It happened twenty-three years ago next month, but Armenia’s second city Gyumri has never fully recovered from the devastating earthquake of 1988. A full 8 percent of the population perished in the quake. Local newspaper editor Levon Barsegian, serving as my tour guide in Gyumri last week, proudly pointed out the elegant black-stoned houses for which this former imperial Russian town is famous. But he also pointed out the old market building, which is still a ruin—in fact Soviet buildings collapsed while older structures stayed up. And he told me that six thousand families are still living in the makeshift “temporary” accommodation the Soviet government provided for them back then.
But there is a more insidious problem in Gyumri, more visible in a town like this than in Armenia’s capital Yerevan, or for that matter any of the metropolitan cities of the former Soviet Union. Many of these apartment blocks are half-empty. Thousands of people have simply gone.
Even as the world marked the birth of its seven billionth person last month, a few countries are confronting the problem of insufficient population. A majority of them are post-communist countries. In some, like Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, the problem is low birth rates that aren’t replenishing demographic stocks. In others, the problem is emigration, a drain on population.
This problem has hit Central Asia, Georgia and Azerbaijan, where young men in particular and rural youth in general head off, mainly to Russia, to find work. But two countries are particularly hard-hit: Moldova and Armenia.
In Moldova two causes stand out. One is poverty—Moldova’s GDP per capita is down at African levels. The other is proximity to the European Union, with Moldova’s ethnic cousin and new EU member, Romania, just over the border.
Migration from Armenia in absolute numbers is probably no worse than from its two South Caucasian neighbors, Azerbaijan and Georgia. But the country’s smaller size makes it a much more critical issue. The last Soviet census put the population at 3.3 million, two-thirds urban and one-third rural. Half of that rural population may now have emigrated in search of work, plus considerable numbers of urban dwellers too.
The last official census in 2001 put Armenia’s population at just over three million. Most people believe it is a lot worse than that. The drop in numbers came despite the fact that as many as 400,000 people entered Armenia in 1989–92, either refugees from the Nagorny Karabakh conflict with Azerbaijan or émigrés from the Middle East. But it seems few of those people stayed. Around a million people may have left the country since the end of the Soviet period.
A 2009 Gallup poll conducted among twelve post-Soviet countries presents gloomy data for both Moldova and Armenia. Moldova came first and Armenia second in the number of people saying they would like to move abroad for temporary work (53 and 44 percent respectively). Armenia won dubious first place ahead of Moldova in the number saying they would like to move abroad permanently (39 and 36 percent respectively).
Armenia is a small, landlocked country, still suffering the economic impact of its unresolved conflict with Azerbaijan. But the problem is compounded by the fact that twice as many Armenians live in the worldwide diaspora as inside, and they draw their relatives abroad. And Armenians are traditionally mobile: it is likely that the émigrés’ grandparents fled massacres in Anatolia in 1915 or emigrated from the Middle East to Soviet Armenia.
Now the issue is causing problems with Armenia’s main ally, Russia. Prime minister Tigran Sargsyan publicly expressed worry over the Russian government’s scheme, entitled Compatriots, to give thousands of Armenians the promise of citizenship and work if they move to depopulated parts of Siberia. In effect, one ally is resolving its demographic problems at the expense of another.
Opposition supporters I spoke to in Armenia argue that the government has no interest in stemming emigration. It acts as a pressure valve against the kind of disgruntled masses who can undermine governmental authority, they say, and allows authorities to produce inflated electoral rolls so they can falsify election outcomes more easily. Moreover, remittances help keep the country afloat. World Bank estimates from 2010 said that 9 percent of Armenia’s GDP came from remittances.
But it’s difficult to see the country developing while it is sapped by emigration. The rural economy is a subsistence one. It is a constant strain to maintain an 80,000-strong army to confront Azerbaijan when the stock of 18-year-old men, born in the early 1990s, is so low.
Perhaps the only silver lining is that if Armenia does begin to solve its manifold economic and political problems, there is a huge diaspora out there that has used these fallow years to get better education and training than they could have received in Armenia. If and when Armenia does turn a corner in its national development, these people—re-emigrants, let’s call them—will be in the vanguard of that new story.