Exodus Is New Chapter of Loss in Armenia’s Sad Story

Exodus Is New Chapter of Loss in Armenia’s Sad Story

By Susan B. Glasser
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 12, 2004; Page A01

SEVABERD, Armenia — First, her son left for Russia. Then a daughter. Then
her other daughter. Last fall, her remaining son, daughter-in-law and three
grandchildren moved. One by one over the last decade, they fled this village
on a barren mountain peak, abandoning the rocky earth where the family has
lived for a hundred years.

Now it is Atlas Hadjiyan’s turn.

She has sold her two cows and no longer tends the vegetable garden that is
necessary to survive the brutal winter. In September, she plans to become
yet another reluctant emigrant, leaving the independent homeland that
Armenians dreamed of for generations for the uncertain welcome of an icy
Russian city a thousand miles north. “I don’t want to leave,” she said, “but
this is no place to live.”

For this village, whose name means Black Fortress, where there is no running
water, no telephones, no paid work and, for much of the winter, no access to
the outside world, Hadjiyan’s exit will be just another quiet

For Armenia at large, her impending departure is the latest result of a
slow-motion crisis of confidence that has left the rugged mountain country
hemorrhaging people for nearly all of its short history of independence. No
one knows just how many have left, but even the most conservative estimates
put the total at more than 1 million Armenians and counting — with a total
remaining population of no more than 3 million and perhaps as little as 2

The exodus has made Armenia one of the fastest-disappearing nations in the
world. “I call it depopulation,” said Gevorg Pogosyan, a sociologist in the
capital, Yerevan. “It calls into question whether Armenia is a country with
a future. We are a weak society, weakened both politically and economically
by this migration.”

At the time of independence in 1991, Armenia’s mere existence seemed a
triumph over a tragic history. The world’s 4 million-strong Armenian
diaspora exulted at the idea of a national homeland less than a century
after the Turks killed between 500,000 and 1.5 million Armenians.

But instead of luring home successful Armenians who had made new lives in
the West, the post-Soviet country has written new chapters of loss into an
already sad story. Damage remains from the 1988 earthquake that killed tens
of thousands.

With broad support from its public, Armenia fought and won a war with
neighboring Azerbaijan over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in the
1990s, capturing and holding a large swath of Azeri territory. The Armenians
in the enclave supported the war. But Armenia has never concluded a peace
deal and remains under economic blockade by Azerbaijan and Turkey.

In a country with no significant natural resources, a collapsed Soviet
industrial infrastructure and an economy just now showing signs of recovery,
many Armenians had little choice but to leave. About 80 percent headed to
Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union; the rest joined the
earlier diaspora in the United States or Western Europe.

Russian experts have calculated that $1 billion from migrants in Russia
flows home annually to support Armenian families — nearly double the
Armenian government’s entire budget. “If not for these billions, we would
have had riots and revolutions here,” Pogosyan said.

The wave of departures, which hit a high of about 200,000 a year in the
mid-1990s, has stabilized in recent years, but the cumulative effect
remains. Far more Armenians now live outside their homeland than in it. The
society that stayed has far fewer working-age men, fewer marriages, fewer
births. Women outnumber men 56 percent to 44 percent. About 1.5 million
people, or nearly half the official population, live on pensions or other
government handouts.

There’s hardly a family untouched by the shifts — from the government
official charged with stopping the migration, whose own relatives decamped
for Moscow, to the television host whose wife and two children moved to
California 11 years ago without him.

Lawyer Hrayr Tovmasyan has watched his circle of friends and family dwindle
with each passing year. From his graduate school class of four in 1998, one
lives in Paris, one in Heidelberg and one in Moscow. His wife’s siblings
have all left for Russia; his uncles are in the United States and Denmark.
“I’m the only one here,” he said.