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Abandoning A Sinking Country (Int'l Edition)

International -- Letter From Armenia

Abandoning a Sinking Country (int'l edition)

Armenia's nine years of independence from the Soviet Union and its long enmity with neighboring Azerbaijan have not been kind to Sonya Toumanyan. She was already a widow when one of her four sons died after the Azeris bombed the southern city of Kapan, where Toumanyan lives, in 1992. Another decamped for Russia that same year, and her two remaining sons have since joined him.

At 67, Sonya Toumanyan is abandoned. She hasn't heard from her sons in two years. Family pictures line the walls of her shabby three-room apartment. She lives on bread she begs from shops. Fearful of the cold and dark, she spends almost all of her $6 a month pension to pay the electricity bill. An asthma sufferer, Toumanyan could hardly gasp out her story as she returned from the Armenian Red Cross, where she gets her medicine. "I've wanted to throw myself off the balcony," she says, inhaler in hand. "I was almost dying last night. I was calling to God."

To Toumanyan, it must seem sometimes as if God is the only one left. Armenia is in danger of becoming one of the first modern nations abandoned by its own people. Some experts estimate that almost half of the population--3.7 million a decade ago--has emigrated. In the wake of this mass exodus are towns and cities of silent streets, shuttered shops and offices, and desperate communities of the left behind--80% of them poor.

Kapan, once a flourishing industrial center, is especially hard-hit: Its population has dropped from 47,000 to 20,000 since independence. Its roads are lined with half-empty apartment blocks and abandoned factories. Its once noisy cafes are lifeless. In its open-air market, there are more sellers than buyers.TRAPPED. Kapan is an isolated, shriveling city in an isolated, shriveling nation. Armenia never recovered from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Hundreds of factories, scientific institutes, and businesses never reopened. In 1991, the new nation quickly went to war with neighboring Azerbaijan over its Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, which had a large Armenian population. While a mid-1990s ceasefire has left Armenia in control of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding areas, Armenia now lives between two hostile neighbors: Azerbaijan to the east and Turkey to the west. Its borders with both are closed.

It's tempting to conclude that Armenia never had a chance. The exodus began even before independence, after an earthquake devastated the northern region in 1988. More Armenians departed when Azerbaijan imposed a road, rail, and energy blockade--and still more left to avoid the draft when war broke out. The Soviet collapse produced an army of jobless workers. The unemployment rate is now 40%, and the underemployment is staggering: Doctors work as doormen, and university lecturers clean offices for $5 a week.

Political instability has taken its toll, too. In October, 1999, terrorist gunmen killed Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian and seven members of Parliament--prompting some Armenians to conclude that a transition to democracy and a market economy may never come to pass. Life, they believe, lies elsewhere.

For Avag Yepremian, it lies within. A 42-year-old poet, writer, and former publisher, Yepremian lives in Kapan and refuses to leave. His life, he says, is defined by the Armenian language. But like the city's impoverished survivors, who huddle in their apartments, Yepremian is in full retreat from Kapan's harsh realities. "Ordinary life is so bad that we escape into our inner world," Yepremian tells me. Struggling to feed his wife and two children, he consoles himself with writing and reading. In the past year, he and his brother had to close their beloved newspaper. Since last year's political killings, Yepremian says, Kapan's emigration rate has doubled.DESOLATION. Some 80% of those leaving head for relatively prosperous Russia, which doesn't require a visa. Most, like Sonya Toumanyan's sons, are working-age men. Often, the departed send money home or relocate their families when they find jobs. But some simply abandon those left behind: Sonya Toumanyan's sons fall into that category, too.

What remains is a breathtaking desolation. Most of Kapan's factories are useless now: They made military equipment, electronic components, and other products geared to the Soviet industrial system. Cows forage on garbage. Young women linger idly on park benches. "It's an empty town," says Lilit Zacharian, 24. "The young men go, and the young women stay." The main route out of Kapan is a mountainous road that is sprinkled with land mines. Still, people simply close the doors of their apartments, or sell them for as little as $600, and quietly board those buses. All over the country, people are desperate to get out any way they can.

In addition to Russia, many Armenians leave for Georgia, Turkey, and Iran, where they connect to other European, Middle Eastern, and Asian cities. About 15% of those leaving end up in the U.S. and Europe. At the American Embassy, the line for tourist visas is more than 200 applicants long on the heaviest days. Many Armenians will get their visas, either to the U.S. or Europe, and never return from their vacations or business trips. Others have American companies help them get visas. Aram Hovhannisyan, 28, who has an advanced degree in physics and is fluent in Russian and English, cruised the Internet and landed a job with a software company in Florida. He decided to go overseas when the CARE office in Yerevan was scaled back and he lost his $400-a-month job maintaining the computer system. "I have to think about my son," says Hovhannisyan, who is married and has a 16-month-old baby. "There is no future in Armenia."

In all of this, the government has many critics. Armenians love their homeland, they say, and many will return when jobs are available. But Yerevan has been too passive--and too disorganized--to halt the ruinous exodus, critics charge. Armenian officials are trying to boost tourism and promote technology parks to recapture something of the country's former role as a technology center during Soviet times. But few projects have been completed, and the economic and political crisis, coupled with widespread corruption, has scared off most foreign investors.

At this point, Armenia lives mostly on foreign loans and remittances. The U.S. has pumped $102 million into Armenia for the year to Sept. 30; the World Bank lent $60 million in the first six months of 2000. Armenians abroad send home more than $300 million annually, either to family members or as gifts for development projects.

Hanging over all of this are the tensions with Azerbaijan. Even now, Armenia's blocked borders cost the nation an estimated $62 million in annual exports. And peace talks with Azerbaijan, now five years old, have so far proved fruitless. The prospect of war is palpable. Should another erupt, Armenia, with few draft-age men, could lose the fight. "We wanted more land," says Anahit Gjulbudaghian, a 27-year-old Armenian woman in Yerevan. "But now, all of our lands are empty."By Janin Friend; Friend, a Dallas Journalist, Worked for a Year in Armenia on a Program to Strengthen the Independent Press.; Edited by Sandra DallasReturn to top

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