After the initial wave of euphoria following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the newly independent republics experienced social, political and economic changes far more devastating than many had anticipated. Last fall, three visiting scholars from the republics of Azerbaijan, Moldova and Armenia spent part of the academic year at the University of Michigan, and were affiliated with the Center for Russian and East European Studies.

    In an informal round-table discussion organized by CREES program coordinator Roberta Nerison-Low, Elmir Ismayilov, Andrei Usatii and Gohar Tadevosyan recalled some of the changes and challenges rhweir countries have been facing since independence. Their observations on government, society, health care and other aspects of life are summarized below.


    CHANGES IN GOVERNMENT

    Andrei Usatii (Moldova): After independence a new parliament was elected from 26 parties. The majority of the elected officials were from the Agrarian Democratic Party, which was more communist in orientation. Between 1991 and 1994, unfortunately, the Republic of Moldova did not develop democracy radically. But we achieved some changes in local administration and each year a chief or local authority was elected by the citizens of a community.

    Elmir Ismayilov (Azerbaijan): The first government that came directly after the collapse of the Soviet Union was the National Front, a small party that occupied 25 percent of our territories. Military service was required for everyone up to 30 years of age. There was no travel allowed outside of Azerbaijan. Those in governmental positions saw independence as being able to do whatever they wanted, regardless of the effects on living standards. They had power for about five years, and I think that period of time has really affected the country in many ways. They forced people to stop everything Russian, including language and education. Now we have a different outlook because we have a real democracy and a president. He was put into power by a group of people who were dissatisfied with the situation. When the president came to govern, the political system became smoother, we began to collaborate with other countries again, even with countries from the former Soviet Union and Iran and Turkey.

    Gohar Tadevosyan (Armenia):{ After independence, citizen participation in politics increased dramatically. For the first time, people felt that they could build their own country and become owners of their destiny. The first election for many was like a holy day, especially in the rural areas. Everyone could express his or her own opinions and feelings.[Even now they are very active, taking part in all political parties.


    THE ECONOMY

    Tadevosyan: The economic situation in Armenia changed for the worst after independence. Under the Soviet Union, the economy was centralized and each republic's economy was tied to that of another republic. After the Soviet collapse, all these ties were weakened or even destroyed. There was also an economic blockade by Azerbaijan on Armenia because of the conflict so we were unable to bring products into the country. We also had a huge energy crisis during 1993-4. We had only an hour of electricity per day. The whole centralized heating was totally destroyed. The transportation system was destroyed as well, and everyone walked to work. For me, it took one hour to walk to my university.

    Although Armenia is rich with raw materials and human resources, our economy still is not functioning well because of other reasons, including a lack of consumption and because of low competition. We now rely on small businesses because we think it will give opportunity for Armenians to create new jobs and will eventually help solve our social problems.

    Ismayilov: The energy loss was also in Azerbaijan, especially in rural areas. The electrical plants relied on raw materials from other countries. When the Soviet Union split, the links to other once-Soviet countries were dissolved.] And now when all this linkage is broken, it is very difficult for factories to operate, and that's why a lot of people are attempting small businesses.

    One positive thing is that Azerbaijan has opened up connections with other countries. And the most important sector of the economy is now oil, of which we have a lot. Honestly, we never used to know where oil from Azerbaijan was going within the Soviet Union. We know now what we have. This is the nice part.

    Usatii: In Moldova, we had a electricity and natural gas crisis after independence similar to those in Azerbaijan and Armenia. But our prospects for improving our economic situation are different. We have great wine production. Foreign investors come to invest money to increase production in wine, tobacco, food production and the light industry. All these activities are part of privatization. These activities are important for Moldova's economy because the current unemployment level is so high - more than 22 percent. About one million people out of a population of 4.5 million have gone abroad to look for work in neighboring countries such as Greece, Italy and Germany.

