During the last five years, PM Nikol Pashinyan and his predecessor Serzh Sargsyan made very firm and ambitious statements on the issue of demographic growth in Armenia, referring to what the latter described as an ‘unacceptable’ demographic situation for the previous 25 years. Former PM Serzh Sargsyan stated that efforts towards improving demographic growth should result in a minimum population of four million people by the year 2040, while current PM Nikol Pashinyan aimed at a population of five million people by the year 2050. This article will summarize the impact the war may have on these objectives while critically reviewing publicly available information regarding ongoing efforts.
First, it is important to note that population growth is affected by three main indicators: birth to death ratio, fertility rates and emigration. So how is Armenia doing on this front? While there is a natural increase in population, meaning there are more births than deaths yearly, this rate is not sufficient to maintain an increasing population in the face of Armenia’s biggest problem in demographics—the emigration of 15 to 20-thousand Armenians yearly who seek permanent residency abroad. Most recent official United Nations statistics show a lesser number at 1.7 per 1,000 persons which is slightly above 5,000 in 2019-2020 signaling a somewhat positive decrease in yearly emigration.
During a phone conversation with the director of the Office of the High Commissioner for Diaspora Affairs in Armenia Hovannes Aleksanyan, I was informed that Armenia witnessed a surge in repatriation during 2019-2020. More than 2,000 individuals obtained residency from January to October of this year, and many more Armenian passport holders relocated in the first months of the pandemic, which may also reflect an increase in repatriation during the last two years.
A recent CivilNET interview with United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Assistant Representative Tsovinar Harutyunyan entitled “Is Armenia’s Demographic Decline Reversible?” listed the challenges Armenia is facing in the area of demographics without offering a concrete answer to the question established in the title. A very interesting point has been made regarding the ineffectiveness of financial incentives for childbirth as a standalone measure to increase birth rates. Another important fact is that emigration remains the largest contributor to Armenia’s demographic decline.
The interview also discussed that Armenia has reached an all-time low of 1.6 fertility rate, significantly lower than neighboring countries. Harutyunyan goes on to build on Sweden and France’s success stories in increasing fertility rates through creating favorable socio-economic conditions for aspiring women to be able to raise children without having to compromise their careers. If we examine the female labor participation rates, it would make sense to compare the Armenian case to France or Sweden since all three countries share an approximate 50-percent rate of females out of the total population who are economically active. But if we move away from simplistic comparisons, it will be clear to us that Armenia’s geopolitical and socio-economic situation imposes the urgency of taking much more aggressive measures than those presented through expensive policy reforms and foreign fund advisories such as the UNFPA.
The issue of demographic decline in Armenia has recently been reported in Azerbaijani media, specifically citing CivilNET’s article. In an autocratic state like Azerbaijan, it’s very likely that such coverage is coordinated under the state apparatus. We should also perceive in this context the systematic dissemination of torture and mutilation videos of prisoners of war (POWs) by the Azerbaijani Armed Forces. This type of terrorism helped ISIS swiftly establish its dominance in Iraq and Syria by instilling fear in the public, displacing more than five million Iraqis who may not have been in their entirety directly impacted by military action, but a big portion rather fled their homes out of fear of meeting a fate similar to those executed in the skillfully produced and disseminated videos by the Islamic State.
The Azerbaijani provocations on the Armenian border of Syunik and Gegharkunik are also to be perceived in this light. Despite the validity of the public’s concern regarding border security amidst a drop in the credibility of official sources and pervasive post-war grief, it remains the responsibility of local and international Armenian media to accurately report ongoing developments and refrain from sensationalist headlines. The goal is to avoid unintentionally serving the enemy’s objective of further destabilizing the demographic situation by causing an onset in migration from these regions and discouraging diaspora repatriation.
Armenia lost more than 2,500 of its courageous young men during the recent war (with a possible toll of over 5,000). This has a detrimental (direct and indirect) effect on population growth. Many of our young martyrs were likely to start families in Armenia, while many of them already had. The war and its outcome may also drive others to favor emigration for fear of further escalations, especially since trust in leadership has been shaken by the surprising news of capitulation that contradicted the upheld narrative throughout the war.
As we already may deduce from this brief review, Armenia’s case in population decline is potentially reversible through creating a socio-economic climate for a yearly decrease in emigration coupled with a steady increase in repatriation. Knowing that current government-level efforts may be hindered by post-war priorities in an unstable political landscape fueled by an apparent power struggle, we unfortunately cannot afford the time it takes for strategy implementation to resume. The sooner we realize the urgency of taking action, the clearer it becomes that the responsibility for championing the reversal of demographic decline belongs to the Armenian people; government-level budgets can only make it easier. For those who are resourceful, a great way to enable the possibility for future repatriation is by owning land and building property. This will also create labor opportunities. For the young and aspiring Armenian, this could mean making a bold yet rewarding move towards leading a purposeful and beautiful life in Armenia.
To put things into simpler terms: what I referred to as “aggressive measures” is a possibility one wouldn’t casually encounter in western scientific literature or data-driven policy advice. It is in fact proprietary to our own history, a model that has always defied imposed realities. For the last 100 years, we have engaged in portraying to the world the image of a victim who is seeking justice; it clearly hasn’t played well for us neither in achieving justice nor in preventing the recurrence of injustice. What it has succeeded in doing, however, is similar to how self-victimization through the lens of Jungian psychology imprisons the individual mind from perceiving a greater reality. Such a reality for the Armenian case can be perfectly summarized through the story of my grandmother, who despite being born in extreme poverty to first-generation genocide survivors, and despite having lived through the ruthlessness of civil war thousands of miles away from home, now enjoys 50 fourth-generation grandchildren of Armenian descent, one of whom is addressing you at this very moment from the homeland.