Rush to get away before the lights go out

Once Armenia was envied. Now its people can't leave fast enough
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The Independent Online

Every day before sunrise they are out there. Hundreds of desperate people, dressed in their finest, queuing outside the American embassy in Yerevan for their ticket to economic survival. Armenia is literally dying on its feet.

Every day before sunrise they are out there. Hundreds of desperate people, dressed in their finest, queuing outside the American embassy in Yerevan for their ticket to economic survival. Armenia is literally dying on its feet.

It is nearly lunchtime and Aliona is fourth in line, stamping her feet to ward off the cold. It is seven or eight degrees below freezing. "It's cold, it's humiliating, but I've got no choice," she says. She is a teacher, and teachers here get £20 a month.

Her journey out is only beginning. Once inside the embassy, the building that once housed the Komsomol, the Communist Party's youth organisation, she is given her first interview.

If she passes that, she is given a voucher for a second one. The waiting time is until August. Then she will be interrogated about her motives. Currently 80 per cent of applicants are being turned down. Those who fail take the bus north through Georgia to Russia, where they try to eke out a living.

This picture is common to all parts of the former USSR. What makes Armenia different is that this was, in its heyday, a cultural beacon. Armenian writers and scientists were envied. The lifestyle was better than elsewhere. The people are as educated and hospitable as anywhere in the world. The potential for tourism and other inward investment should be great.

And yet, half of Armenia's population is believed to have left since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In truth, nobody knows how many people are left. The government tries to work it out by counting loaves of bread sold. It is supposed to be holding a census, its first since 1989, but does not have the money.

Western institutions have said they will pay, as they do for most things here. The government does not want to confirm the drop in numbers as international funds are calculated per head of population. So the old figure of 3.8 million nominally stands; the true number is probably around 1.5 million.

At least Aliona is employed - up to three-quarters of the population are not. Serzhik Sarkisyan has been an engineer for 20 years. If the European Union gets its way, he will be out of a job by 2004. His problem is that he works at Armenia's nuclear power station at Metsamor, half an hour to the west of the capital, on the road to Turkey.

So unsafe is the plant considered to be that foreign diplomats in Yerevan have been supplied with tape to seal their homes, plus tablets and breathing equipment. Not only is the plant designed along the same lines as Chernobyl, but the Soviets also built it on the faultline of the 1988 earthquake which killed 25,000 people and virtually wiped out towns in the north of the country.

When the Armenians were fighting to break away from the USSR, Metsamor became a cause célÿbre among dissidents. They saw it as a symbol of Soviet domination. The authorities were persuaded to close it after the quake for five years and the country went into virtual darkness. Now, with few other sources of energy, they have all changed their minds.

"We all know something could happen, but what do you want us to do?" asks Serzhik, as he and half a dozen friends stand outside their flats in the concrete jungle of their town on a Sunday evening. All they do is talk and smoke. Many of the flats are deserted. Serzhik is the only one with work. His 80,000 dram (£100) per month is far more generous than average. It allows him also to help his extended family. Farm buildings along the perimeter of the power station lie derelict. The roads are lined with the shells of disused factories, their contents taken away and sold.

Throughout the country trees have been chopped down and used as firewood. The nuclear plant's single working reactor is operating to full capacity and is keeping the country going. Western technicians, mainly French, monitor safety. As one official put it: "It's as safe as it's ever likely to get, but that's not much."

And that is why the government is ready to call the bluff of international institutions and refuse to meet the 2004 closure target. "They would like it shut down as soon as possible. So would we," says Vartan Oskanian, Armenia's foreign minister. "But we can't afford to do it."

Artyom Grigoryan has been manning his stall, stocked high with vodka and cognac, all day and all night. He shifts a few bottles - to passing trade and the small contingent of foreigners - but mostly he just stands there.

Artyom came straight home after finishing his national service to help his parents and 15-year-old sister to make ends meet. His mother, Sosanna, huddles over her makeshift dustpan, as she sweeps shavings from the small pieces of wood they have collected to keep their stove going. They even burnt the wooden heel of an old shoe. They are all pale and malnourished as they huddle together in their single room, no more than 10 feet square. Sosanna and her husband used to work in the local textile factory. They have not bought any clothes for years. "I feel like an animal, not a woman," she says.

"People are nostalgic. I can't blame them," says Mr Oskanian, the foreign minister. "We can only change their mentality when we put money in their pockets." So who is to blame? It is not just acts of God - the Armenians devoted huge resources to a war with Azerbaijan, their neighbours to the east and long-time friends, over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. A peace deal is said to be close, but not that close.

Long the victims of others' aggression, culminating in the genocide by the Turks in 1915, the Armenians are not used to statehood. For centuries more of them have lived in far-flung regions rather than in their homeland. And what of the diaspora? Many of the more established Armenians abroad are doing very well. They have always sent money home - it is how many survive. But few are prepared to invest in starting a business, complaining of that well-established post-Communist combination of bureaucracy and corruption.

But there are glimmers of hope. Some small businesses are starting up, and succeeding. New sources of energy are being sought, including a gas pipeline deal with Iran, to make it easier to close the Metsamor plant at some point over the next decade. The economy is expected to grow up to 10 per cent this year, albeit from a tiny base. An influx of tourists is expected for this year's 1,700th anniversary of the founding of the Armenian Church - the oldest established church in the world.

Outside Yerevan's covered market on Mashtots (formerly Lenin) Avenue, Agavni Sochanyan is holding a live chicken by its neck. She is asking 2,500 dram for it, but settles for 2,000 from a middle-aged couple walking by. I ask her why she is selling it. She explains that she takes the bus out every morning to a farm in the nearest village, and buys anything she can find. She then brings it into town and sells it at a mark-up. She has made 300 dram profit, about 40p, enough to get by for the rest of the day. She is 65 and used to be a midwife. And she is smiling.