    During the Soviet period, the financial situation was good. We could get electricity and pharmaceutical supplies from other Soviet countries for low prices. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, we had to buy medical equipment and medicines from other countries for high prices. This was also the situation with all former Soviet countries, and there was a dramatic decrease in life expectancy-down to age 66 instead of ages 73 or 77. We have seen an increase of TB, cardiovascular diseases and hypertension.


    HEALTH CARE

    Usatii: When we became independent in 1991, we were faced with a huge health care system with large institutions because emphasis had been on the development of hospital services while primary health care had been neglected. Also, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, my country could not support the high cost of health care. We have only $10 per capita for a year of health care compared with example Hungary, which has $280 per capita, and Germany, which has $2,400.

    Tadevosyan: The accessibility of health care has decreased very much in Armenia as well. People go to doctors only in cases of emergency. One in two persons cannot go to the doctor because they cannot pay for the services, so they stay at home, and illnesses become more widespread and serious. The situation is the worst in rural areas, where clinics no longer function because of the absence of instruments and professionals.

    Ismayilov: Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, everyone was used to having free goods and services. Each area had its own doctor who would make house calls and sometimes even mandatory monthly visits. Now we have no medical system in this sense. We have excellent private clinics, but they are very expensive.


    EDUCATION

    Usatii: After independence, the educational system changed quickly. We have two kinds of primary and secondary education, public and private. Opportunities are equal for both boys and girls. We have the same with higher educational systems, both private and public. Many of our students are abroad, and many students also come to study in Moldova. The language of instruction is Romanian, and English, French and German are also taught. After independence, we received books in Romanian from Bucharest.

    Ismayilov:

    Most of our schools changed from using Russian as the language of instruction to using Azerbaijani. It was even mandatory that everyone had an education in Azerbaijani. But we had a great lack of Azerbaijani books. This was the first difficult stage. The teachers knew Azerbaijani, but they had been educated in Russian. The second stage was the change of script from Cyrillic to Latin. It was very difficult because there was again a lack of books. Now it is improving. We have more books in Latin. But in my opinion, it was not a good idea to change the script right after independence. Tadevosyan: During Soviet times, the primary language was Armenian. We had two different and parallel schools, Armenian and Russian. After independence, there was a movement to close all the Russian schools. But now the Armenian government realizes that cannot be done because the scientific literature was mostly in Russian. Now we have a few Russian schools, but they are mostly for Russian citizens. Also, there has been a fundamental change in higher education. We have private and public universities. New private universities do not have well established traditions that the public universities have, and so their prestige is not as great. Because of social and economic situations, however, higher education has become more inaccessible for most people, especially for people from the rural areas of Armenia.


    THE FAMILY

    Tadevosyan: We have had a very long tradition of living in extended family groups, especially in rural areas. But now it's changing because of market production, the economy and the changing value system. Now Armenians are trying to live separately from their parents. We also have changes in the fertility rate. Now Armenians have no more than two children, rather than four, as they used to.

    Because of other institutional crises, in education and health, a family has to raise the children alone. There isn't a very well-developed system of pre-school education, and kindergartens are in terrible situations, so a family has to care for the small children. Due to low accessibility of medical care, the family must care for the old and ill, which was done in the Soviet Union by a separate institution.

    The process of decision-making in Armenian families is becoming more open and democratic. Woman's role in the family has become crucial because many men lost their jobs. Mostly women not only take care of the family, they are the breadwinners because they are more mobile and adapt themselves far more quickly than men.

    There are value changes in the Armenian family, because of the market economy and Western values. There are now many female-headed households because of the high migration rate of men. A lot of Armenian families have migrated to the U.S. Highly qualified professionals are leaving the country because they cannot find work in Armenia.

    In the rural areas, there was land privatization, which caused extended families to become separate units. Each man receives land for his nuclear family. These problems are caused by government social policy because they give some humanitarian assistance to the special categories, and they artificially destroy the traditional kinship of Armenian families.

