VARDADZOR (Armenia), Sept 25: There are no men to be seen in the rural lanes of Vardzador as mother-of-four Susanna Asatrian makes her way to the fields to thresh barley and wheat.

Her husband has left the country in search of work like so many other men in remote, impoverished Armenian settlements, leaving them almost entirely populated by women to symbolise the country's depopulation problem.

“It's a total matriarchate. We even joke that our village's name should be changed from 'Canyon of Roses' to 'Canyon of Women',” said the 36-year-old.

In the midst of the harvest season in Vardadzor, around 130 kilometres from the ex-Soviet state's capital Yerevan, women do the hard agricultural labour, prepare for the long winter ahead and raise their children practically without male assistance.“The children miss their father, but what can we do?” asked Asatrian.

In villages like this, women traditionally marry young and their husbands often leave after their honeymoon to work as migrant labourers, only returning for a couple of months each year.

The men who remain are largely elderly.

More than a million people left Armenia in the years from 1988 to 2007, with around two-thirds of them relocating to Russia, like Asatrian's husband, leaving the small Caucasus republic with a current population of 3.2 million.

Asatrian is one of the lucky ones, however; her husband comes home every New Year, rings her up frequently and sends hundreds of dollars to support the family every few months.

Others fear that their husbands will find new wives in Russia and abandon them completely, as in the case of one woman from Vardadzor whose emigrant partner broke off contact while she was expecting her second baby.

“There has been no news of him for the past 10 years, not a single phone call,” said the 29-year-old who gave her name as Tamara.

“People say that he lives in Omsk with an older Russian woman, brings up her child and does not want to think about us.”

Emigration has increased again in recent months, a trend which analysts link to the economic recovery after the global financial crisis.

The United Nations Population Fund and the state statistics agency estimate that some 25,000-30,000 people abandon Armenia permanently each year.

“Those who leave the country are mainly young men in the prime of their life,” said Garik Hayrapetian of the United Nations Population Fund.

“The situation negatively affects the population's reproduction and gender balance and contributes to the ageing of society.”

Armenia's opposition argues that migration threatens the country's national security, and President Serzh Sarkisian has declared that the authorities must take action.“The number of people looking for overseas success is large, and of course we should be seriously concerned about this problem,” Sarkisian said earlier this year, suggesting that the only way to reverse the trend was to create better economic conditions.

Surveys have suggested that 70-75 per cent of emigrants leave because of the lack of job opportunities and low wages in a country that suffers from economic isolation because its borders with neighbours Turkey and Azerbaijan have long been closed due to political disputes.

But the head of the country's migration agency Gagik Eganian accused the opposition of trying to score political points by describing the latest wave of emigration as catastrophic and suggesting that Armenia was becoming “deserted”.

“There is no data on what proportion of these people (this year's emigrants) left the country forever,” he said.

Some analysts also argue that migration has economic benefits, with many families surviving on money sent home by relatives working abroad — $772 million in the first half of this year alone.

But in a more worrying statistic, the United Nations Population Fund says that 44 per cent of people responding to one of its surveys did not see a future for themselves and their children in Armenia.

Hayrapetian also raised concerns that not only the poor and jobless were now leaving.

“Migration has changed qualitatively. Well-off people with higher education and well-paid jobs are now emigrating,” he said.

The government is preparing what it calls a National Programme for Migration Reduction, which is due to be launched soon, while another scheme entitled 'Come Home' aims to encourage people from the huge Armenian diaspora to resettle in their ethnic homeland.

Back in Vardadzor, Susanna Asatrian's children keep in contact with their father via the internet, while others wait expectantly for their dads to return from Russia for Christmas — although some of them, it seems, are likely to be disappointed.—AFP