Avoiding the Empty Nest: Armenia’s Demographic Security

Illustration by Armine Shahbazyan.

Armenia has experienced significant demographic decline in the past 30 years. Large-scale emigration compared to limited repatriation, and lower birth rates compared to higher death rates have been the main drivers of that decline. It has affected nearly all areas of life in the country. Fewer people translates into fewer workers and fewer soldiers conscripted into the army. The emigration of highly-skilled individuals (a “brain drain”) negatively affects education and overall development.

The 2020 Artsakh War took the lives of thousands of Armenian men. The Minister of Health said on January 21 that 3,450 bodies have undergone forensic examination. More than two months after the war ended with the November 10 armistice agreement, the exact number of casualties is yet to be determined. In mid-December, the Insurance Foundation for Servicemen had said that there were around 2,900 confirmed dead, 1,600 missing and 2,000-3,000 disabled soldiers. For comparison, the First Karabakh War killed around 6,000 Armenians, while the deadliest year (1992) accounted for around 2,500 of that number.

In addition to the war casualties, 2,828 people died in the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Thus, 2020 saw the most excess deaths in Armenia since 1988, when the devastating earthquake in the northwest of the country killed around 38,000.

The war, which lasted for 44 days, took a high human toll on Artsakh and Armenia. A large portion of the killed servicemen were born in the first two years of the 21st century, in 2001 and 2002. This is going to have a significant impact on the demographics of Armenia for decades to come. This loss of thousands of young men’s lives will inevitably have an echo effect in fewer children being born in the long-term.

Armenia’s birth rate had already hit an all-time low in 2001 and 2002. Bagrat Asatryan, the former head of the Central Bank, argued that Azerbaijan took this fact into account when starting the recent war, as it was boys born in these years that were currently completing their military service in the army.


Where Did Everybody Go?

In the Soviet period, Armenia’s population rose almost four-fold. It jumped from 880,000 in 1926 to over 3.4 million by 1987. In the same period, Armenia became heavily urbanized with more than two-thirds of the population living in cities in contrast to less than one-fifth in 1926. When Armenia declared its independence in 1991, Armenia’s population stood at around 3.5 million. According to the Statistical Committee of the Republic of Armenia (ArmStat), as of October 1, 2020, it stood at 2.97 million. The actual number, accounting for those who live abroad despite maintaining a registered address in Armenia, is lower. The numbers show a loss of one in six people over 30 years.

While Armenia’s estimated population in 2020 is almost identical to its population 40 years ago (per the 1979 Soviet census), the population of different regions of Armenia has fluctuated greatly. For instance, the six former districts (rayons) bordering Yerevan (Abovyan, Nairi/Yeghvard, Ashtarak, Masis, Etchmiadzin and Ararat) have seen their combined population grow by almost 30%. In the same period, the population of the Ararat and Armavir provinces (the Ararat valley) has increased by over 20%. Other regions of Armenia such as Syunik, Gegharkunik and Tavush have lost less than 10% of their population.

Shirak and Lori, most affected by the 1988 earthquake, have lost around 30% and 37% of their population in the past four decades, respectively. Their provincial centers, Gyumri and Vanadzor, have lost more than half of their population since 1987. In fact, over 90% of the population decline in Shirak is due to Gyumri’s depopulation. Other provincial towns, such as Hrazdan, Armavir, Artashat, Gavar, Charentsavan and Alaverdi, have lost more than a third of their population since 1989.

In the same period, Armenia’s birth rate declined from 22.5 (per 1,000 people) in 1990 to 12.2 in 2019, and the fertility rate (births per woman) from 2.54 to 1.76, which is below the replacement rate of 2.1 births per woman, necessary to sustain the population. In the meantime, the death rate has increased from 8.5 to 9.6 per 1,000 people. Between 1992 and 2019, Armenia’s net migration accounted for 1 million Armenians leaving the country since independence. Around half of that number occurred during the First Karabakh War, when almost 500,000 Armenians left the country between 1992 and 1994 alone. Since then, every year has seen more people leave Armenia than enter, except 2004-06 and 2018-19. The first exception can be explained by the economic boom preceding the global financial crisis, and the second by the upsurge in optimism following the 2018 Velvet Revolution.

As noted above, net emigration, low births and high deaths are the prime causes of Armenia’s continued population decline. To ensure the country’s demographic security, the government needs to tackle these issues.