    Usatii: Because of the economic crisis, the fertility rate in Moldova is very low now, as in Armenia. We implemented a large program of family planning to prevent abortion and the birth of children that are unwanted by their families. Also, we have a high rate of general mortality. The population is decreasing by -0.3% each year. Families usually live in separate homes, not with their parents or grandparents. An increasing number of women work outside the home.

    Ismayilov: Our situation is similar to Armenia's. Now the number of households headed by women has increased. There are many widows, and every woman who is able to work may have to do work.


    CULTURAL INSTITUTIONS

    Tadevosyan: Changes in culture are not going as rapidly as changes in the economy and social institutions. But value systems and norms are changing, and new ones are arriving. It's very difficult to say which is better or which is good or bad. The traditional culture is trying to resist these changes. But if this market economy and democratization continue, culture also will change.

    Under the Soviet Union, the ideology was atheism. In universities, we had a department of atheism, and now this same department is teaching history of religion. Now people go to church very often. I don't know if they believe or not, but statistics show that a lot of people attend church.

    Ismayilov: In high school in Azerbaijan, we also studied atheism as a subject, and it was forced. But in spite of that, most people believed in God. Now, there are no restrictions with religion, and we are not a fundamentalist country. In religion we are free. You can change your religion. We have more opportunities now to express our culture and traditions - in dance, music and art. We can now present ourselves as our own country.


    REFUGEES

    Ismayilov: We have a lot of refugees, and the United Nations now has a big health care program in Azerbaijan and is financing a lot of non-governmental organizations. They are providing free health care and medicine but, unfortunately, only for refugees. There is a lot of resentment that only refugees can utilize this free health, but this is a UN matter and not a policy of the Azerbaijan government. It's actually a great help for Azerbaijan.

    Tadevosyan: We have a lot of refugees in Armenia, and they have great problems. First, they are Armenian refugees, mostly from the urban part of Azerbaijan, and they speak Russian, so there is some tension between them and Armenian citizens because of cultural and language differences. Another problem is that they come from the urban part of Azerbaijan, and they have had to live in rural areas in Armenia because of a shortage of apartments after the 1988 earthquake.


    THE MOST SIGNIGICANT CHANGE

    Usatii: For Moldova, it's been the democratization of society. I think it is a cornerstone for the future development of relationships with international organizations. Freedom and free elections will elect the most independent and most proper government, one that will improve the economic situation. After that, there will be an improvement in the social well-being of the population.

    Ismayilov: We never knew the real situation of other countries. We just separated the world into socialist countries and capitalist countries. The most significant change has been in the international links that have been created. This increases the number of people who know about our country. Now, even in Ann Arbor, if I mention something about Azerbaijan, a lot of people know it.

    Tadevosyan: Democratization is the most significant change in Armenia as well, but I think that Armenia must look toward the future. We used to look at the past and present, but in order to be developed, Armenia has to look at the future and start building a very strong economy to create normal conditions for people to get jobs.


    Elmir Ismayilov, a citizen of Azerbaijan where he is the coordinator for the Women in Development/Income Generation program, was a visiting IREX scholar at the William Davidson Institute. His area of study is sustainable growth and development. His research focused on increasing women's access to credit in Azerbaijan, which he will share with the NGO when he returns home.

    Andrei Usatii, a citizen of the Republic of Moldova, is a physician and deputy minister of health. He was in the U.S. on an IREX fellowship to research his project, "Health Care Policy in the Period of Transition to the Market Economy." Upon his return to Moldova, Dr. Usatii planned to coordinate an effort to reform the country's health care services.

    Gohar Tadevosyan is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at Yerevan State University in Armenia, who recently completed a doctoral dissertation on "The Armenian Family in the Current Period of Socio-Economic Transformation." Her aim is to update the content and methodology of the courses she teaches. Tadevosyan's research in the U.S. was sponsored by ACTR-ACCELS Regional Scholar Exchange Program.