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July 6, 2001

Armenia. After a Decade of Statehood,
Suffers Rapid Loss of Human Capital

By Hugh Pope
Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal

YEREVAN, Armenia—Armenians suffered massacres, earthquakes, wars and invasions before their status as a people without a state ended in 1991. But at the end of its first decade of independent nationhood, Armenia is fast becoming a state without people.

"They're spread all over the world. Mine are in America," says Heran Keshishian, a 65-year-old retired plumber, as he limps up the stairs of his apartment building in the city of Charentsevan counting-off locked-up and abandoned homes.

Eight of the building's 50 apartments are empty. Nearly all the remaining families have seen members leave the country. Mr. Keshishian's brother, sister, daughter and daughter-in law have departed. Patriotism keeps him in Armenia, he boasts. His wife explains they came back after eight months in the U.S. in 1999, lacking the visas or resources to stay.

Armenia is suffering through one of the most rapid population declines on Earth, the result of a funk of uncertainty, depression and poverty that has settled over the population.

Several former Soviet republics in the Caucasus and Central Asia also have seen troubling population declines, one factor frustrating U.S. efforts to create a corridor of vibrant nations south of Russia. Armenia's is the worst.

At least 800.000 Armenians have left in the past decade, almost a quarter of the country's population of 3.4 million, figures Gagik Yeganyan, head of a new department of migration, established a year ago to help deal with the problem. One Western diplomat estimates the real figure is 1.5 million, meaning almost half the nation's population would have left. Nobody will know for sure until a long-delayed census is conducted with U.S. assistance in October.

In the half-empty offices and echoing corridors of a government building in the capital, Stepan Mnatsakanyan piles the table with statistical leaflets containing a litany of his country's woes: Industrial production has sunk to levels last seen in the 1970s. Inhabited residential space is back to where it was in the 1940s. The number of babies born in 1999 fell to 36,000, less than half the 80,000 born in 1990.

The impoverished government has cut early classes from schools. Subway trains in Yerevan run with two cars now, instead of three. Women are visibly in the majority as working-age men leave to seek work elsewhere. Only one worker is left now to support each pensioner, a far more onerous burden than the 3-to-l ratio in most Western societies.

Armenia's situation isn't unremittingly bleak. Signs of growth are creeping hack into the economy, thanks to migrant-worker remittances and some investment by the now four million-strong Armenian diaspora. Armenian politics appear calmer after a decade of desperate volatility.

But Armenia's history makes its plight all the more poignant. An ancient people who this year celebrate the 1,700th anniversary of becoming the first country to adopt Christianity as a state religion, Armenians have been scattered repeatedly over that time by armies sweeping through the crossroads of the Caucasus and the Middle East. By the 19th century, they were a majority barely anywhere.

The worst was yet to come. Although historical accounts differ, during the first World War somewhere between 300,000 and 1.5 million Armenians died from disease and outright massacres as Ottoman Turks forcibly deported or killed them. Armenians call it the modern world's first genocide. An earthquake killed 25,000 people in 1988. Nearly as many died in the Nagorno-Karabagh fighting between 1988 and 1994. Then came the economic collapse within Armenia.

"It's a tragedy, the loss of our most important asset, our human capital. The Armenians and the government have nobody to blame but themselves," says Raffi Hovanissian, chief of an Armenian think tank.

A trickle of arrivals like Mr. Hovanissian - including about 200 Americans, according to the U.S. Embassy - represent one of Armenia's best chances to eventually reverse the exodus.

Zabel Artinian still remembers how her grandmother urged her as a child in Boston to someday rebuild the family's crushed homeland. But when the 25-year-old artist took up that challenge, she found that Armenians thought she was crazy "People here don't think about what they can do tor themselves They just want to leave," says Ms. Artinian, who cashed in her sax ings as an animator and painter in New York two years ago.

She helped restore thousand-year-old stone churches in remote mountain valleys. She fell in love with fellow volunteer Raffi Kojian, 29, a business major who built a Web site to communicate their passion for the country. Both now work for another Armenian-American in one of the new companies that are bringing a measure of economic hope - a few glossy shops, some restaurants and disposable income - to the center of the capital.

Some Armenians hold out hope. Karekin II, head of the Armenian Orthodox church, radiates optimism. He stands in a cathedral near Yerevan surrounded by golden treasures and buildings restored with money collected from the Armenian diaspora.

"It is a pain for us that Armenians are leaving the country. We preach that they should stay. but we can't order them not to go," Karekin II says. "We have to rebuild the country so they can live and satisfy their needs."

Such words haven't shortened visa queues at the few embassies left in Yerevan. So few Armenians return from "tourist" trips that the refusal rate for applicants has reached 80% at some missions. "I tried to go to the US. But I couldn't get a visa. I'd go anywhere," says Adelina Gevorkian, 38, weeping softly at her open-air clothing store in a Yerevan market. "My son left university early and is working in Russia. I'm only staying because my other son has to do his military service. What's there to stay for?"

Write to Hugh Pope at hugh.pope@wsj.com

Related links: Armenian Exodus: Who's to Blame?—Raffi K. Hovannisian's response to Hugh Pope's emotional, yet not comprehensive analyses on "...an alarming phenomenon of strategic proportions for the Armenian republic..."

 
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