It used to be said here that the best way for a Soviet Jew to get out of the country might be to turn into a Soviet Armenian, and then join a cousin in Los Angeles.
Soviet authorities have virtually cut off visa applications from Armenians. The growing stream of Soviet Armenian emigrants to the united States, reaching more than 6,000 last year, has been forcibly slowed to a trickle.
Paralleling a crackdown on Jewish emigration that has received relatively wide publicity abroad, the move against the Armenians has so far gone all but unnoticed.
Yet the effects are visible.The US consulate here, not many months ago apt to be jamned with Armenians applying for permission to go to America, is nearly empty nowasays. Its US support staff has been reduced. There are too many Soviet employees for the sharply cut work load. "We are keeping the local staff on," says one embassy source, "just to be prepared in case the Soviets loosen the new restrictions" on Armenian emigration.
Foreign diplomats say they have no idea when, or whether, that will happen. They were told at the time of the crackdown that it was due to "technical reasons," presumably meaning the Soviets wanted to clear up a backlog of visa applicants. But the tightened visa guidelines have remained in force even after the rate of Armenians leaving the USSR has slowed sharply.
One wide assumption is that Armenian would-be emigrants -- indeed, Jewish or other would-be emigrants -- have become hostages to superpower tension. The assumed corollary: When and if relations between moscow and Washington warm again, emigration may get easier.
Jewish emigration peaked in 1979, the year that Brezhnev and Carter signed the SALT II pact. IT began falling off late that year, plummeting further after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The number of Jews now leaving the USSR is about one-tenth the 1979 monthly average.
Significant Armenian emigration, like the outflow of Jews, began in the heyday of detente. In absolute numbers, the scale of the Armenian exodus was always much smaller. Yet in relative terms, diplomats say, the Armenian applicants generally had an easier time with the Soviets. The number allowed to leave remained more or less unchanged after the decline in Jewish emigration had set in.
The typical Armendian emigrant was not an intellectual, not a political dissident apt to use a new Western home as a platform for denunciations of the Soviet system. Most of the Armenians simply went to work near relatives in the US. Almost all, as it happened, went to the Los Angeles area.
Many of them, or their parents, had immigrated tom the USSR after World War II. It was then that Joseph Stalin invited the world's dispersed Armenians to come try life in the Soviet Socialist Republis of Armenia. Thousands did. Many of them, or their offspring, are among the Armenians who have left for the US in recent years.
But beginning in May 1980 leaving suddenly got more difficult.
The official visa office in the Soviet Armenian capital of Yerevan stopped accepting applications from people wanting to join brothers, sisters, or more distant reltives in US. Only applicants with husbands or wives there would be considered.
At first, diplomats here say, some "hardship" cases involving children wanting to rejoin elderly parents -- or vice versa -- were accepted. But the diplomats say that, too, has now stopped.
For a while undiminished numbers of Armenians were showing up in the US consulate in Moscow as the Soviets continued processing applications already on the books. In January 1981, more than 850 Armenians left for the U.S. By May, the number was under 100.
In September, by official US figures, 44 left.