By Ashot Beglarian in Stepanakert (CRS No.161, 09-Jan-03)
The unrecognised republic of Nagorny Karabakh is facing the growing challenge of how to support its large number of ageing citizens with decent pensions.
Across the south Caucasus, high unemployment means that governments have little revenue in their pension funds to support elderly people.
But the aftermath of the 1991-4 conflict with Azerbaijan makes the problem even more acute in Karabakh. The war left many grandparents in sole charge of households. The entity now has many more pensioners than it does people in paid employment.
Gayane and Valerik, aged sixteen and seventeen respectively, were orphaned as children and brought up by their grandmother.
In 1990, as war was looming, their father left for Russia for good. Their mother, Anoush Avakian, joined the war effort first as a nurse, and then as a combatant. She was wounded twice, before being killed in a battle close to the village of Vaguas.
"The state and one or two humanitarian organisations give one-off financial and other material aid once a year," the teenagers' seventy-year old grandmother Astkhik said. "The food that's given lasts for no more than a week or two at most. But you do need to clothe the kids as well."
In his recent New Year's address, Karabakh's elected president, Arkady Gukasyan noted, "The state remains in debt to its veterans and those injured during the war, the families of the freedom fighters, those missing in action and our pensioners."
According to statistics given by Karabakh's state pension fund, the republic has 28,000 pensioners - women over 60 and men over 65. The ratio of working citizens to pensioners now stands at 1 to 1.3. (The official population is 120,000, although unofficial estimates give a much lower figure.)
The average pension in the republic, including a special supplement amounts to just 6,660 drams (about 10 US dollars) a month. In addition, 13,500 especially needy citizens receive extra benefits ranging from 2,840 to 4,630 drams in rural areas and the capital, Stepanakert, respectively. But this does little to alter the situation of poverty as a whole.
The hardest hit members of society are its single pensioners. Asmik Israelian, 83, was a language and literature teacher for 40 years and is now widowed and retired. On her small pension, she has to support her invalid son Genrikh.
"Genrikh fell ill in July 1992, after the shock of hearing that his son Armen had been killed at the front," said Asmik. "He was broken psychologically and he can't work now or earn his keep. His family has fallen apart.
"The state pays Genrikh about 4,000 drams compensation. Together with my pension, our income amounts to 11,000 drams. That's enough for just bread and water, as the saying goes. I probably haven't had a piece of meat in half a year. I think I've even forgotten what it tastes like."
In order to make ends meet, Asmik allowed her second son Ashot to mortgage her house.
"I haven't got long left to live and I'm not scared of death," she said. "I'm just scared of one thing: the house - it would be a shame to lose it." The government says that at least one problem is improving: pension delays are being overcome. The chairman of the state pension fund, Vasily Avetisian, said that he expected to receive a minimum of 100 per cent of his expected income for 2002.
The Karabakhi prime minister, Anushavan Danielian, has promised to cut administrative costs and increase its social spending this year, so that both wages and pensions will go up in 2004.
One of the biggest problems Avetisian says he faces is companies that do not make social insurance payments on time. He said his pension fund has taken 39 organisations to court in order to claim 76 million drams (over 130,000 dollars).
Avetisian said that the government wants to move to a system of obligatory pension payments for employees, which will accumulate throughout their working life and raise the overall level of pensions.
Most people welcome this idea, but by then it will be probably too late for one special category of pensioners: 961 veterans of the Second World War. Despite their distinguished records, they receive a monthly bonus of only 2,860 drams.
Andranik Abramian, 84, has numerous medals. He fought throughout the war, ending his service in the Kurile Islands after taking part in the capture of Berlin. He was the only soldier from the south Caucasus to be selected for the honour of laying captured Nazi banners in front of Lenin's Mausoleum in the 1945 Victory Parade.
Abramian was wounded several times and an enormous piece of shrapnel remains in his right side. "Another piece of shrapnel was taken out with a rib, but they left that one," said Andranik. "They decided not to operate - they thought I'd die or end up a cripple for the rest of my life."
This extraordinary man receives a pension of 20,000 drams a month, including all special supplements.
In practice, there's very little distinction being made between the various categories of pensioners and their needs. And the current amount of pension still fails to cover the minimum needs of Karabakhis's elderly citizens.
Ashot Beglarian is a freelance journalist based in Stepanakert, Nagorny Karabakh