Mon, Dec 27, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Armenia's isolation only grows deeper with time

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , Armenia

A timber market on the outskirts of Armenia's capital Yerevan. Environmentalists say poverty and energy shortages have led to the disastrous thinning of the former Soviet republic's forests.

PHOTO: AFP

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 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 US$5 billion regional energy project bypasses Armenia and excludes it from the hefty fees the participating countries will get.

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. On Dec. 17, the EU invited Turkey to begin those talks without mentioning Armenia's demands in its decision. EU leaders said Turkey could join within 10 years.

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

"If nothing changes, Armenia will be left as an island," said Levon Barseghyan, who is active in politics in Gyumri, a rundown town on a railway 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 appear grim without outside intervention.

Despite infusions of cash from Armenians living abroad that account for more than 20 percent of the country's income, and strong economic growth for the last decade, nearly half of the country's 3 million people live in poverty, on less than US$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.

Armenia's long-running conflict with Azerbaijan, its oil-rich 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 mountainous slice of land that is geographically inside the borders of Azerbaijan but is controlled by ethnic Armenian separatists.

Their six-year war over the region ended with a cease-fire in 1994, after 35,000 people had been killed and an estimated one million, most of them Azeri, had become 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 will not re-open the border until Armenia starts withdrawing its troops from in and around Karabakh. Peace negotiations have ground to a standstill despite mediation efforts by Russia, France and the US.

"On neither side is there a public mood that is conducive to compromise," said a Western diplomat in Yerevan.

The stalemate has left Armenia boxed in from the east and the west. Turkish and Russian goods make their way to Armenia, but with the added cost of air transportation or road transit through third countries like Georgia.

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 railway lines.

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