Powerless Armenians freeze and starve: An energy crisis forced President Ter Petrosian to call a state of emergency, writes Hugh Pope in Yerevan

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The Independent Online
HEAVILY muffled Armenians picked in the snow among the railway tracks for grains of wheat that had fallen from a rare train of relief supplies to this blockaded and isolated Caucasus nation.

With power cuts blacking out most of the country, few people may have seen these depressing images on Armenian television. But fears that such images could become widespread in Armenia this winter have forced President Levon Ter Petrosian to declare a national emergency.

To attract world attention to Armenia's energy shortage, the government has warned that it will restart the republic's nuclear power station near the border with Turkey, closed due to seismic fears shortly after the Leninakan earthquake four years ago. Diplomats say the reactor cannot be reactivated within six months, and may never be. But the emergency is real enough.

Mr Ter Petrosian summoned Yerevan's tiny diplomatic corps to warn them most of the 3.5 million people were below the poverty line, that 40 per cent were at risk and that without help 30,000 would die. 'The situation is catastrophic. We have paid for everything, but we cannot get it. We have fuel resources for a few days only,' said the President's spokesman.

There is no baby food, but the number of mothers able to nurse their children has dropped from 70 per cent to 47 per cent in the past year alone, aid workers say. Fuel shortages are so acute that buses are rare and most people trudge to work on the icy pavements. Bread does not reach villages for weeks. Bakeries without power distribute half-baked dough. Cooking gas has been cut off. Hospitals have stopped operating because of frozen operating theatres. Schools have shut until the spring.

Huge demand for electricity during the few hours it is on every day burns out circuits, causing fires and blowing up electrical substations as people short-circuit fuse boxes and steal electricity from cables. 'People are sending their families to Moscow for the winter just to keep them warm,' said a diplomat, whose embassy, like Armenia's economy, is often crippled for lack of power. 'The worst is that this crisis is entirely artificial, it is entirely political.'

The emergency is mostly because of blockades resulting from the four-year conflict with Azerbaijan over the disputed Armenian-majority Azeri enclave of Nagorny Karabakh. For four years since Azerbaijan cut off the main source of gas, there has been no central heating during Armenia's bitter winters. Now Georgia has cut by a third gas supplied from Turkmenistan to Armenia, apparently under pressure from Azerbaijan, its main supplier.

The state of emergency has coincided with international attempts to relieve the suffering in Armenia. US and Syrian wheat has begun to arrive, but only a third of the winter crop was planted, often with bare hands as tractor fuel tanks were empty, and grain reserves will last only 15 days.

The quickest route for supplies would be through the US's ally Turkey, but Ankara, despite the relatively pro-Turkish government in Yerevan, is ambivalent about even the simplest aid projects. Another route is via Iran, but roads are poor.

Wheat is backed up seven days where the Turkish and Armenian railway systems meet. Bureaucracies complicate the Turkish-Armenian border. A train-load of milk powder was last seen at the border between Romania and Bulgaria. When one French agency took the curious decision to route a train-load of EC baby food through Azerbaijan, it disappeared.

The US has given money to Armenia and made a demarche with its old friend Eduard Shevardnadze to open up gas and other supply routes, but even the Georgian President cannot stop the brigandage that has made roads there extremely dangerous. One convoy of 140 Armenian trucks sent to fetch sugar returned with half of them emptied by brigands. More than 60 train-wagons of fuel were pilfered. Even an armoured car being shipped through the Caucasus to the US ambassador to Baku disappeared in Georgia.

Such difficulties have to be taken into account by emergency teams, including one from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that has brought blankets, food and heat to the most vulnerable group, 92,500 refugees from the war in Nagorny Karabakh and people still homeless after the Leninakan earthquake. 'The President has told us that if the fuel issue were resolved the situation would improve dramatically,' said the UNHCR representative, John Telford. Otherwise, 'whole parts of the infrastructure will decay'.