Operation Winter Warmth – Helping Armenia in Its Darkest Hour
When Armenia gained its independence after the collapse of the USSR in 1991, it was in dire straits. It was in the midst of a bitter war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, its borders with Turkey were closed, which prevented the transshipment of goods. Civil unrest reigned in neighboring Georgia, where bandits would frequently steal from large trucks, greatly reducing the amount of food and oil which finally made it to Armenia.
The populace faced a grim winter with very little heat and not much hope. Into this dark morass came Harry Gilmore, the first Ambassador from the United States to Armenia. Working closely with the U.S. Agency for International Development, the On-Site Inspection Agency, and others, he spearheaded an effort to bring in heating oil and food in the winter of 1994. Ambassador Gilmore died in April 2015. You can read his Washington Post obituary here.
GILMORE: Armenia was in the throes of a deep and steadily worsening economic crisis. Many factors contributed to the crisis. Let me begin by outlining the ongoing impact of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan.
As a result of the Karabakh conflict, Armenia’s border with Azerbaijan had been closed since before Armenia declared its independence in 1991. On March 27,1993, shortly before I arrived in Yerevan, Armenian armed forces, primarily Karabakh-Armenian forces, but with some support from the armed forces of the Armenian Republic, captured Azerbaijan’s Kalbajar region. The Kalbajar region borders on Armenia but unlike Nagorno-Karabakh, which is an enclave inside Azerbaijan, Kalbajar is part of Azerbaijan proper.
When Armenian forces captured Kalbajar, Turkey formally closed its border with Armenia, stating that it was acting in response to the Armenian forces’ occupation of Kalbajar. In fact, Turkey had de facto closed its border with Armenia several years earlier. So, when I arrived in Armenia in May 1993, the only borders that Armenia had open were its border with Iran in the south and its border with Georgia in the north. Landlocked Armenia’s most direct access to the sea is via Georgia’s Black Sea ports of Batumi and Poti.
George declared is formal independence from the Soviet Union in April 1991, but Tbilisi’s authority in Georgia didn’t go far. In May 1993, Georgia was still in considerable disarray. With the overthrow of populist leader Zviad Gamsakhurdia in January 1992, the authority of the central government in Tbilisi virtually collapsed while that of regional potentates and private militias expanded to fill the power vacuum. Among these regional potentates was Aslan Abashidze, the authoritarian leader of Adjara whose capital was the key Black Sea port city Batumi. Georgia had disintegrated into what might be characterized as a series of fiefdoms, with no overriding central control from Tbilisi.
And to get any kind of aid shipment from the U.S. to Batumi or Poti and thence onward to an intended destination in the interior of Georgia or Armenia, was an extraordinarily difficult process.
Typically, humanitarian aid cargoes from the U.S. or Europe destined for Armenia and Georgia would be landed in the Georgian ports Batumi and Poti where they were to be transferred to trains for onward shipment to their destination. (Map: Jean Rabanyi)
Often the ships carrying aid stood at anchor for weeks in Batumi and Poti before being unloaded. Once the trains departed the Black Sea coast area they ran a strong risk of being flagged down and stopped by armed men who would quickly climb aboard and examine the cargo. If it was, for example, wheat, they would seize and unload a portion of it as a tax in kind. Trains from the Georgian ports were held up frequently in the 1993-94 period, and the criminal gangs who perpetrated the thefts were well-organized and efficient.
So Armenia’s basic life lines from the U.S. and the European community, both of which were anxious to provide assistance, ran through a very fragmented Georgia. Mr. [Eduard] Shevardnadze [President of Georgia and former Foreign Minister of the USSR] was working to consolidate Georgia’s unity, but it was a difficult process and in my first year there the process was only beginning.
Meanwhile President Clinton and President Bush before him were determined to provide emergency humanitarian assistance to Armenia and Georgia. Accordingly, the State Department’s Coordinator for Assistance to the Newly Independent States took the lead in developing Operation Winter Rescue, a coordinated concept of operations aimed at demonstrating the viability of surface shipments of containers of humanitarian assistance to Georgia and Armenia via Georgia’s Black Sea ports Batumi and Poti.
A key element of Operation Winter Rescue’s ultimate success was the decision to employ two-person teams from the U.S. On-Site Inspection Agency to work with shipping contractor Sealand and local officials in Georgia and Armenia to monitor the shipment of containers of emergency humanitarian assistance from their arrival in the Georgian ports, through their transfer to railroad cars and shipment by rail to Yerevan or Tbilisi and ultimately their delivery to consignees in Armenia and Georgia.
We should remember that OSIA was established in 1988 to meet the on-site inspection requirements of our INF [Intermediate Nuclear Force] treaty with the USSR. In view of their experience working in the former USSR, OSIA personnel were also tasked with assisting with assisting with the distribution of Project Hope shipments.
As a further footnote, on travel through Georgia in the 1993-94 period, I should also note that whenever any personnel from Embassy Yerevan traveled overland by car or truck to our embassy in Tbilisi, which we did frequently in the 1993-94, period, we had to be on the lookout for armed bandits. We experienced a number of robberies several kilometers inside Georgia on the main road — I hesitate to call it a highway — from Armenia to Georgia.
Typically, an Embassy Yerevan vehicle would basically just get a few kilometers into Georgia when a Soviet-era car carrying plainclothes Georgian males would drive up and force it off the road. Several fellows with carbines or pistols would jump out and order everybody out of the Embassy Yerevan vehicle. They would take the passengers’ money and perhaps a personal item or two and quickly drive off. This went on throughout 1993 into 1994.
