Independence strikes wrong notes in hungry Armenia: A bitter conflict with Azerbaijan is sapping a new nation's resources, and confusing its people, Hugh Pope writes from Yerevan

Click to follow
THE sacrifice of a chicken was the best Gayaneh Arudunian said she could do for her 14-year-old son, climbing alongside her up the steps to the ancient stone church and grotto of St Gregory the Illuminator.

A week's wages had gone on the traditional Armenian animal sacrifice, held tightly in an old plastic bag before being despatched on a terrace looking towards the clouds shrouding the snow-capped peak of Mount Ararat.

'It's for the health of my son. There's no other reason to hope,' said Mrs Arudunian, a shop assistant who looked far older than her 49 years. 'I don't understand anything any more.'

Mrs Arudunian is disillusioned like many Armenians after a year of independence, economic collapse and continued war with Azerbaijan over the Armenian- populated enclave of Nagorny Karabakh.

Armenia's 3.3 million people once enjoyed one of the highest standards of living in the former Soviet Union. Now the world's first Christian nation has not only failed to attract back its rich diaspora, but is losing people daily on erratic flights out of Yerevan that have dozens standing in the aisles.

'We have changed in the past four years, from bad to worse. Armenians were warm, generous. Now they are uncontrolled, they rob, they kill,' said Hasmik Yerenoussian, a teacher of English. 'We have no light, we have no gas. Prices are running higher and higher all the time. I am losing my interest in everything.'

Signs of the collapse of a once exuberant culture are everywhere. Almost all schools, institutes and factories are closed. Every house seems to have a piano, but few people have fingers warm enough to play.

Animal sacrifices aside, even religion has not brought new answers. A charismatic Christian awakening that followed the devastating Leninakan earthquake in 1988 has petered out. Now the 22 poorly attended churches in Armenia are even outnumbered by the 33 Armenian places of worship still open in Istanbul. An Armenian bishop told of how Armenian brigands had robbed him of everything, even his gold episcopal ring.

At the academy of sciences in the capital, Yerevan, one of the world's few particle accelerators lies idle. Lack of power means that scientists often could not even make coffee, if they had any.

Corruption is such that one lecturer took a fortnight to find a teaching space not allocated for private students by a 'room mafia'. Other free-enterprise 'mafias' bring in planeloads of supplies each night, at prices beyond most people's reach.

One of the only functioning restaurants to be found on the icy, unlit streets of Yerevan is usually known as 'the mafia restaurant' thanks to its sharp-looking local clientele. Basement casinos make up the only other nightlife. Gunfire is frequently heard, mostly harmless shots into the air but sometimes pitting gang against gang.

Ordinary families, huddled around stoves in their smallest and best-sealed rooms, blame the government of Levon Ter Petrosian. The mild-mannered, 47-year- old academic's Armenian all-National Movement won power in 1990 and he was elected president with 83 per cent of the vote in October 1991.

Mr Ter Petrosian has, in fact, sacked a number of officials for corruption. But he is a poor communicator with his argumentative people, even if he does know a dozen oriental languages. 'He must tell the people that we are at war. Our President must speak,' said Gourgan Melikian, a professor of Persian literature.

Mr Melikian, however, estimated support for Mr Ter Petrosian at about half the population, as do diplomats based in Yerevan.

'Armenia is the sort of place where you have to check your logic in at the door, so it's hard to tell. But there is no real opposition leader to challenge him,' said one.

Yerevan's biggest-selling newspaper, Yergir, is the mouthpiece of the Dashnakstutiun, the century- old nationalist movement that is the main opposition and flag- bearer of the Armenian side of the conflict in Nagorny Karabakh.

'Our people's expectations did not come true that everything would be all right after the fall of the Communist Party . . . now they are psychologically depressed. They have no faith,' said Yergir's unsmiling editor, Arvan Vartanian. 'I'm also tired, hungry and cold.'

The 'Dashnaks' have access to the fund-raising and lobbying of the 4 million people of the Armenian diaspora - a Los Angeles- based Armenian once gave a dollars 3m ( pounds 1.9m) cheque for Dashnak-run Karabakh.

But external links are not everything. There is growing resentment at the diaspora's pushing of the Karabakh issue at the expense of all else, and that even emergency aid could be done better.

'I always try to explain that bringing a couple of hundred kilos of powdered milk . . . has just a one-time use,' said Ashot Ghazarian, representing the Armenian General Benevolent Union, one of the biggest institutional donors. '(Diaspora visitors say) what beautiful nature, what beautiful mountains - when things have settled down, I'll come back.'

To be fair, there is no Armenian constitution yet, let alone citizenship or investment laws. But only between 100 and 300 people from the diaspora have returned to build a new Armenia, and even then there is sometimes resentment at their brash, can-do Western ways and their appropriation of plum jobs, salaries and accommodation.

The diaspora are mostly descendants of survivors of the First World War massacres of Armenians in eastern Turkey. While three generations of Soviet education have been given to the Armenians at home, they have often become wealthy in Paris, Beirut or Los Angeles.

The misunderstandings came to a head over Raffi Hovanassian, who achieved the legally dubious distinction of becoming the foreign minister of an independent country while remaining a United States citizen.

Despite backing from Dashnaks and diaspora money, Mr Hovanassian was forced to resign in October for an anti-Turkish speech at a time when President Ter Petrosian was trying to normalise relations with Armenia's old foes.

'It was a symbol of the path we have already chosen,' said Reuben Shugarian, Mr Ter Petrosian's spokesman. 'There will be emotions stirred. The policy of Armenia is now being made here. The diaspora will have to learn to live with that.'

MOSCOW - Armenia has appealed to the world community for humanitarian aid and fuel to relieve a crippling energy blockade, Reuter reports.

President Ter Petrosian has sent messages to George Bush, Boris Yeltsin, and the United Nations Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, asking for help, the Itar-Tass news agency quoted his spokesman as saying. Tass said Yerevan's underground railway had shut down because electricity supplies had run out.