For Armenia, deepening isolation and little hope

International Herald Tribune, France
Dec 15 2004

For Armenia, deepening isolation and little hope

By Susan Sachs
The New York Times
Wednesday, December 15, 2004

YEREVAN, Armenia Landlocked and stuck in a cold war with two of its
four neighbors, Armenia has rarely seemed so alone as in the past few
months.

Citing terrorism concerns, Russia abruptly sealed its border with
Georgia in September and kept it closed for nearly two months,
effectively cutting off the road that was the main transit route for
Armenian trade with Russia.

At the same time, Armenians had to watch from the sidelines as
Azerbaijan and Georgia celebrated the completion of a large section
of the pipeline to carry Caspian Sea oil to the Turkish port of
Ceyhan. The $3 billion regional energy project bypasses Armenia
entirely.

Another bitter pill came in October, when the European Union’s
executive commission recommended that Turkey start negotiations for
full membership without first having to end its rail and land
blockade of Armenia.

For many people in this impoverished country, the events added up to
a scary reminder of their deepening isolation.

“If nothing changes, Armenia will be left as an island,” said Levon
Barseghyan, a political activist in Gyumri, a rundown town on the
railroad line that was closed by Turkey in 1992. “Everyone will
forget about Armenia.”

As winter closes in, bringing the risk of new hardships in a country
heavily dependent on imports and foreign aid, the prospects for
change appear slim without outside intervention.

Armenia’s long-running conflict with Azerbaijan, its oil-producing
neighbor to the east, remains one of the more intractable problems
left from the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Both countries claim Nagorno-Karabakh, a slice of land that is
geographically inside the borders of Azerbaijan but is controlled by
ethnic Armenian separatists. Their six-year war over Karabakh ended
with a ceasefire in 1994, after 35,000 people were killed and an
estimated one million people, most of them Azeri, became refugees.

Turkey, Armenia’s big neighbor to the west, has backed its Turkic
ally, Azerbaijan, and closed its land border with Armenia. Turkish
leaders have said they would not reopen the border until Armenia
takes steps to withdraw its troops from in and around Karabakh.
Meanwhile, peace negotiations have stalled despite mediation efforts
by Russia, France and the United States.

“On neither side is there a public mood that is conducive to
compromise,” said a western diplomat in Yerevan, speaking on
condition of anonymity.

The stalemate has left Armenia boxed in from the east and the west,
excluded from the giant Caspian Sea energy pipeline that should
provide hefty transit fees for the other countries it passes through.

Turkish and Russian goods make their way to Armenia – Turkey is its
seventh largest trading partner – but with the added cost of road
transit through third countries like Georgia or by the planes that
operate flights between Yerevan and Istanbul.

Georgia’s roads, however, have sometimes been closed because of
political instability or, as was the case this fall, because of
action by Russia. Armenia’s only other direct outlet is through Iran
to the south, where trade has been hampered by a poor road network
and lack of rail lines.

Given the impact of their unresolved conflict with Azerbaijan,
Armenian officials have been eager to revive peace talks. But they
have also have refused to make unilateral concessions on Karabakh,
which they refer to as liberated Armenian territory, in exchange for
Turkey’s reopening of rail and road traffic.

“We won’t trade off Karabakh for a railroad,” said the foreign
minister, Vardan Oskanyan, adding that Armenians have learned to cope
with their isolation. “Things are evolving around us. Let it be.”

Many Armenians, foreign donors and economists are not nearly as
sanguine. While the economy has recovered from the near-total
blockade on Armenia in the early 1990s, the gross domestic output is
no higher than it was in 1988, before a devastating earthquake. A
reopening of the eastern and western borders, according to
international studies, would quickly boost its growth rate by as much
as 50 percent.

Meanwhile, despite infusions of cash from Armenians living abroad
that account for more than 20 percent of the country’s income, nearly
half of the country’s 3 million people live in poverty on less than
$2 a day. The limited opportunities have contributed to an exodus of
working-age Armenians since independence 13 years ago, with some
estimates putting the population loss at nearly 30 percent.

Such dire circumstances might be expected to provoke political
unrest. But they have not noticeably weakened President Robert
Kocharian, a Karabakh native and former commander of the separatist
forces who was reelected to a second term last year.

“Every day the government tells us our economy can flourish without
opening the Turkish border and without solving the Karabakh problem,”
said Aram Abrahamyan, editor of the Aravot daily newspaper. “And the
government propaganda succeeds with the common people.”

A very different scenario was predicted by a private research group
called Armenia 2020, which has commissioned studies of the country’s
future based on a range of possible developments.

One prediction was based on the status quo continuing for another 10
years. It concluded that “if there are no changes, there is no
prosperity,” said Arashes Kazakhetsyan, the director of the group.

The Armenian government has focused much of its efforts on a
two-pronged approach to Turkey. It has appealed directly to Turkish
leaders to normalize relations. At the same time, it has tried to
increase diplomatic pressure on Turkey, openly questioning Turkey’s
fitness to start European Union entry talks before it addresses
Armenian grievances.

In an interview, Oskanyan said he did not understand why European
leaders ignored what he called Turkey’s “faults and shortcomings”
with regard to Armenia. “What is regrettable,” he said, “is that
Europe is closing its eyes on Turkey’s petulance.”

Oskanyan stopped short of saying Turkey’s bid should be rejected,
although Armenian lobbying groups have been making that argument in
Brussels. While Turkey has changed many of its policies over the last
two years to win European Union acceptance, there has been no
indication of a shift in its official line toward Armenia.

Private contacts between Turks and Armenians will continue to be
encouraged, said a senior Turkish diplomat in Ankara. But the
diplomat said the political impasse must be broken by Armenia. “We
can’t change our policy on the Azeris,” he said. “So the first move
has to come from Armenia. We would like to see an opening, even a
small opening, on Nagorno-Karabakh.”

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