Abandoned Armenia faces extinction
By Jeremy Page
One in three has left the impoverished state of Armenia since it gained
independence and the young are leading the rush
November 13, 2004
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 â[email protected]~T the last of the
Simonyan children to join a decade-long exodus that has made Armenia
one of the worldâ[email protected]~Ys fastest disappearing nations.
â[email protected]~They couldnâ[email protected]~Yt find work. They just couldnâ[email protected]~Yt afford to
live here,â[email protected]~] said Mrs Simonyan, wholives with her disabled husband
in the village of Sasunik, a former state grape farm an hourâ[email protected]~Ys
drive from Yerevan.
She does not blame her children. They were just three of an estimated
one million people â[email protected]~T a third of the population â[email protected]~T 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.
â[email protected]~If there are no systemic changes in Armenia, we could face a
catastrophe,â[email protected]~] says Vardan Gevorgyan, a sociologist. â[email protected]~We will
not disappear as an ethnic or cultural group in the world, but we
will cease to be an effective republic.â[email protected]~]
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 â[email protected]~T nearly double the
Governmentâ[email protected]~Ys 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. â[email protected]~Iâ[email protected]~Yd like to take those numbers at face value,â[email protected]~]
says Vartan Oksanyan, the Foreign Minister. â[email protected]~Emigration numbers
have dwindled. The economy is doing better. There are more jobs.â[email protected]~]
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 â[email protected]~T some to Germany and the Netherlands but most to Russia,
which Armenians can enter without visas.
â[email protected]~It may sound a little harsh, but it seems we are a nation
of emigrants,â[email protected]~] he says over coffee in his dilapidated
headquarters. â[email protected]~Personally, I donâ[email protected]~Yt think you should live
just where you can find work and food to eat. You should stay in
your homeland.â[email protected]~]
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 todayâ[email protected]~Ys Ã©migrÃ©s are young, male and educated, the ones
the country needs to survive. The result is a vicious demographic cycle
â[email protected]~T 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.
â[email protected]~Our most important resources are our human resources, and today
we are losing them,â[email protected]~] says Hranush Kharatyan, the Governmentâ[email protected]~Ys
adviser on demography. â[email protected]~If nothing changes, we expect a disaster
in the next 40 to 50 years.â[email protected]~]
She says that the only solution is to eradicate government corruption.
â[email protected]~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,â[email protected]~] she says. Only then will emigrants start to return for good.
There are examples of successful â[email protected]~repatriatesâ[email protected]~], such as the
Foreign Minister who left America in 1992 with a masterâ[email protected]~Ys degree in
international law and diplomacy. â[email protected]~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,â[email protected]~] he says. Two years later, his wife
and two children joined him. â[email protected]~Weâ[email protected]~Yre here to stay,â[email protected]~] he says.
But for the moment, that is the luxury of successful Ã©migrÃ©s. Back
in Sasunik, Mrs Simonyan has a visitor. Hamlet, her husbandâ[email protected]~Ys
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. â[email protected]~What can I
do?â[email protected]~] 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. â[email protected]~
Itâ[email protected]~Ys Armeniansâ[email protected]~Y destiny to live outside their homeland.â[email protected]~]