One Year After the Earthquake

While Armenians face a winter with little shelter, politicians focus on nationalist tensions. SOVIET ARMENIA

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

MOURNERS crowd the aisles of the central cathedral in this city shattered by a devastating earthquake one year ago. Outside the church, the flag of the Armenian nationalist movement is flying over a monument to the victims of the disaster. And just yards from the ruins of the steeple that crashed to the ground in the quake, a group of men are heatedly talking politics.

The earthquake killed more than 25,000 people in Armenia, leaving nearly a third of its 3.3 million inhabitants homeless. To international relief groups working in Leninakan to help Armenia rebuild, the anniversary marks a year of frustration.

For months, the rebuilding effort was stalled by a railroad blockade of Armenia imposed by the neighboring republic of Azerbaijan. Because of resulting shortages of fuel and building materials, only a tiny fraction of the earthquake-stricken area has been rebuilt. As winter descends, more than 400,000 survivors of the quake are still living in temporary shelter.

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But eighty miles away, in the capital of Yerevan, the fierce ethnic and political struggle with Azerbaijan - not the earthquake - is the main topic of conversation. The two republics for years have battled over the future of the predominantly Armenian territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, within Azerbaijan. A few weeks ago, the Supreme Soviet in Moscow restored control of the disputed territory to Azerbaijan.

The decision angered Armenians and fueled nationalist sentiments. In Moscow, the republic's legislature responded this month by declaring Nagorno-Karabakh a part of Armenia and granting rights of Armenian citizenship to its inhabitants. ``The decision by the Supreme Soviet of the USSR was a bad decision,'' said Stepan Poghosian, a deputy to the Armenian Supreme Soviet and the director of Armenpress, the official Armenian news agency. ``We voted to protest against Moscow, to show that the decisions of the Armenian Supreme Soviet should supersede those of Moscow if they are against our interests.''

For nearly two years, Armenian opposition leaders have called publicly for local self-determination in Nagorno-Karabakh, where a mainly Armenian majority has campaigned for union with Armenia. This month's declaration by the Armenian Supreme Soviet was seen as a major victory for opposition leaders who earlier this year were granted seats in the Armenian legislature.

``It was an act of civil disobedience by the Armenian people vis-`a-vis Moscow,'' said Levon Ter Petrosyan, a leader of the Armenian Pan National Movement and the deputy who introduced the declaration in the Supreme Soviet.

The victory for the nationalist forces mobilized its leaders to press further in their demands for reform. Legislators here say there is a good chance that the Communist Party will lose its leading role when the Armenian Supreme Soviet reconvenes on Dec. 20.

``The party apparatus is against any change, of course, and the veterans of the party are, as well,'' Poghosian said. ``But I think a majority will still vote for the Communists to give up their power.''

While the recent Moscow decision on Karabakh has mobilized politicians and citizens of Armenia, Azerbaijan responded to the decision with declarations of its own, one day after Moscow restored control of Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan, Azeri authorities again instituted a railroad blockade of Armenia.

``The blockade shows that Armenia is vulnerable, very vulnerable,'' said Matthew Der Manuelian, an American-Armenian lawyer who runs the office of a nonprofit Armenian-American charitable organization in Yerevan. ``The railroad links to Armenia are absolutely medieval.''

Those railroad links worry the nine foreign aid organizations helping to rebuild the earthquake zone. One week after the blockade was imposed again, long lines were forming in Yerevan gas stations. But Johannes Richert, head of the International Red Cross delegation in Armenia, said the Red Cross learned from the last blockade and has stockpiled the materials they need to continue their aid efforts.

The Red Cross and other organizations have a lot of work still to do. The once graceful ancient towns of northern Armenia were destroyed in the quake. In their place stand rows of prefabricated metal shelters and wooden shacks that serve as homes for families of eight or more.

Among such bleak surroundings, hope is found in small things - in the projects of international aid organizations to build hospitals for the survivors and homes of wood for people too traumatized to sleep under stones again.

``The situation is better than I hoped for the system here,'' Richert said. ``Almost everyone has shelter. There's no lack of food. There are no epidemics. There's no shortage of clothes or medicine.''

But in Yerevan, where families crowd around their television sets watching intently for the latest political developments, people see the earthquake and the fight for Karabakh as one crisis.

``It is all a question of the survival of Armenia,'' said Parandzem Badelian, a student at Yerevan University during a recent nationalist demonstration.

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