Cash For Kids

To promote higher birth rates, the Pashinyan government increased the lump sum payout for a couple’s first and second babies to 300,000 AMD (approx. $625) in July 2020. It used to be 50,000 AMD for the first and 150,000 AMD for the second child. The government also raised monthly benefits from 18,000 to 26,500 AMD (52,000 AMD for working mothers in rural areas). Some scholars argue that lump sum payouts do not have a significant impact on the fertility rate and that paid maternity leave and affordable child care are more effective. One U.S. study argues that, to increase fertility rates, governments should “provide adequate publicly-funded reproductive health and social care in order to achieve required birth rates and have a younger population to contribute to nation’s and global progress.”


Fixing the Leak

The causes of emigration are multifaceted: poverty, unemployment, mismanagement and corruption, low standards of living and uncertainty about the future, which has been exacerbated by the war. In a March 2020 poll, as much as one fourth of respondents (and 37% of young people) said they were interested in permanently leaving Armenia. This percentage is surely significantly higher now; in the post-war period, uncertainty and anxiety have spread widely in all layers of society. Easing societal and political tensions through various means should now be a priority for the Pashinyan government. After the change in government in 2018, there was a bloom in hope and self-empowerment, and even as late as June 2020, the Pashinyan government had a solid approval rating. However, after the 2020 Artsakh War, he is now facing public discontent and widespread calls for his resignation.

Besides easing existing tensions, one way to help people change their minds and persuade them to stay in Armenia is to invest in infrastructure, which the Pashinyan government has tried to do. Not only does it create jobs for people who would otherwise be doing similar work in Russia, it also reinforces the building blocks to continued competitive economic activity. Another way to help people stay in Armenia would be to engage professionals, including engineers and IT professionals, in government-funded research to design and produce new generation military equipment that can be deployed in Armenia or exported.

Taking care of wounded and disabled servicemen and the families of killed soldiers is also vital. In late December 2020, Parliament moved to raise the monthly paycheck deduction to the Insurance Foundation for Servicemen (the “1000 Dram Fund”) from 1,000 AMD from every employee to a range between 1,500 to 15,000 AMD, based on one’s income. The payments provide a social safety net for the families that have been hit the hardest by the war.


Armenia As a Refuge

Aside from decreasing emigration, increasing immigration into Armenia, particularly of diasporan Armenians, is one avenue to reverse the flow of people and skills. Engaging diasporan professionals from developed countries in educational and technology projects in Armenia is one way to bring them to Armenia. With Armenians from turbulent Middle Eastern countries, such as Syria, Lebanon and Iran, it’s another story. These are communities that face their own existential crises. Armenia within its modern borders may not be their ancestral homeland, but Armenia should become a safe haven for them.

During the war in Syria, some 22,000 Syrian-Armenians moved to Armenia; by mid-2019, as many as 18,000 were still here. As with prior waves of repatriation, many diasporan Armenians often encounter integration challenges, with some deciding to relocate again to the West if the opportunity arises. It is the responsibility of the government and society to support diasporan Armenians and help them stay and feel welcome here. Everything from introducing Western Armenian to schools to facilitating participation in UN-funded refugee programs could make a difference.

In the past decade, Armenia saw its first minor wave of foreign immigration. After Armenia’s government liberalized the visa regime with India in November 2017, several thousand Indians came to Armenia, with some seeking temporary or permanent residence. In 2018 and 2019, Indian citizens topped the list, with a total of 3,742 being granted residence in Armenia (only 40 of which were for permanent residence). In 2016 and 2017, Iran was first, with a total of 2281 – many of whom can be assumed to be Iranian-Armenians – 209 of which were for permanent residence.


Moving Forward

Projections by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2019) forecast that Armenia’s population in 2050 will be between 2,573,000 (low estimate) and 3,065,000 (high estimate). The medium estimate is 2,816,000. Armenia’s current and former leaders have promised to increase the country’s population significantly. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan declared in 2019 that Armenia’s population should be 5 million by 2050, while then-President Serzh Sargsyan said in 2017 that the goal should be to have a population of 4 million by 2040.

Could Armenia actually house this many people? Based on the already existing housing stock, as many as 4.8 million people could theoretically live in Armenia’s houses and apartments. According to ArmStat, Armenia’s total floor area is 96.5 million square meters, which divided by the minimum floor area required per person, around 20 sq. m, yields around 4.8 million people. This number is based on the rough average floor area per person in developing countries. In contrast, the average floor area per person in the EU is more than 40 sq. m, which would mean that only 2.4 million people could fit in Armenia’s already existing housing stock. Historically, as noted above, Armenia’s all-time peak was in the early 1990s, when the country had a population of around 3.5 million. Just getting back to that number will require more than 20 sq. m. each to land on.