SEVABERD, Armenia — Just a couple of decades ago this Armenian village on a snowy mountaintop 34 kilometers away from the capital had 361 residents working mostly at a state farm. Since then almost all the young people have abandoned their homes. One by one Sevaberd’s sons and daughters moved to Russia or to the West, far away from their home village that had no gas, no running water, no jobs, and not a single food store for miles around. There was nothing to look forward to, only the powerful wind that blew through the black rocks in the dry gardens.
Armenians often say theirs is the saddest country on the planet. For 100 years Armenians have mourned 1.5 million killed in what historians, and Pope Francis, consider the first genocide of the 20th century. For generations every Armenian family retold tragic stories about their killed or missing relatives, homes taken over by Ottoman or Turkish governments. Tears filled up big Armenian eyes at the memory of the 1989 earthquake that killed from 25,000 to 50,000 people and injured over 30,000 more.
Sure, Kim Kardashian’s splashy visit this month demonstrated to the country that the world was watching, but the celebrity went away and problems stayed. Young Armenians are losing hope that life in their sad, poor country will ever improve: 80,000 citizens out of Armenia’s less than 3 million population have immigrated in the past year.
In one of the few houses still occupied in Sevaberd, Laura Khachaturian, 52, and her children live under a leaking roof with cracks in the walls big enough for a cat to climb through. Her teenage daughters go to a local school that educates a total of 42 children. Two of her nine kids have died because medical services in the area are nonexistent. “We live on 36,000 drams ($76) a month. Snakes crawl on our floor in summer, rain comes through the roof. There is no hope, authorities don’t want to help us,” she said.
The country is trapped in economic, geopolitical, and historical troubles. Its unemployment rate was almost 18 percent at the end of last year, according to official statistics. It has joined in a customs union led by Russia, Armenia’s only real political ally, but that has done nothing to improve the economy. On the contrary, “export to Russia has shrunk by about 20 percent due to the collapsing ruble,” says Parliamentary Deputy Alexander Arzumanian, a former minister of foreign affairs.
The deputy said that Armenia had no reason to be happy about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit on Armenia’s big day, the 100th anniversary of genocide to to be commemorated on Friday. Arzumanian said that Putin stopped Armenia from signing the long-planned European Union association agreement, but that Russia demonstrated no loyalty in return. “Putin is not our ally,” said Arzumanian, who notes that if Putin sells hundreds of tanks and other heavy weapons to Azerbaijan, with which Armenia has hostile relations, “that threatens our security.”
The hope that the country has clung to lies with the younger generation of Western-educated Armenians coming back to participate in building up grassroots democracy and fighting corruption, Arzumanian tells The Daily Beast. “About one-third of our parliament members are young and Western educated,” he says optimistically. “We could eventually become a new model of a country that has both a strong economic partnership with Russia and at the same time is on its way to joining NATO and the European Union.”
Given Russia’s concerns and actions in Ukraine, that seems an unlikely proposition, according to independent Armenian experts.
Ordinary Armenians are even less optimistic. “If Turkey recognizes the genocide and opens the border with Armenia, we will be free from Russia, which is dragging us back to the Soviet past,” says Elvira Agasarian, an architect from the capital, Yerevan. “But so far there has been no sign of Turkey changing its mind.”
Successive governments in Ankara have denied the Armenian claims of genocide and attempted to pressure anyone who insisted on them. But the memories, handed down through the generations, are not easily erased.
Agasarian remembered her grandmother often shed tears over her wealthy and beautiful youth in the house she had to abandon in 1915, in Van, which is now a Turkish province. But that feels like ancient history. “Both of my children work in France, there is no work for them in Armenia,” Agasarian said.
Civil society groups trying to open up the political system have been feeling Russia-style political pressure. In 2003, Lara Aharonian, an Armenian-Canadian, moved from Montreal to Yerevan and started a group called Women’s Resource that provided defense for women suffering domestic violence. The group also educated women about sexuality, which was a taboo subject in Armenia, where men traditionally controlled most major decisions in women’s lives.
Over the course of a decade the group became famous in Armenia, its activists joined various opposition protests in their struggle to defend the rights of the LGBT community. But last year, at about the same time “Putin prevented the president of Armenia from signing the EU association,” as Ahoranian puts it, and photographs of the group’s activists appeared online.
“Our attackers claimed we were a threat to national values. One of them told police that information we publish online is dangerous for his wife and daughter,” the activist said. The opposition felt intimidated by authorities, after several opposition activists were put in jail for organizing street protests right before the genocide anniversary. That added another sad overlay to Armenia’s grim reality.