment is another new phenomenon in the former Soviet Union. 600,000 in Armenia are without jobs. Factories that received raw materials or parts from other regions are continually being shut down. Academic and cultural institutions are facing severe or total budget cuts. Laborers, musicians, composers, professors, scientists, writers, and a myriad of professionals, straight across the board, know their days are numbered. Yet, at the same time, a qualified, competent cadre of middle and upper management is in short supply.
The economy is in total disarray. People have no extra money to spend and production, most of which reached its peak in 1970, cannot compete in the world market let alone serve the needs of the population. A majority of the factories are beyond renovation and only good for sale as scrap metal. Thousands of buildings stand half finished, not just in the earthquake zone but throughout the country, abandoned by the Soviet Union as the economy began to crumble as early as ten years ago.
The remnants of the earthquake are apparent in the disaster area everywhere you turn. I can never forget the head of a major American humanitarian agency working in Armenia telling me six months after the earthquake, “It will take twenty years to rebuild.” I remember looking at him astonished wondering how he could say such a thing. Now I know he was right.
The war in Karabagh, often cited as another Lebanon, is an open wound, inflicting terrible sorrow and pain on the entire population. Many women and children have been relocated to safer villages, the remaining residents relegated to days and nights crowded, sometimes up to 300 people, in one basement. Food is in dangerously short supply and even the spring and summer will bring little relief if bombardment prevents the planting of fields. Death comes to a family every day.
Each year we think we have seen the worst only to have another dire calamity test the endurance of a population that has not known a day of calm in four years.
It’s easy to say, as many people here and at home often express, “It was too early for independence. In the old days at least people were secure.” But, since one is now free to critically analyze and investigate conditions, it is obvious the empire began its decline long ago. Espousing equality and social concern, a succession of Soviet leaders and bureaucrats have pillaged the land and robbed the people of their self worth from the onset of Communism.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and its centralized totalitarian government in Moscow has not yet brought an end to the system. Armenia, the only republic to elect a non-Communist president, has begun the democratic process but it will take a generation to reap the benefits. From the outside we tend to judge the progress on a month to month basis when at best we have to take the long view.
Confronted by internal dissension in Russia, Ukraine and Georgia, a war in Azerbaijan, the historic conflict with Turkey, the end of billions of rubles in subsidies, without foreign currency and access to the sea and a population that has been forced, mentally and physically, to rely on the center, Armenian officials face many harrowing years implementing the decisions that will modernize the state.
Each and every necessary step towards true democracy is fraught with complications. Much is dependent on the commitment of foreign powers in easing the transition, on the honesty and decisiveness of today’s elected officials and, of course, the endurance and future initiative of the general population.
The convertibility of the ruble (or whatever currency the various republics adopt) is essential for buying power. Deeply in debt and sometimes without sufficient collateral, the international community will have to make concessions if the independent new nations of the former Soviet Union are ever to be economically viable.
Russia, still in command of air and rail transport, communications, banking and the military must reach mutually agreeable settlements with the other republics. The immediate takeover by Russia of all foreign embassies and consulates was the first example of the inequality of distribution. The republics, all of whom paid their share over these many years, will have to spend billions to replace these national institutions and facilities.
Developing a legitimate private sector, as an alternative to total reliance on government, is a priority. There can be no freedom if everything is owned by the state. Presently the only financially viable private sector is the “Mafia”, a term loosely used for the powerful elite, the majority comprised of ex-Communist officials, black marketeers and the criminal element. The first two are probably the most likely precursors of tomorrow’s corporate leaders. Russians jokingly refer to “privatisatsia” as “prikhvatisatsia” (piratisation).
Privatization in Armenia has been legally enacted with the agricultural land, the first republic to do so. A quick glance at the results are an indication of the problems connected with the development of private initiative. Although considerably increasing the harvest, farmers still face insurmountable obstacles. Seed is in short supply, tractors are scarce and then barely up to pre-world war II standards. The limited availability and cost of fuel threatens the operation of even these inadequate, antiquated machines. Government expenses for irrigation and spraying may force higher taxes, cutting deeply into expected profits. Cattle are dying daily because of the lack of feed and veterinary medicine. With maintenance difficult, slaughtering is common, farmers eager to sell the meat for quick income.
The government has plans underway to sell off all partially finished buildings in order to encourage the completion of construction. Left to individual initiative, without doubt equipment and materials will somehow be found but until a banking system is established offering large and small business loans only the “elite” will have the financial resources for purchase.
