A YEAR after its recognition as a sovereign state, Armenia is home to a tragedy that calls into question both its statehood and the survival of its 3.5 million people.
The former Soviet Union's smallest republic is learning the hard way that independence can be a tenuous thing needing careful nurture and defense - especially in Armenia's tough neighborhood. Its plight raises basic questions for the Clinton administration and United States policy in the post-cold-war period.
In the capital of Yerevan it is a dark, freezing February. There is much suffering. The blockade of railroads, pipelines, and roads by neighboring Azerbaijan has for years deprived the country of 80 percent of its fuel, food, construction materials, and relief. Living at 20 percent capacity, the misery has recently been compounded by increased civil tensions in the former republic of Georgia - and in particular by the sabotage in one of its Azeri-populated regions of the last pipeline supplying Russian a nd Turkmenistani natural gas to Armenia.
For weeks, Yerevan's 1.3 million residents have braved sub-zero temperatures without gas or hot water, and with only an hour of electricity per day. Citizens are cutting the city's trees for fuel. Buses and trolleys run on minimal schedules. Garbage trucks don't pick up the weekly trash. Water purification systems are idle. Children are taking ill and dying; mothers are losing more infants at birth than ever before.
Industry has come to a halt. As of Feb. 1, all factories in Armenia were shut down. Schools and kindergartens are closed until spring. Most hospitals have been closed, but a few remain open on an emergency basis. Ambulances are in garages - out of gas.
Without immediate help, more than 30,000 people will die of exposure or starvation this winter, the government estimates.
Many of the casualties may come from among the 300,000 Armenian refugees evicted in the last five years from their homes in Azerbaijan and the Armenian-populated territory of Nagorno-Karabakh - and from among the 500,000 still without permanent shelter in the shameful earthquake zone.
And this does not count the thousands of villagers, young and old, living in areas bordering Azerbaijan and in Karabakh's capital, Stepanakert.
They are daily targets for MIG- 25 air raids, cluster bombs, GRAD-type missiles, and other assorted instruments of destruction which form part of Azerbaijan's plan to blockade and bomb Armenia into submission and to conquer Karabakh and rid it of its Armenian majority and its elected government.
Armenia's disastrous situation is not just a matter of its difficult geopolitical situation - though that is a factor: The country is squeezed between hostile, oil-rich Azerbaijan to the east, collusive Turkey to the west, strife-ridden co-religionist Georgia in the north, and Islamic and neutral Iran to the south.
BUT the plight of Armenia more largely results from a dynamic set of conditions:
First is the problem of an extraordinarily harsh winter.
Second is the failure of Yerevan's inexperienced and misguided ruling elite to grasp its condition. It ignored developing a serious political, military and economic policy, and to conceive and implement a strategy of national salvation that would defend Armenia's sovereignty against domestic and foreign dangers
Third has been a five-year war of aggression and occupation, of a blockade and ethnic cleansing - carried out against Armenia and the republic of Karabakh by neighboring Azerbaijan.
Fourth has been the inability of the Russian-led commonwealth to protect its member states.
Fifth is the post-Soviet scramble for power in the region. This scramble has featured Turkish strong-arming in favor of ethnic cousin Azerbaijan, and implicit participation in anti-Armenian activity, including blockades.
Opposition by the US executive branch to recent congressional measures to adopt positions of principle in supporting democracy in Armenia has also been a factor. There has been little international safeguarding for Karabakh's self-determination, or condemnation of Azerbaijan's aggression and its illegal blockade.
The US and the world community have continually equated aggressor Azerbaijan with victimized Armenia. Facing Azeri warplanes and shrewd Turkish maneuvers, Armenia has not had the real political backing it needs.
As Bosnia and Somalia today share the worthy focus of the world and the UN, Armenians find themselves facing a catastrophe alone. There is honest sympathy, but not the international support required.
Notwithstanding considerable amounts of humanitarian aid sent to Armenia by the Bush administration, the US has not shown the political commitment and moral fortitude necessary to compel Azerbaijan to refrain from military action and economic chokeholds.
Herein is the crux of President Clinton's Armenia challenge: The new administration has an opportunity to make good on America's time-honored devotion to human rights, democracy and self-determination. Here is a fresh chance to show that principles and ethics, and not only oil, have a special place in American diplomacy.
It is in everyone's interest that the ancient land of Armenia not disappear as the world faces the third millennium. Armenia deserves to be given a fighting chance to build a future of peace, prosperity, and security.
For political, moral, and legal justification, Mr. Clinton need look no further than the precepts on which the US was founded.
For another rationale, there is the evidence in the National Archives located on Pennsylvania Avenue, which testifies, silently but eloquently, to what happened to Armenia the last time the West just watched.