Over 700,000 people have left Armenia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The same number might leave over the next five to 10 years, some observers suggest.
Uncertain security conditions and a depressed economy are the major factors pushing Armenians to leave their homeland. Members of Armenia's cultural elite are voicing concerns that the pace and the scope of emigration could have serious consequences on state-building efforts.
Academician Vladimir Khodjabekyan, in a recent article titled "The Country Suffers from Emigration," wrote that unsystematic and uncontrolled emigration is contributing to a demographic crisis, leaving Armenia with a graying population. Emigration could potentially result in a lower birth rate, and create a labor shortage. Khodjabekyan also expressed concern that Armenia would be hard pressed to recover from the ongoing "brain drain." Those departing tend to be enterprising and highly skilled in artistic, professional and scientific spheres.
Recent figures supplied by the US State Department are indicative of the emigration problem facing Armenia. The number of tourist visa applications submitted by Armenian citizens climbed from 14,000 in 1998 to roughly 27,000 in 1999, according to statistics provided by US Consul in Armenia Douglas Berry. About oone-third of the approximately 13,500 Armenians who received tourist visas did not return to Armenia, Berry added.
The Consular Office of the German Embassy in Armenia has provided similar data, with the number of visa applicants rising 40 percent during a three-month period late last year. The overwhelming majority of emigres up to 80 percent -- leave for Russia.
Some experts worry that the emigration problem is even worse than that portrayed by official statistics. The chances of undercounting are enhanced by outdated demographic data. (The last census was taken in 1989, when Armenia was a union republic in the Soviet Union. It showed Armenia had a population of 3.4 million). In addition, the Ministry of Statistics and Analysis bases its emigration estimates on air transport data. Those leaving via ground transportation are not counted.
Some opposition leaders have suggested that up to 300,000 additional Armenians have emigrated on top of the officially reported figure. An investigation by a local newspaper, meanwhile, showed that in one Yerevan neighborhood 600 out of a total 1,900 apartments had been abandoned.
A discrepancy between official statistics and actual emigration has been recorded by Gevorg Poghosyan, President of Armenian Sociological Association. His emigration study utilized not only census data, but also measured bread and sugar consumption and other economic and demographic indicators.
Official sources indicate that migration is stabilizing, showing that only 7,000 more people left Armenia than arrived in 1999, down from a net outflow of 25,000 the year before. Poghosyan's study also found emigration numbers to be stabilizing but at a higher level, with the net outflow at between 50,000-60,000 departing in recent years.
A few experts say that unless steps are taken to improve overall economic conditions, Armenians will continue to seek prosperity elsewhere. A report by Gagik Yeganyan, head of the Department of Migration and Refugees, predicted that over the course of the next five to 10 years, up to an additional 700,000 Armenians might leave the country if political, social and economic conditions do not change.
Khodjabekyan called for immediate government action to encourage citizens to stay; including programs designed to encourage business activity, as well as legislative steps to strengthen regulatory frameworks. The Armenian government is splintered and still struggling to recover from the October attack on parliament [see Eurasia Insight Archives] that left the Prime Minister and five other MPs dead. Thus, Armenian political leaders, although aware of the emigration crisis, may be unable to take the preventative action. Instead, some political leaders criticize foreign missions for attempting to limit the outflow by imposing travel restrictions, and taking vigorous action to deport illegal Armenian residents.
Mikhail Diloyan is a journalist based in Armenia. He is the executive director of the Yerevan Press Club.