For Young Armenians, a Promised Land Without Promise
By SUSAN SACHS
Published: December 9, 2004
YEREVAN, Armenia - In a smoky corner of the Red Bull bar, a favorite hangout for university students, Zara Amatuni mulled over the reasons she would leave her homeland.
"It's poor, it has no natural resources, it has an undeveloped economy and it's unlikely to be developing in the next 10 years," she said with a small apologetic shrug.
Ms. Amatuni, 21, imagines herself in London or perhaps Moscow. Her language skills might land her a well-paying job, and plenty of Armenians have marked the trail before her.
"We can fit in anywhere," she said. "The only place we can't is Armenia."
For young people who have come of age in an independent Armenia, a country the size of Maryland with a population of barely three million people, it is an awkward paradox.
Their parents grew up in a captive republic of the Soviet Union. Their grandparents escaped the massacre of Armenians by Turks in the years of World War I. For them, and for the four-million-strong Armenian diaspora, the creation of a sovereign Armenian homeland 13 years ago was the fulfillment of a dream.
Yet the promised land has proved too constricting and its promise too distant for the next generation's ambitions. Those who want to leave and those who want to stay are all trying to reconcile what it means to be Armenian.
For some, no longer being part of the empire that was the Soviet Union means a loss of significance in the world. Then there were opportunities for well-educated Armenians to work in Moscow and elsewhere. Independence, they had hoped, would propel Armenia into the wider world, important on its own. Instead, they find themselves in a backwater with a double-digit unemployment rate and where most of the decent-paying jobs are with international aid organizations. "Let us build Armenia here," said Artyom Simonian, an acting student in the struggling town of Gyumri, 75 miles northwest of the capital, where residents are still recovering from a devastating 1988 earthquake.
He is one of those nostalgic for an imagined past. Like many of his fellow students, Mr. Simonian, 21, was uncomfortable with what seem to be the country's choices, integration with Europe or tighter bonds with Russia.
"We are trying to love foreigners too much," he said.
He and some other students, gathered around a small table in the chilly cafeteria of the Gyumri Arts School, understand they have fewer opportunities than did their parents, who learned to speak Russian and assimilated Russian culture.
So they long for a bigger, more muscular Armenia, a land that would embrace what is now southeastern Turkey where their ancestors lived a century ago. The snowy crest of Mount Ararat, now on the other side of the border, floats on the horizon beyond Gyumri as a reminder of that phantom homeland.
"I won't consider myself Armenian until all of sacred Mount Ararat is in Armenia," said Alexan Gevorgian, a theater student. He saw the world as essentially hostile and neighboring Turkey, just 15 miles to the west, as "an animal waiting for its prey to weaken."
His bitterness was too much for Ludvig Harutiunian, the student council president.
"We young people should leave this hostility behind," he protested. "I'd like Armenia to be known for good things, not genocide and wars and victims and mourning."
Mr. Harutiunian had evaluated his prospects. His father was already working in Russia, his brother was working in Spain and he was resigned to finding a chance for artistic expression elsewhere.
"Leaving the difficulties aside, Armenian culture is not developing and you have to go out," he said.
Mr. Simonian interrupted, chiding, "It's wrong to leave the country." The other students fell silent.
The insular views of some of these young people dismay older Armenians who have a sharp sense of how their own horizons have shrunk since independence.
"For 70 years we lived in a different country, where we were open to Russian culture and history," said Svetlana Muradian, a mother of six in Gyumri who used to work in Russia but now supports her family with odd jobs. "Kids now see nothing beyond Armenia. My only hope is that my three sons will grow up and leave."
The students gathered in the Red Bull bar in Yerevan were struggling with a different facet of the same predicament. Fluent in English and Russian as well as their native Armenian, they were impatient with the growing pains of a post-Soviet state and cynical about politics.
To Gevorg Karapetian, a doctoral student in computer engineering, the ideal leader would be a businessman, "someone educated and clever enough to make relationships with the neighboring countries."
The present crowd of politicians did not measure up. "Our president and all the presidents before him just want to be president," Mr. Karapetian said.
Unlike the less privileged students in Gyumri, he and his friends in the capital have reached out beyond Armenia's borders. They get their news from the Internet and use the Web to chat with English speakers from around the world. They regularly meet Armenians from the United States and Russia who come to visit Armenia, to teach at the universities, plant trees or to set up charities.
But their relative sophistication also makes them keenly aware of the contrast between their aspirations and their country's opportunities.
Victor Agababov, 22, earns the princely sum of $650 a month working as a computer programmer in Yerevan, making him the best paid member of his university class. Yet he tends to mock his own achievement because his job involves doing outsourced work transferred from the United States and Japan.
"We are a cheap work force," he said. "We're cheaper than Indians and probably 10 times cheaper than Americans."
Mr. Agababov is considering moving to Moscow to find a technology job that might promise advancement and independence.
As far the Armenian-Americans and other diaspora visitors who say they yearn to come to the new Armenia, Mr. Agababov and Zara Amatuni, the linguistics student, have a suggestion.
"We can swap," Mr. Agababov said.
"Right," said Ms. Amatuni. "They can come back and we can go there."