Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

BRAIN DRAIN IN ARMENIA

As many as a million Armenians - almost a quarter of the population - have left the country in recent years, most simply to seek employment.
By Artem Yerkanian

Gevorg Muradian, 35, in Soviet times was an engineer. All was well -he had a good job, good career prospects and a family. At the age of 29 he was in charge of one of the largest departments of a diamond-cutting factory.


But in 1993, two years after the collapse of the USSR, the factory closed. Gevorg could not find a new job in Armenia. To feed his family, he left to seek work in Moscow. He rented a small stall on a wholesale market.


At first his business prospered and the following year he brought his wife and two children to the Russian capital.


But success did not last. "Very soon I understood that I was not born for trade", said Gevorg. "I had big problems. I was steeped in debts. To pay them back, I had to sell everything that we had. I could not re-start in Moscow, so we all came back to Yerevan. I am searching for a job now. Any job. At the moment my brother feeds my family. But for how long can I depend on my brother? Probably, I will have to seek my fortune in Russia again," he added.


Gevorg's fate is shared by many. Following the collapse of the USSR, emigration from Armenia reached a scale approaching national disaster. "The country lost its intellectual and spiritual potential", Aram Papoian, head of Armenia's department of migration, told IWPR. "Mass migration changes the demographic structure of the population, the birth rate drops, natural growth of the population is reduced. It loosens the tenability of the country, puts under threat the prospects for development of the state itself," he added.


According to the last census, in 1989, the population of Armenia was 3.7 million. Research conducted by a group of independent experts in 1995 pointed to a population drop of 700,000 in Armenia. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report on Armenia, published in 1998, put the population at 3.1 million.


But some estimates are even more alarming. Comparative studies of numbers of people leaving the country by air and by road suggest 800,000 and 1.4 million respectively, left the country after 1993.


David Shahnazarian, head of the opposition 21st Century Party, claimed that some data suggest rates of emigration have escalated over the past two years and only 2 million people remained in Armenia by the summer of 1999. "Now it is worse than the early 1990s," Shahnazarian said. "The social and economic situation, compared with that time, has improved but psychologically it is much worse now," he added.


The next census in Armenia is scheduled for the end of 2000. Only then it will become clear just how many people remain in the country.


According to UNDP data, two-thirds of Armenian emigrants prefer to seek their fortune in Russia. A Yerevan-based NGO (non-government organisation), the League of Assistance to Armenian Refugees, estimates about 25 per cent of emigrants prefer to stay in the northern Caucasus, while 8-10 per cent go to Moscow and the Moscow area.


Russia, despite its own difficult economic situation, still attracts emigrants for several reasons. Firstly, non-visa entry makes Russia more accessible. Secondly, knowledge of Russian language and culture derived from a shared Soviet past, makes adapting to a new home easier. Finally, weak administrative control of the labour market in Russia allows foreigners to find unskilled work more easily.


However, many emigrants choose to travel to the West. "We decided to leave our native land," explained one middle-aged man at Yerevan airport. "Isn't it better to move to the West, where we will find better payment and better living standards?"


In Europe, Armenian labour migrants tend to move to Poland, Bulgaria and Greece. Some venture to Germany, Holland, Sweden and the USA. Many prefer not to return to Armenia.


One such emigrant is Armen Simonian, 29. He has lived in Stockholm for four years and is currently seeking residency there. Armen is an honours graduate in biochemistry from Yerevan State University but could not find any relevant employment in Armenia. He travelled to Sweden as a tourist, but decided to remain illegally with relatives already there and currently works as a volunteer at a school. He lives on a refugee allowance and fees earned from translating scientific papers.


Armen now speaks and writes Swedish. Should he receive a residency permit he plans to study at a Swedish university to confirm his qualifications as a biochemist. Armen believes any refusal of residency would be a tragedy for him. One thing is certain, he has no plans to return to Armenia. "I can be ordered out of the country at any moment," said Armen. "Then, probably, I will go to Norway or Belgium. I will not return to Armenia. I have nothing to do there," he added.


One can divide the post-Soviet Armenian emigrants into four categories:


One group comprises refugees from Azerbaijan, who sought temporary shelter in Armenia but could not adapt. An estimated one in three refugees from Azerbaijan chose to emigrate onwards from Armenia.


Another group consists of the so-called 'ecological' migrants - inhabitants of the regions affected by the devastating 1988 earthquake. Having lost their homes and discontented with government efforts to provide new accommodation, many chose to leave the country.


Third, several national minorities chose to leave Armenia over the last decade. In 1988-1989 virtually all Azeris left the country. And in more recent years many Russians, Greeks and Ukrainians have followed.


But the largest group consists of labour migrants. Generally speaking most labour migrants do not want to abandon Armenia forever. Their purpose is very specific: to travel to where work is available and bide their time until prospects improve back home.


Armenian government data - based on research carried out by the department of statistics in 1995 - estimate scientists, teachers, engineers, economists and technicians make up 30 per cent of all emigrants. Such figures point to a major 'brain drain' and subsequently serious consequences for the country.


"Emigration is society's protest against government policy," Shahnazarian claimed. "It is the only possible form of protest, when politics is so devalued and no political processes exist in the country," he added.


Artem Yerkanian is deputy editor-in-chief of Novoe Vremya ("New Times") newspaper in Yerevan.