MOSCOW — "The Armenians are coming, the Armenians are coming," is the slogan these days at the U.S. Embassy's consular section.
Ever since the Soviet government unexpectedly opened the doors wider last May to allow increased emigration of ethnic Armenians, they have been arriving by the hundreds in search of American visas.
By year's end, almost 3,500 people from the Soviet republic of Armenia will have been processed and sent on their way to the United States. About 90% of them are going to the Los Angeles area--especially North Hollywood and Glendale--according to U.S. officials.
The total compares with 274 Armenians who were allowed to leave the Soviet Union throughout 1986.
"We have seen an explosion in Armenian emigration," said one U.S. case worker, who asked to remain anonymous. "It's the biggest outflow since 12,000 left during the 1979-80 period."
Armenians have been jamming the 21-seat waiting room at the embassy for months, waiting for overworked staff members to handle their applications.
At times, seeking faster treatment, they present flowers, chocolates and Armenian cognac, gifts that the Americans say they gently but firmly reject.
Ozanes Mesryan, a barber from Yerevan, the Armenian capital, and six of his relatives came Wednesday to pick up their completed documents, one of the last steps before departure.
Mesryan's wife, Yevpraksia, said they would fly from Moscow to Rome, a processing point in Europe for would-be U.S. immigrants, within three or four days and plan eventually to join her husband's sister and her family in Glendale.
"We are hoping for a better life," she told a reporter, proudly displaying her address book with names of several relatives and friends in California.
Her son, Armen, his wife and their 8-month-old baby, together with Armen's younger brother and their grandfather, were leaving with them.
Armenia, one of the 15 republics in the Soviet Union, is regarded as one of the more prosperous regions in the country compared to the Russian Federation and Central Asia. Armenians' ethnic ties are strong, and even those who live abroad remain connected to their native land by their language and the Armenian Catholic Church.
"The Armenian emigration is driven by economics," said one U.S. diplomat familiar with the latest phenomenon. "They don't claim to be politically oppressed, but they are looking for a better standard of living."
Curiously, many of the Armenians applying for U.S. visas are wealthy by almost any standard. Some families report that they have savings of 70,000 to 100,000 rubles (about $112,000 to $160,000 at the official exchange rate). However, by law they cannot take it out of the Soviet Union.
Since the ruble is not a readily convertible currency, 100,000 rubles might bring only the equivalent of $20,000 in the West. Soviet citizens are allowed to take just 90 rubles (about $144) with them when they emigrate.
Even so, American officials say about 80,000 of the 4 million Armenians in the Soviet Union want to leave. In the latest wave, only 2,500 have left the country, though the annual total should reach 3,500, the officials say.
Since applications for U.S. visas are now running at the rate of 600 to 700 a month, and the consular staff has been overwhelmed by the paperwork, there is a three-month delay in processing.
"If we don't get more people in this section, we'll have a six-month waiting period by the end of the year," said one consular worker.
Even so, the Armenians--and anyone else leaving the Soviet Union--have a special privilege. Under U.S. law, they are classified as "refugees," making them eligible for virtually immediate admission to the United States.
In addition, after a year's residence in the United States as refugees, they are eligible to apply for permanent residence there.