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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Destitute, Desperate Nation Deserts Itself

CHARENTSAVAN, Armenia Ч Masis Kocharian is a typical resident of this town, which is to say that he is tired, poor and yearning to be gone.

He is so desperate to get away Ч like half of the town before him Ч that given the chance he will offer you his two-room apartment in a workers dormitory and all the furnishings. All he asks for in return is bus fare to Russia and a few dollars to get settled there Ч maybe $250 at most.

"And I promise," he adds, "you will never see me again."

To Armenian patriots, Kocharian is an all too common example of a national dream gone sour.

For centuries, Armenians were a people without a state, ruled over by Turks, Persians, Mongols and Russians. In World War I Ч their blackest hour Ч they were rounded up, starved, raped and murdered in a genocide that foreshadowed the worst crimes of the century.

Those who survived took sanctuary under Soviet rule or scattered across Europe, the Middle East and the Americas, keeping alive their 1,700-year-old Christian faith, their customs and their language with its unique alphabet invented by a monk in 404.

Then, in 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, an unforeseen opportunity opened up. For the first time since the Middle Ages, the Armenian people had their own sovereign state, a homeland where they could return, prosper and build a secure future for their children.

Ten years later, however, the hopes remain unfulfilled. Instead of the Armenian diaspora flocking home to build their country, the opposite is occurring: Armenians are leaving at an alarming pace. Of the nearly 3.7 million living in the country at the time of independence, an estimated 1 million have left.

Standing in the square of this poverty-ridden factory town, where all nine plants have shut down, it's easy to see why they go.

Clothes are shabby. Cheeks are hollow. Belts are cinched tight. Desperation is written on almost every face. And almost every day, the buses leave for Russia and beyond, carrying a new cargo of emigrants.

Designed as a model industrial city 32 kilometers north of the capital, Yerevan, to serve the aims of the Soviet Union, Charentsavan lost its economic purpose when the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

Charentsavan is not unique in Armenia.

Aside from the thin layer of development in the capital, the country is grindingly poor.

Despite $1.4 billion in U.S. aid over the past decade, and the government's attempts to promote commerce and investment, 80 percent of the country's people live in poverty on less than $25 a month, says sociologist Gevorg Poghosyan.

The official unemployment rate is 17 percent, but a more accurate figure is 50 percent, Poghosyan says. And even people who have jobs often don't get paid.

Under the circumstances, economic emigration has hidden benefits for Armenia, Poghosyan points out. Those who leave find jobs abroad Ч mostly in Russia Ч and send money back to their dependents here. "It means less social and political tension, because those people are not all here demanding work," he says.

But on the other side, "it is very bad, because we have lost our population. Armenia is being depopulated. Families are breaking up," he says. "And those who are leaving are the ones who are the most economically active."

The emigration is also reflected demographically. With so many men working abroad, Poghosyan says, there are now 57 women to every 43 men, an imbalance that hinders the creation of families.

Poghosyan, head of the Armenian Sociological Association, says that three-fifths of the emigres go to Russia because it is nearby and because they have no language difficulties there. One-fifth go to Western Europe or the United States, and the others are dispersing around the world. (There are many more ethnic Armenians outside Armenia than inside it.)

"If you have the chance to leave Armenia, you must do it," says Kocharian, the man desperate to sell his apartment. "And as soon as possible."

Kocharian and his wife live on the fifth floor of the workers dormitory. He has not seen their children in the four years since he sent them to live with relatives in Russia.

At the moment, he says, he cannot even afford a stamp to answer his son's latest letter.

Once a driver, Kocharian has not held a steady job in 10 years.

"Now I survive on buying things cheaply and then trying to sell them in a different village, with a very small markup," he says. "But it gives me too little."

If he makes it to Russia, he vows, he will be happy to dig the earth with a rusty spade or to clean toilets Ч anything to survive.

The principal of Charentsavan High School No. 5, Pap Shakhnazarian, says he has seen enrollment fall from 1,175 in 1986, when he started as a mathematics teacher, to 560.

Forty students have left since September.

"If the exodus of Armenians is not stopped, there will be no one left in this country in a couple of years," Shakhnazarian says.

"It is strange, this feeling like a boarder in your own country. You know that ... sooner or later, you too will have to leave."