As we make our plans and commit to new resolutions for 2013, at least for some of our compatriots in Armenia new plans will unfortunately mean immigrating to new countries. More than 20 years after independence, outward migration remains the “answer” to the poverty and socio-economic issues affecting many in Armenia today.
As many as 97,000 people left Armenia in the first 9 months of 2012, the Armenian media reported in October. In reality, 97,000 is just the tip of the iceberg. Almost a million people are believed to have left the country during the last two decades, bringing the current population down to an estimated 2.87 million – 3.1 million. Today, emigration is one of the “silent” threats to Armenia’s national security—one with potentially very serious ramifications for the country both internally and externally.
Internally, the ongoing wave of emigration is continuing to deprive Armenia of citizens who may otherwise play a critical role in state-building and socio-economic advancement. As a developing country, Armenia faces many challenges—from establishing democratic state institutions that are able to deliver for its citizens, to driving economic growth and upping the standards of healthcare, education, and other areas of human development. These much-needed reforms can only be brought by people—be they intellectuals, professionals, businessmen, laborers, or artists—people who are choosing to leave the country instead.
Emigration also compounds the country’s already challenging demographic situation. Standing at 1.7 children per woman, Armenia’s low fertility rates are well below the minimal 2.1 births required for the population’s reproduction. Armenia is also an aging society, with those 60 or over (14.6 percent of the current population) exceeding the 12 percent indicator for an aged population. When viewed within this overall context, the serious threats of large-scale emigration on the country’s future population become even more emphasized.
Emigration has societal consequences as well. It is not surprising that in August 2011, the BBC ran a story on Armenia’s “villages of women left behind.” The women of Dzoragyugh interviewed for the article were more concerned about losing their husbands to other women and new families in far-away Russia than working the fields.
Armenia’s “emptying” villages have also been noticed by our watchful neighbors across the border. “Our economy is growing, while theirs is actually paralyzed. Our population is increasing, while they are facing a demographic catastrophe, there is zero natural growth and mass emigration,” Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said in a speech in October 2012, according to the Lragir news agency. He also called on the people of Azerbaijan to wait until Armenia is “totally empty” to take over not only Nagorno-Karabagh, but also the country as a whole.
Aliyev is famous for his bellicose statements. We can argue that they are for internal consumption. We can dismiss them as the desperate shenanigans of a party defeated in war. We can even feel bolstered by the strength of the Armenian Army and assurances that Armenia can win another war against Azerbaijan if it had to—at least for now.
However, we know that a peaceful resolution of the Karabagh conflict is not on the horizon. We also know that meanwhile Azerbaijan is pumping oil money into its army. According to the International Crisis Group, Azerbaijan’s military spending has increased 20-fold during Aliyev’s presidency to a mighty $4.4 billion in 2012, a figure that exceeds the entire state budget of Armenia. It may not be the case now, but continued large-scale emigration from Armenia may lead to challenges in maintaining a strong army in the future.
Despite the seriousness of the problem, the Armenian government has so far lacked the political will to adequately address the issue of emigration. Government action has been rare and tended to focus on half measures to forcefully curb emigration, rather than policies that provide a long-term solution.
Such was the case when Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan took aim at Russia’s “Compatriots” program, which assists voluntary immigration to Russia’s sparsely populated areas. “The organization of such activities in the Republic of Armenia is unacceptable,” Sargsyan said in October 2012, in a failed attempt to stop the program from running in Armenia. It didn’t take long for the Russian ambassador in Yerevan to remind Sargysan that “no one makes Armenians go to Russia” and that “people leave Armenia because they have certain objective reasons.”
Regardless of the impact such programs might have, the most effective way to fight against emigration is to abolish the reasons people want to leave in the first place. For Armenia, first and foremost, this means creating jobs, developing a more favorable business environment, and encouraging small and medium businesses. It also means curbing corruption, working towards an egalitarian society, and safeguarding the basic rights of citizens.
Armenia’s ruling parties must recognize that their policies are directly responsible for emigration and must immediately start stemming its tide. With the presidential elections fast approaching, the incoming government must turn its attention to the “silent” threat of emigration and devise policies that address poverty, unemployment, inequality, and corruption. Steps must also be taken to encourage and facilitate the return of former emigrants and diasporans to their homeland.
Unfortunately, President Serge Sarkisian’s presidential nomination acceptance speech in December provides no reason to hope for meaningful change on this front, in the case of his re-election. Sarkisian made no references to emigration except for vague promises of shaping a country that will be “competitive enough to ensure sufficient prosperity to its own citizens, render void any desire to earn a living abroad, and able to summon its children back in a dignified manner—to return to a thriving Armenia.”
In the absence of effective government policies to reverse the flow of emigration, we in the diaspora also have a role to play. We must constantly raise the issue and remind those in power in Armenia—through our media, during community visits and interactions with Armenian officials—of the seriousness of the situation. We must demand explanation. We must challenge the government to take action. As a nation we can no longer afford to stay indifferent to this “silent” threat to the security and prosperity of our homeland.