Armenia is energy poor. Its most important source of energy was the nuclear power plant in Metsamor which had been closed as a result of Armenian Green activity in the wake of the devastating earthquake of December 1988. So, with the border to Azerbaijan closed, the natural gas supply from Russia via Georgia threatened by pipeline closures, and “mazut,” the heavy fuel oil widely used in district heating plants in the Former Soviet Union in short supply, Armenia was desperate for energy.
The winter was frigid and schools were closed for lack of heat. Also many of the countless blocks of apartments in Yerevan were frequently without water as the water pumps were powered by electricity. So, our top priority was to expand our already extensive assistance program.
The embassy was run quite ably for my year or more, by Thomas Price. When I got there, though, Armenia was in a humanitarian crisis. My key task, in the early part of my tenure, and in fact throughout my 26 months there was assistance. We did very well in the end. There was no lack of funding on the U.S. side, in part because of the very active advocacy by the Armenian-American organizations. There was plenty of assistance money.
The question was how to get the assistance there because of the fragmentation of Georgia. Of course, we would never try to get assistance in through Iran, because of our Iran policy. But, in any case, the centerpiece of our humanitarian assistance program my first year in Armenia, and through my second as well was our Winter Warmth program. The idea was to distribute kerosene and kerosene heaters for home heating needs for the particularly vulnerable living in these huge apartment blocks, particularly in Yerevan.
And, I add here that Armenia, like a number of smaller highly industrialized countries, is kind of like a tadpole. The head is bigger than the body. Yerevan had half Armenia’s population and was the location of virtually all the important governmental and cultural institutions.
In any case, in parallel with Charles Aznavour, the renowned French-Armenian crooner and composer, and also in parallel with the European Union, we focused initially on humanitarian assistance to the most vulnerable elements of the population. We carefully designed a targeted kerosene home heating program for several categories of people deemed especially vulnerable. They were: nursing mothers, invalids, the elderly, and families with small children. We also put kerosene heaters in the schools. We had a devil of a time delivering the kerosene to Armenia the winter of 1993-4, my first winter. In fact, much of the winter was over by the time we were able to get the first shipments up from Batumi and Poti delivered to Yerevan.
By December 1993 the first ships carrying kerosene had arrived in Batumi where they stood unloaded. Meanwhile, in Yerevan pressure from the media and the public to explain the delay in delivery of the kerosene was growing steadily.
When no kerosene had arrived in Armenia by January 29, 1994, we decided we owed a public explanation. Joined by our AID Representative, Suzanne Olds, I gave an interview to the Armenian news agency Noyan Tapan [which means Noah’s Ark in Armenian]. A group of journalists, government officials and diplomats attended the interview. I explained that the U.S. Government had created the Fund for Democracy and Development to serve as a partner in mounting large-scale humanitarian assistance programs like the Winter Warmth kerosene program. The Fund had, in turn, concluded contracts with the Georgian State Railways and local shipping agencies. The Fund had also purchased yet a further amount of kerosene in Rotterdam and Haifa for follow-on delivery. I indicated that I expected these contracts to be fulfilled. Noyan Tapan published a story under the headline “Kerosene for Armenia Will Be Supplied.”
The first shipment of kerosene arrived in Armenia later in February. Much suffering had already occurred, many schools were closed. But when we did begin the delivery of kerosene, there came a kind of surge of renewed hope to many Armenians that they could make a go of it. I remember personally spearheading the Winter Warmth program.
When the first delivery of Winter Warmth kerosene arrived in Yerevan I went out to the tank farm where the kerosene was being transferred to storage tanks. The United States Agency for International Development had sent an expert from Petersburg, Virginia, who knew how to organize and run a tank farm. I welcomed him and met with some of the truck drivers. We began to run tank trucks all over greater Yerevan and its environs. Some of the trucks were pretty decrepit looking, but I remember assisting in loading the trucks to the applause of many Armenians.
Also, I visited schools where kerosene was the only source of heating. I remember vividly, a school just outside Yerevan, not too far from our tank farm. I took my interpreter from the embassy. Although I spoke a fair amount of Armenian, it was clearly foreign Armenian. So, through my interpreter, I spoke with a little girl who was sitting in the back with her coat on — they all had their coats on because you couldn’t easily heat the classroom. Her hands were purple. I was very concerned about her. I remember asking her what it was like at home. It was cold, she said. When I asked her what she was eating, she said she was eating one meal a day, the meal at the school, which we were providing. The food at home was for the rest of the family, she indicated.
In addition to kerosene for home heating, we also provided funding for heavy fuel oil, mazut. We also provided massive quantities of wheat and wheat seed. In subsequent years we provided funding for natural gas. The natural gas supply was a very precarious thing, because the natural gas pipeline from Azerbaijan was closed because that border was closed. The other natural gas line which brought Turkmen and later Russian gas down through Georgia was frequently blown up as it came down through the part of Georgia inhabited by the Azerbaijani minority.
So these were precarious times. I remember vividly the president, Levon Ter-Petrossian, a very distinguished scholar turned independence movement leader, telling me that he wouldn’t know how to justify his continued role as president if the Armenian government could not provide enough bread to feed its people.
We focused on humanitarian shipments of wheat, and by heavy persuasion and by a lot of work with Georgia, and making sure, by the way, that the Georgians had enough assistance that they weren’t sorely tempted to take assistance destined for Armenia from the trains. We finally got an important, consistent aid pipeline working. On balance, I think it’s fair to say that we saved people from malnutrition, and in some cases from near starvation. So that was the fundamental focus of my stay in Armenia.