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Last Updated: Thursday, 14 February 2008, 14:35 GMT
A slice of home for Armenian exiles
By Kieran Cooke
BBC News, Armenia

Voters in the small republic of Armenia are soon to go to the polls to elect a new president. But away from politics many have other things on their minds - particularly those in the capital.

Armine grabs my arm.

"Look, why don't you invest here? Buy a flat and in one year your money will double."

Skyline of Yerevan, capital of Armenia
There are seven million Armenians scattered around the world

We are sitting in a small cafe in the centre of Yerevan, drinking strong, grainy coffee.

A babushka in a white smock serves us local crusty, piping hot pancakes filled with spicy meat paste.

Armine, formerly a teacher and translator but now a property developer, is dressed in figure-hugging red jeans and a denim top with the message "look at me, twice" printed across it.

But she is no fashion mannequin.

Freedom gained

A product of the old Soviet-style education system, Armine speaks five languages, has an engineering degree, and plays the cello expertly.

When I first met her on a visit to Armenia three years ago, she dreamed of setting up a music school for children.

She was fiercely proud of being Armenian and admonished me for my ignorance about the achievements of her people.

Now the talk is only of property and becoming rich.

It's a country that's going nowhere. I just want to make my money and leave
Armine, property developer

"It's like so many other places in the old Soviet Union. We gained freedom but somehow we have lost our soul," says Armine.

"The Russians, once again, control most of the economy while gangsters and oligarchs swank about in their limousines and fancy jewellery, all powerful.

"The politicians are hopeless, only filling up their own pockets.

"It's a country that's going nowhere. I just want to make my money and leave."

Armine is busy building up her funds.

She has bought and sold homes five times in the past two years. Each time, she says, she has doubled her money.

Map of Armenia also showing Turkey, Iran, and Azerbaijan

As Jewish families might buy a second home in Israel, so the Armenian diaspora - present in virtually every major city in the world and many of them extremely wealthy - are buying houses and apartments in Yerevan and the prices keep rising.

Armenians from Beirut, from Aleppo in Syria, from Singapore, and from Los Angeles are investing in property "back home," just in case things go wrong elsewhere, says Armine.

The latest and most noticeable purchasers are members of the Armenian community in Iran, just over Armenia's southern border, many of whom have considerable financial power.

An empty city

We stroll along dust-filled streets, Armine's high heels navigating through piles of rubble.

The Soviet era was not know for great architecture but old Yerevan had a pleasant, intimate feel.

It is sad to see it disappearing.

The diaspora buys but does not stay, says Armine.

"Meanwhile, locals find they can no longer afford to live here. One day, this could become an empty city."

Skyline of Yerevan, capital of Armenia, with Mount Ararat in the distance
Mount Ararat, the tallest peak in Turkey, is a dormant volcano

I want to leave property and building behind and go south to see a very special mountain.

Pictures of the majestic, snow-covered summit of Mount Ararat hang in Armenian homes, in restaurants, in the offices of millionaire bankers, all over the world.

Once, in New York undergoing treatment on a troublesome molar, I looked up and there, glued to the ceiling, was a picture of Mount Ararat.

To Armenians, Ararat - where Noah and his ark are said to have come to rest after the flood - is sacred, somehow a symbol of who they are.

I feel I can reach out and touch the great mountain, etched against a clear blue sky. Except, of course, it is across the strongly guarded border only a few miles (kilometres) away in Turkey, Armenia's old enemy.

"You see," says Armine.

"Even Ararat is in exile."

And, though this is a special place, there is no escape from the property boom.

One of Armenia's most wealthy oligarchs, who is said to have made his initial fortune by winning the unofficial title of world arm-wrestling champion in a Las Vegas casino, runs one of the country's biggest cement plants.

Day and night, a long plume of yellow smoke spews out, shrouding the valley around Ararat, the fumes filling the air.

The cement goes off to Yerevan to build yet more apartments and shopping malls.

"Now, all I can think about is becoming rich," says Armine.

"And I will leave this place where there is no future."

There is sadness in her voice.

I am sure, for good and bad, she will achieve her twin ambitions: wealth and exile.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday 14 February, 2008 at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

SEE ALSO
Country profile: Armenia
21 Nov 07 |  Country profiles
Armenia's controversial gold rush
09 Jan 08 |  Business


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