In a stagnating economy and following a dispiriting war defeat, Armenians appear to be leaving the country in large numbers.
While emigration is an unofficial process and so is not documented precisely, a proxy statistic to measure the flow is to compare the number of Armenians leaving the country to the number entering it. While that number was positive in each of the three years between 2018 and 2020 – that is, more Armenians entered the country than left – it has taken a dramatic turn in 2021.
In the three quarters of 2021, 103,000 more Armenians left the country than entered it, according to official data. That amounts to about 3 percent of the country’s entire population. Most of the loss was in the first quarter of the year, when the net loss represented almost 64,000 people.
At Yerevan’s Zvartnots Airport, 30-something Narine, who did not give her last name, was among those leaving. She lived in the town of Masis, in the Ararat region, and her husband has been working as a labor migrant in various cities around Russia. “He left for Russia at the beginning of the year but now he’s not coming back, and he asked me and our two boys to join him,” she told Eurasianet. The family’s prospects in Armenia appeared hopeless given the country’s political and security situation, she said. “My husband said we should leave while we can because it’s not safe for the future of the kids.”
Analysts say that the economy remains the top reason for outmigration, but that other post-war challenges and security issues also are playing a role.
Armenia’s economy shrank 7.6 percent in 2020. “The economic crisis that began last year has forced people to exhaust all their savings,” economist Hrant Mikaelian told Eurasianet. “We see that financial flows in the economy are slow but inflation is high.”
Demographics has long been a concern in Armenia, where the population has decreased by roughly 600,000, or about 15 percent, since the country gained independence in 1991, due to a combination of low birth rates and high levels of emigration.
Mikaelian said that the benchmark to compare 2021 is not the years that came immediately before but the other “crisis years” that Armenia has suffered since independence. He cited years including 1998, when there was an economic crisis compounded by a political crisis; or the global economic recession of 2008. Both those years were followed by large spikes in emigration, he said. “I think we will have a similar picture this and next year and probably it will be comparable to those crisis years.”
The head of Armenia’s Migration Service, Armen Ghazaryan, echoed that assessment. “Migration is closely connected to the economic situation – better years show fewer people leaving,” he told Eurasianet. “2004 to 2006, 2018 to 2020 were good economic years that showed less migration.”
Because seasonal migrant workers to Russia form the bulk of migrants, the real picture on migration will become clear by the end of the year when they traditionally return for the holidays, when work in Russia slows down, Ghazaryan said.
But there are indications that more Armenians may be moving to Russia permanently.
According to Russia’s Federal Migration Service, about 22,000 Armenians were granted Russian citizenship in the first half of this year. That’s the highest such figure in the last four years.
While economic factors drive many Armenians to emigrate, the difficult situation following the war has also impacted Armenians with more means.
“Some families are leaving because they are afraid for their children to be conscripted into the army, they’re afraid of endangering their kids’ lives,” Mikaelian said. “There are people who don’t believe the country has a future and they decide to tie their future to another country. We see this tendency in people who are not the poorest, but live normally.”
One of those who has lost faith is Vahe Grigoryan, a 20-something from the Tavush region, who also was at Zvartnots to get a flight to Russia. He has worked on and off there for two years and is now weighing a longer or even permanent stay. “All my extended family moved to Russia over the last 10 years and they are making a living; meanwhile in Tavush there is no work, or if there is it’s nothing you can build a future on,” he told Eurasianet.
“Of course the war on our doorstep [the summer 2020 fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan] and then in Nagorno-Karabakh [that autumn] has had a huge impact on people’s decisions,” he told Eurasianet. “But Russia also is not what it used to be; the job market is crashing there, too. I love my country. Why would anyone move to frigid Russia if we had decent conditions to live in this country? The only people who have any sort of life here are in Yerevan.”
Ruben Yeganyan, an economist and demographer who studies migration, is currently conducting a survey with the United Nations on emigration out of Armenia, with a particular focus on post-war factors.
The survey will be completed in February 2022, but early indications are that migration might be slower than it otherwise would be because of COVID-related restrictions on movement, Yeganyan said. “The flow of permanent emigration is now frozen, and that has to do with external factors, not Armenia,” he told Eurasianet. “It’s possible that a lot of people want to leave but they can’t.”
While seasonal labor migration is mostly conditioned by the economic situation, there are now additional factors that are making the research harder to conduct, Yeganyan said.
Many of those whom his team are surveying don’t want to talk, or hide their real thoughts about migration, he said.
“Social, moral, psychological aspects of the issue, and the post-war and ugly political situation from all sides, are all affecting people’s attitudes,” he said. “People are fed up. I would call it a post-war shock, distrust, they don’t trust any organizations.”
Ani Mejlumyan is a reporter based in Yerevan.