Saturday, November 13, 2004


November 13, 2004

Abandoned Armenia faces extinction

One in three has left the impoverished state of Armenia since it gained independence and the young are leading the rush

SVETLANA SIMONYAN wants her children to come home.

Her daughter, Narine, was the first to leave Armenia, moving to Russia with her husband in 1998. Artur, her eldest son, headed for Volgograd in 2000. His brother, Armen, followed in 2002 — the last of the Simonyan children to join a decade-long exodus that has made Armenia one of the world’s fastest disappearing nations.

“They couldn’t find work. They just couldn’t afford to live here,” said Mrs Simonyan, wholives with her disabled husband in the village of Sasunik, a former state grape farm an hour’s drive from Yerevan.

She does not blame her children. They were just three of an estimated one million people — a third of the population — who have left Armenia since it gained independence from the crumbling Soviet Union.

But she, like many Armenians, worries that the relentless outflow threatens the existence of the state that her people struggled for so long to create.

“If there are no systemic changes in Armenia, we could face a catastrophe,” says Vardan Gevorgyan, a sociologist. “We will not disappear as an ethnic or cultural group in the world, but we will cease to be an effective republic.”

Already more Armenians, four million, live outside the country than inside after successive waves of emigration going back centuries. They send back more than $1 billion a year — nearly double the Government’s entire budget.

The extent of the demographic crisis, however, depends on which statistics you believe. And that depends on your politics. This year, the results of a 2001 census recorded a population of 3.2 million. “I’d like to take those numbers at face value,” says Vartan Oksanyan, the Foreign Minister. “Emigration numbers have dwindled. The economy is doing better. There are more jobs.”

But opposition politicians and many sociologists put the real population as low as 2 million. They say that the discrepancy is due to the number of emigrants still registered as Armenian citizens because they are living illegally abroad.

The village of Sasunik is a perfect example. Hajkaz Gulanyan, head of the local government, says that its official population is 3,300, but in reality it is just 2,400. Over the past five years a quarter have left — some to Germany and the Netherlands but most to Russia, which Armenians can enter without visas.

“It may sound a little harsh, but it seems we are a nation of emigrants,” he says over coffee in his dilapidated headquarters. “Personally, I don’t think you should live just where you can find work and food to eat. You should stay in your homeland.”

The exodus is especially painful for Armenians because of their long history of suffering.

In the past century alone, between 500,000 and 1.5 million Armenians were killed by the Turks and up to 200,000 Armenians died in the Soviet Army in the Second World War. Tens of thousands more were killed in the war with Azerbaijan in the early 1990s. Also, an earthquake in 1988 claimed more than 25,000 lives.

Most of today’s émigrés are young, male and educated, the ones the country needs to survive. The result is a vicious demographic cycle — fewer marriages, a lower birth rate and an ageing population which exacerbate the poverty that drives people away. Roughly 56 per cent of the population are female, compared with 51 per cent in 1979. Half the population lives on pensions and government handouts.

“Our most important resources are our human resources, and today we are losing them,” says Hranush Kharatyan, the Government’s adviser on demography. “If nothing changes, we expect a disaster in the next 40 to 50 years.”

She says that the only solution is to eradicate government corruption. “Young people must be free to develop businesses, to become government officials and to know that if there is a trial, it will be fair,” she says. Only then will emigrants start to return for good.

There are examples of successful “repatriates”, such as the Foreign Minister who left America in 1992 with a master’s degree in international law and diplomacy. “There was an inner force within me to return to Armenia, to be here in historic times. I wanted to be present at its creation,” he says. Two years later, his wife and two children joined him. “We’re here to stay,” he says.

But for the moment, that is the luxury of successful émigrés. Back in Sasunik, Mrs Simonyan has a visitor. Hamlet, her husband’s nephew, has taken a holiday from his job in Moscow to see his wife and children, who stayed behind.

He would like to come back, he says. It is tough living in Moscow, where Caucasians are often abused by police. But it is still better than Sasunik, where people scrape by on $500 a year from growing grapes. He can earn four times that in Moscow. “What can I do?” says Hamlet as he plays with his children in a house with no electricity, no gas, and running water for only an hour a day. “It’s Armenians’ destiny to live outside their homeland.”

No comments:

Post a Comment