Exodus Is New Chapter of Loss in Armenia’s Sad Story – Part 2

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

His best friend, a professor, gave up his $70-a-month salary recently to
move to Vancouver. He’s now working in a furniture plant, but at least,
reports Tovmasyan, who got an e-mail update from him last week, “he will get
more money than his wife for the first time in his life.”

“It’s the good part of the population that’s gone, the economically active
part,” Pogosyan said. “They are the ones who are supposed to create a middle
class here. Instead, where is this middle class? It’s in Europe and Russia.”

And still it continues. Several times a day, travel agent Diana Asatryan
said, she gets customers with telltale questions: What happens if you
overstay a visa abroad? Can I buy a one-way ticket? “The ones who are
leaving, they always reveal themselves,” she said. Black-market prices for
European visas are well-known in the business, she said — a reported $8,000
to $10,000 for a visa to enter any of the 15 European countries known as the
Schengen zone. Favorite destinations are France — “if you have a baby
there, you get residency,” she noted — and the United States, “if you’re a
young person.”

No one knows just how few Armenians remain. A long-delayed official
census — the first since the Soviet collapse — was conducted in 2001 and
just released in full this year; it found an official population of 3.2
million. Independent experts, opposition politicians and many ordinary
Armenians find that figure impossible to believe. “By the numbers, nothing
changed,” said Asatryan. “But even in my own family, 10 people left.
Officially they are still here, they are still registered. But they are not

Several experts said the country’s population today likely is at between 2
million and 2.5 million.

The disputed figures have become a subject of urgent political debate.
Opposition leaders, who united to protest vote fraud in last year’s presiden
tial election, claim the census was deliberately inflated to provide more
voters for President Robert Kocharian’s reelection.

More broadly, they say the constant loss of Armenians represents a
widespread skepticism about the country’s prospects. “Armenia is
disappearing, broken into pieces,” said Artashes Geghamian, head of the
opposition National Unity Party. “The authorities took away the feeling of
having a future from the people.”

In an interview, Kocharian said there is not “a serious person in Armenia”
who would dispute the accuracy of the census, and he said that “migration
out of Armenia has stopped” as a result of strong economic growth on his
watch that pushed the gross domestic product up by 13.7 percent last year.

U.S. Ambassador John Ordway endorsed the official head count, pointing to
U.S. technical assistance. “We are very confident there was no artificial
manipulation of the census figures,” Ordway said. “It’s not as if the last
person is about to slam the door and turn the lights off,” he said.

But the head of the government agency created in 2000 to deal with the
migration crisis is less sanguine. “To say that the wave of migration has
stopped would be wrong,” said Gagik Yeganyan. Armenian society, he said, is
permanently marked by the “very negative demographic and social
consequences” of its lost population — even if there are tentative signs of
improvement. Births, for example, are down from about 90,000 a year in the
early 1990s to around 35,000 today.

Most migrants were reluctant to leave and might be persuaded to come home if
conditions in Armenia improved, Yeganyan said.

“We have a national idea — ‘One country, one nation, one culture, one
religion.’ It means that Armenia is considered the motherland for all
Armenians living around the world, even though only 30 percent of Armenians
live on the territory of the motherland,” he said. “Armenians who leave
always think they are not leaving forever.”

Yeganyan acknowledged the government has yet to produce a comprehensive
strategy for luring them back and providing opportunities once they are
here. A study from 1998, he said, offered a cautionary tale: Out of 1,500
Armenians deported from Germany that year, 92 percent returned to Germany
within a year.

To entice some Armenians back, at least those at the upper end of the income
scale, manicured lawns and immaculate California-style suburban houses are
taking shape on the outskirts of Yerevan in what is billed as the first
American-inspired gated community in the South Caucasus. “Come home to
Armenia,” reads the sign outside the guardhouse at the Vahakni Homes and
Timeshare Resort.

The brainchild of a building magnate based in New Jersey, it was originally
pitched to successful expatriate Armenians ready to rebuild the country.
Company owner Vahak Hovnanian “firmly believes the future growth of an
independent Armenia lies in the diaspora actively coming back, not just
sending money,” said Arthur Havighorst, the firm’s vice president.

But of about 32 houses built or in mid-construction, at prices starting at
$190,000, 65 percent have been bought by local Armenians. The remainder,
executive director Karekin Odabashian said, are being sold to people who
left in recent years to make money in Moscow and elsewhere in East European
countries and now want a place in the old country. Not a single resident has
come from the United States.

Havighorst said the company has modified its pitch. In addition to
ownership, it is offering overseas Armenians time shares at the rate of
$6,000 for 20 years’ worth of one-week vacations in the motherland. “We’re
very optimistic,” he said. In a week in late June, he said, the firm found
two takers for that deal — “both in California.”