STEPANAKERT, NAGORNO-KARABAKH -- It took my taxi driver and me an hour to get out of Yerevan. Most of it was spent waiting in line to fill up his gas tank. Not with gasoline. No, it was the kind of fuel you'd pump into your gas powered BBQ. Ruslan, like most other Armenians living off gypsy cabbing, didn't have a drop of petrol in his tank when I first got into his Volga. He'd modified it to run on natural gas stored in a large canister in the trunk of his car.
It wasn't as if Ruslan was some tree-hugging, Prius-seeking hippie-of-the-Caucasus. It was all economics: and the way things work in Armenia today, if they work at all, is that gasoline is way too expensive to be profitable. If he were to use petrol, he'd have to hike his taxi prices so high that he'd be out of business.
Gasoline costs the same in Armenia as in, say, the United States, even though the Caspian oil reserves, among the world's largest, are right off the coast of Baku just a few hundred miles away. Yet Armenia gets no benefit from that oil at all. In fact it's one of the poorest countries in the northern hemisphere. Azerbaijan imposed a total economic blockade on Armenia ever since the two fought a bitter civil war over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region between 1988 and 1994. Nagorno-Karabakh was an ethnic-Armenian region within Azerbaijan that for years now has been essentially independent and run by the separatist Armenians.
So at $4 per gallon, it would have cost Ruslan at least $75 in normal automobile gasoline -- his month's salary -- to drive me the 300 uphill miles from Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, to Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh. The same trip cost him about $12 on natural gas.
If internal combustion engines couldn't be modified to run on natural gas, Armenia wouldn't have much use for the western standard roads built with millions of dollars that the Armenian Diaspora, many of whom live in the US and Russia, shells out every year. Without that money, Armenians would be back to riding beasts of burden. These days, only the Iranian cargo truckers and the Armenian military get to use real gasoline. All other cars, buses and trucks run on natural gas.
In fact, natural gas not only powers the cars, but also the power plants. And Russia is Armenia's sole supplier of natural gas, sold at a steep discount to world prices. Without the cheap Russian gas piped in via neighboring Georgia, Armenia would collapse. That means, of course, complete dependence on Russia.
There's another minor downside to Armenia's natural gas dependency. The containers used to house the liquefied gas have a tendency to turn into high-powered shrapnel bombs if over pressurized or overused. Every once in a while, they blow up and shred everything within a 500ft radius.
"Don't worry. I have a good canister made in Italy. It doesn't burst, it just rips," Ruslan told me. He noticed me looking at eight corroded and scarred canisters stacked under the belly of a 70's Soviet truck about two feet away from my face. "But those, on the other hand, are old and very dangerous. If one of those canisters blows up, all of them will."
It's a good thing that the truck was waiting to fill up. It was pushing 105 degrees out and the canisters were exposed to direct sunlight.
I hired Ruslan to drive me to the decade-old Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, the tiny Yosemite-sized chunk of land that sparked an all out ethnic turf war between Azeris and Armenians and made Armenians the victorious underdogs heroes of every Caucasian separatist movement.
In 1994 the Armenians won and forced Azerbaijan to a ceasefire. In the meantime Nagorno-Karabakh organized itself into a sovereign country with its own army, elected officials and parliament. But it still hasn't been recognized by any country other than Armenia and is still classified as one of the "frozen conflicts" in the region, along with the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia.