Monday, April 30, 2001
Armenia: Massive exodus dashes dreams born with independence in 1991.
By JOHN DANISZEWSKI, Times Staff Writer
CHARENTSAVAN, Armenia--Masis Kocharian is a typical resident of this
town, which is to say that he is tired, poor and yearning to be gone.
He is so desperate to get away--like half of the town before him--that
given the chance he will offer you his two-room apartment in a workers
dormitory and all the furnishings. All he asks for in return is bus fare to
Russia and a few dollars to get settled there--maybe $250 at most.
"And I promise," he adds, "you will never see me again."
To Armenian patriots, Kocharian is an all too common example of a
national dream gone sour.
For centuries, Armenians were a people without a state, ruled over by
Turks, Persians, Mongols and Russians. In World War I--their blackest
hour--they were rounded up, starved, raped and murdered in a genocide that
foreshadowed the worst crimes of the century.
Those who survived took sanctuary under Soviet rule or scattered across
Europe, the Middle East and the Americas, keeping alive their 1,700-year-old Christian
faith, their customs and their language with its unique alphabet invented by a monk in AD
Then, in 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, an unforeseen
opportunity opened up. For the first time since the Middle Ages, the
Armenian people had their own sovereign state, a homeland where they could return, prosper
and build a secure future for their children.
Ten years later, however, the hopes remain unfulfilled. Instead of the
Armenian diaspora flocking home to build their country, the opposite is
occurring: Armenians are leaving at an alarming pace. Of the nearly 3.7
million living in the country at the time of independence, an estimated 1
million have left.
Standing in the square of this poverty-ridden factory town, where all
nine plants have shut down, it's easy to see why they go. Clothes are
shabby. Cheeks are hollow. Belts are cinched tight. Desperation is written
on almost every face. And almost every day, the buses leave for Russia and
beyond, carrying a new cargo of emigrants.
Designed as a model industrial city 20 miles north of the capital,
Yerevan, to serve the aims of the Soviet Union, Charentsavan lost its
economic purpose when the Soviet Union ceased to exist.
Cut off both from raw materials and customers, its defense, tool,
cement and machine-making factories collapsed. Armenia's six-year war with
its eastern neighbor, Azerbaijan, over the disputed enclave of
Nagorno-Karabakh, and a consequent trade embargo with its western neighbor, Turkey, only
worsened the suffering. The town began to wither.
Out of a population of 45,000, more than 20,000 people have left, says
Charentsavan Mayor Rudolf Mnatsakian.
Of those still here, at most 2,200 have jobs. "It is a tragedy for our town and
for Armenia," he says. "We are trying to stop the emigration, but nature is
stronger: If there is nothing to eat in a family, it is only logical to leave."
Bus station manager Yuri Gasparian adds it up: "The math is simple. An
average monthly salary is $6, while a kilo of bread costs 38 cents. So your
salary is not even enough to buy you bread and water."
Despite Foreign Aid, 80% Live in Poverty
Charentsavan is not unique in Armenia. Aside from the thin layer of
development in the capital, the country is grindingly poor. Despite $1.4
billion in U.S. aid over the past decade, and the government's attempts to
promote commerce and investment, 80% of the country's people live in poverty on less than
$25 a month, says sociologist Gevorg Poghosyan.
The official unemployment rate is 17%, but a more accurate figure is
50%, he says. And even people who have jobs often don't get paid.
Under the circumstances, economic emigration has hidden benefits for
Armenia, Poghosyan points out. Those who leave find jobs abroad--mostly in Russia--and
send money back to their dependents here. "It means less social and political
tension, because those people are not all here demanding
work," he says.
But on the other side, "it is very bad, because we have lost our
population. Armenia is being depopulated. Families are breaking up," he
says. "And those who are leaving are the ones who are the most economically
The emigration is also reflected demographically. With so many men
working abroad, Poghosyan says, there are now 57 women to every 43 men, an imbalance that
hinders the creation of families.
Poghosyan, head of the Armenian Sociological Assn., says that
three-fifths of the emigres go to Russia because it is nearby and because
they have no language difficulties there. One-fifth go to Western Europe or
the United States, and the others are dispersing around the world. (There
are many more ethnic Armenians outside Armenia than inside it. Southern
California, with 800,000, is considered the world's second-largest Armenian
center after Yerevan.)
"If you have the chance to leave Armenia, you must do it," says
Kocharian, the man desperate to sell his apartment. "And as soon as
Kocharian and his wife live on the fifth floor of the workers
dormitory. He has not seen their children in the four years since he sent
them to live with relatives in Russia. At the moment, he says, he cannot
even afford a stamp to answer his son's latest letter. Once a driver,
Kocharian has not held a steady job in 10 years.
"Now I survive on buying things cheaply and then trying to sell them in
a different village, with a very small markup," he says. "But it gives me
If he makes it to Russia, he vows, he will be happy to dig the earth
with a rusty spade or to clean toilets--anything to survive.
History Weighs Heavy on an Ancient Society
The principal of Charentsavan High School No. 5, Pap Shakhnazarian,
says he has seen enrollment fall from 1,175 in 1986, when he started as a
mathematics teacher, to 560. Forty students have left since September.
"If the exodus of Armenians is not stopped, there will be no one left
in this country in a couple of years," Shakhnazarian says. "It is strange,
this feeling like a boarder in your own country. You know that . . . sooner
or later, you too will have to leave."
The other two newly independent ex-Soviet states next door, Georgia and
Azerbaijan, have also seen their populations severely depleted, losing more
than half a million people each, for similar reasons.
(The rest of the article gets into the familiar terrain of genocide