The Armenian Exodus

Initial findings of Armenia's first census since independence suggests the country is in the throes of a huge demographic crisis.

The Armenian Exodus

Initial findings of Armenia's first census since independence suggests the country is in the throes of a huge demographic crisis.

Thursday, 21 February, 2002

Early each morning Zvartnots airport in Yerevan receives a new cargo of buses and cars, stuffed with people, ready to board flights to Russian towns and cities.

This is the outward sign of a mass emigration. Early findings from Armenia's first post-Soviet census suggest that the country has lost a quarter of its population since independence.

Announcing the preliminary results of the survey on February 15, the head of the country's National Statistical Service, Stepan Mnatsakanian, put the population at a fraction over three million. In 1989 the population of Soviet Armenia was estimated to be 3.8 million.

These devastating figures, compiled from a nationwide census conducted last October, may hide an even greater demographic crisis. Some have suggested that the survey was poorly funded and could only provide a conservative estimate.

Mnatskanian effectively acknowledged that the population deficit may be bigger than that suggested by the survey, when he admitted that it included foreigners, who have lived in Armenia for more than three months, such as embassy personnel and employees of international organisation.

Armenia is suffering the same demographic problems as its two neighbours in the south Caucasus. Coincidentally, Georgia has also just conducted its own census and concluded that it has lost around one sixth of its population. But Armenia's crisis is even more acute - in part because its population figures were lower to begin with.

Mnatskanian said around 950,000 Armenians had left the country since independence. Many are searching for work, having failed to find any Armenia. They tend to be young, male and able-bodied - precisely the kind of citizens a country most needs to hang on to.

The remittances these workers send home are a vital infusion of cash into the impoverished Armenian economy. According to various estimates, they are worth between 50 and 100 million US dollars a year.

Russia is the main destination. Demographic experts say that the Armenian population of Moscow alone, which was 150,000 before independence, is now closer to 400,000. The USA, especially California, is the next most favoured escape-route. An estimated 150,000 Armenians have emigrated there over the last ten years.

The early census results have already become a hot political topic, with some opposition politicians claiming that the population has sunk to little more than one million people and pro-government figures insisting the survey was more or less accurate.

"If there are deviations from the real picture then they are insignificant," said Amayak Ohanesian, a parliamentary deputy and chairman of Armenia's Association of Political Scientists. "The census was a responsible undertaking, carried out under the observation of international experts and human rights organisations. It is irresponsible to talk about deliberate distortions, as in Soviet times."

Ohanesian said that many of those who leave Armenia are seasonal workers, who just want to earn money and then return home. He pointed out that most of them are absent in the autumn, precisely the moment when the census was carried out.

Aram Sarkisian, the leader of the opposition Democratic Party, said that emigration was only part of the demographic problem. He said the death rate in Armenia now exceeds the birth rate, many young families prefer to have children only once they have emigrated.

Ordinary Armenians are also sceptical about the government figures. "To be honest, it seemed to me that there are no more than two million people left in Armenia," said Vartan Karapetian, a 58-year-old engineer. "If we really have around three million than I am delighted, because everyone is now a real treasure for our country." Karapetian said that his own children had left the country two years ago for the USA, finished college and were now starting working there.

Many Armenians will come back, if the economic climate improves at home. But it seems likely that many others, especially those who have gone to the USA, will never return.

" I myself left for the United States and even found work there, but I soon came home because I could not adapt to life in a foreign country - there aren't so many people like me though," said Kristina Manvelian, 28, an English teacher. " The majority of

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