Cooperatives, originally legalized by the Soviets as small employee owned ventures, are the closest thing to normal business enterprise. Competent laborers and managers are rapidly relocating to work in the cooperatives which pay higher salaries. Always scrambling for raw materials, supplies and equipment, these manufacturing and service ventures find success difficult. The shortage of energy, as in every industry, seriously affected their income this winter.
Inheriting a central command system which controlled the entire country and its population, the new government of Armenia has its work cut out for them. The elected governing body (Supreme Council) is comprised of the President and the Parliament with the presidentially appointed Council of Ministers administering day to day business. How smoothly and intelligently they dismantle the government monopoly on industry, commerce and property will be the measure of their success.
Present government officials, particularly the top echelon, put in 12 to 14 hours, seven days a week, not including the many times of crises when offices are lit through the night. There are no vacations, no outside activities and very little family life left, children sometimes coming to the office to spend a few precious moments with their father.
Parliamentarians (or deputies), paid about 400 rubles a month, still work at their previous full-time jobs, many traveling long distances for the six months a year the parliament is in session. Some positions, such as mayor of their home town, might today be considered a conflict of interest. Elected under the old Soviet law and before independence, the changing and expanding national and international issues are becoming overwhelming. Often it is impossible for the president and the Council of Ministers to abide by the democratic process as critical events demand immediate decisions. With no staff and no previous experience researching current political issues, seeking expert outside opinions or making fact finding trips necessary for crucial policy making decisions, most discussions in Parliament revolve around personal opinion. Unfamiliar with the presidential system and its normal influence on legislation, many deputies fear that Ter Petrossian’s presidency may turn into a dictatorship. (They need a quick study of “Thatcherism” or the Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan and Bush years.)
The pressure at the top is almost unbelievable. There is no time for golf here. Observing at a distance the schedules of President Ter Petrossian, Chairman of the Parliament Papken Ararktsian and Vice President and Prime Minister Gagik Harutunian one can only be amazed at the pace of events (and these are the only ones I happen to know of). VISITING DELEGATIONS DURING APRIL 9-20: Senators DeConcini, Akaka, Congressman Jeffords and their accompanying aides from Washington, Baroness Cox and her team from England after touring Karabagh, 30 government and private sector representatives from England to inaugurate English-Armenian hospital project in Kirovakan, Embassy officials from Norway and Israel, Russian, Japanese and Iranian businessmen and officials, American, Belgian, Bulgarian, French and Lebanese Armenians, all on special projects. EVENTS: Ter Petrossian flies to Greece for 3-day conference; explosion of military depot in Abovian, 300,000 evacuated during the night; Ararktsian and Harutunian in office 24 hours straight; Ter Petrossian returns to Armenia, leaving conference midway; Ararktsian chairs eight hour daily Parliament sessions; Harutunian and Ministers prepare detailed financial proposals for meetings in France on April 16; Harutunian appears at all day budget hearings in Parliament; scheduling and agenda for Ter Petrossian’s visit to Syria, April 25; Azeri attacks on Armenian border and investigation of the death of Karabagh Parliament Chairman Artur Mkrtchian; countless telephone calls and meetings to expedite shipments of stalled food, fuel and supplies; negotiations and implementation for temporary bridge to be built over Arax river for transportation to and from Iran; staff meetings, appointments and calls from dozens of ministers on critical health, economic, education and social issues; meetings with district and town officials on local problems, citizens on housing problems, cultural and scientific representatives alarmed at budget cuts in their various institutions. And so it goes, day in and day out.
The coming months, probably years, do not bode well. It’s going to be a long hard battle. The war in Karabagh is taking a heavy toll. Nakichevan, supported by Turkey and Azerbaijan, may pose another threat. Three hundred thousand Armenians in Georgia could be uprooted if their internal conflict is not resolved. And last, but never least, Turkey has again rattled its old sword. The geopolitics of Armenia continues to be a reminder of our historic past.
But with all the hardships and tragedy there is an indomitable spirit in Armenia. Each month brings a new awakening as our fellow Armenians move out of their long isolation; governing their country, membership in the UN, acceptance into the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, negotiations for funding from the European Community, the first ever kidney transplant in Yerevan, an American Embassy in Armenia, an Armenian Embassy in England and the US, farmers plowing their own land, a shopkeeper investing in his first family enterprise, a priest giving Bible classes in a public school and the children, hundreds of thousands of children growing up in a free democratic society.
It’s been just seven months since independence and four months since Levon Ter Petrossian was elected President. We’ve come a long way.