Exodus Is New Chapter of Loss in Armenia's Sad Story
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 here!"
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 presidential 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."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Sahak Sazgsian stands outside his home in Sevaberd, Armenia, a village without running water, telephones or jobs.
(Susan B. Glasser -- The Washington Post)