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Causasus: Armenia's Second City Still 'Collapse' State

By Harry Tamrazian and Satik Seyranian

Almost 12 years have passed since a devastating earthquake hit Armenia's second largest city, Gumri, in December, 1988, but still there are no signs that the once prosperous city is recovering from the deadly tremor. Harry Tamrazian and Satik Seyranian of RFE/RL's Armenian service report that Gumri's economic and social infrastructure remain in ruins.

Gumri, 18 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Gumri was once home to almost a quarter of a million people. Now, 12 years after a terrible earthquake, it is home to at most 140,000, and 10% of them still live in the temporary shelters known by their Russian name of "domiks" (little houses).

But the housing shortage is not the only or even the major problem in the city. Unemployment is. Groups of men chatting on the street corners during business hours are the visible sign of rising joblessness. The Armenian government, with the help of foreign charity organizations and Armenian philanthropist Kerk Kirkorian, built some housing projects in Gumri. Yet very little has been done so far to ease unemployment.

According to a representative of the regional administration, there are 30,000 unemployed people in Gumri. The city and the region as a whole lost almost 70% of its industrial capacity as a result of the earthquake. Now there are no major industrial enterprises left in Gumri. There are only dozens of bakeries and small factories, which produce non-alcoholic beverages, salami and ham.

The outflow of the workforce from the city, which according to independent accounts has reached catastrophic levels, is a direct consequence of the absence of jobs. According to independent experts, almost 130,000 people have left Gumri over the past 12 years. Most of them settled in Russia.

The World Bank has initiated in the past several programs worth several million dollars, but those projects were confined to the construction of buildings for future industrial enterprises. No equipment was installed or business programs initiated, according to regional administration representative Marietta Gyodakian. She says the aid is effectively frozen money, because it is impossible to start production without technology and equipment in place.

The declining purchasing power is forcing small enterprises to look for buyers in Russia. It is painful for the people of Gumri to see their favorite beer disappear from the market, but no one wants to invest in the local brewery.

The Gumri rug factory produced rugs for almost two years. But the workers have never been paid for what they have produced. The shoe factory, which was once famous throughout the USSR, cannot sell its output locally because locals cannot afford to buy it.

There is no hope for tomorrow in Gumri. The city is located in what is known as the "disaster zone," the name given to the region that suffered most from the 1988 earthquake. Almost every successive government in Armenia has promised to make the rebuilding of the disaster zone a priority, but to date none has delivered on that promise.

The people in Gumri, traditionally known for their wit and cheerfulness, look sad and embarrassed these days. They feel uncomfortable calling their city a disaster zone. But no other more suitable description has yet been found.