Armenia: Twelve Years After Independence
Armenia: Twelve Years After Independence


by Marianna Grigoryan, Special from

Yerevan resident Nune Shahnazaryan has an unscientific but perhaps accurate gauge for measuring social conditions and their effect on Armenia.

"(During the Communist era), when for instance New Year was celebrated at the Republic Square, the most popular place for meetings was either ‘seven fountains' or the clock," she says. "Of course it was impossible to meet someone there as there were so many people making dates at those places that it was simply not possible to find each other. People needed to climb the clock and wave their kerchiefs so that someone could notice them. These days there is no necessity for that."

No necessity, because no crowds. Is there less to celebrate or simply fewer around to create human gridlock?

Economists might say a 12.5 percent growth in business is cause for festivity. But sociologists counter that with half the population living in poverty, who is in the mood for a party?

Living conditions for many in Armenia are the best ever, a rousing endorsement for capitalism and free market economy. For many more, survival has never been harder, stirring nostalgia for the good old days of Communism.

Over the past decade, the "haves" have increased. But so have the "have-nots". And any combination of the numbers adds up to a population count considerably less than pre-independence.

In the past 15 years, the term "emigration" has turned from an impersonal sociological calculation into the very definition of heartache for thousands whose loved ones have gone abroad for opportunities Armenia does not hold.

According to official (and often debatable) figures, 800,000-900,000 left Armenia during the 1990s. Official numbers put the current population at 3.2 million, however, specialists and average observers alike say the 2001 census figure is artificially inflated for the sake of securing greater international aid.

The run for the borders started with the 1988 Spitak earthquake and intensified during the 1991-95 Karabakh conflict. It turned into a Great Escape following the October 27, 1999 massacre when terrorists killed seven government ministers and deputies during an invasion of Parliament.

By 2000, the decline in population was noticeable by common daily observation. Hardly a family did not have a member or know a neighbor who had left. And plenty more were trying to go.

But nobody knows how many left the country.

"For many years we practically haven't officially registered the fall in population," says head of the National Statistical Service (NSS) and the Department of Census and Demography Karine Kuyumjyan. "Migration processes haven't been registered correctly enough and, as a result, every year we have been recording only the number of people coming into the country. That's why it's impossible to tell accurately how many people have left Armenia."

Kuyumjyan says that emigration data is maintained at all railway stations and at Zvartnots Airport and at border checkpoints. But those numbers fluctuate and serve little practical purpose.

In 1992, some 230,000 more people left the country than entered. By 1999, the gap had closed to 7,000 (more departures).

But analysts or any others who have been in Armenia before 1999 know that, following the October 27 tragedy, Armenia's population decreased noticeably.

Kuyumjyan says that in 2000, 57,500 emigrated, followed by 60,400 in 2001.

Last year, 2,700 more people left than repatriated "which is the lowest emigration level of the last years," Kuyumjyan says.

It is not clear whether the closing of the gap reflects changes in mood, or merely whether the number of those remaining with means to leave has decreased.

While the available statistics may be confounding and imprecise, reasons for emigration are more clear. Analysts first of all point to difficult social conditions, which share blame with the level of unemployment.

Official and international agencies conclude that 50 percent of Armenia is poor. According to World Bank and the United Nations, Armenia is the fourth poorest country in the Commonwealth of Independent States, above only (in descending order) Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan.

During Soviet times, poverty, social polarization and inequality were not regarded as major political or economic problems. Poverty was a rare phenomenon. Throughout the entire Soviet Union, the poverty level was kept at less than 20 percent.

Since, however, poverty has become a problem big enough to have its own sub-categories.

"These days, poverty is categorized in Armenia as well," says deputy minister of the Ministry of Social Security Ashot Yesayan. "These 50 percent include poor people, very poor people, needy people, and people who have nothing. However, it is encouraging that comparing with the last three years, when that index was equal to 55 percent, five percent have overcome the poverty level."

According to calculations, Market Basket (the minimum cost of living) is 25,000-28,000 drams (about $43-48) a month.

Sixty percent of income of an average family is spent for food, while the poorest families spend 77 percent. Approximately 23 percent cannot afford daily bread. Only one-third of children who finish secondary school in Armenia continue to university, as most cannot afford to pay for the education.

Pensioners are Armenia's most vulnerable.

According to information provided by the Ministry of Social Security, today there are 543,000 pensioners in the republic. The lowest pension is 3000 drams (about $5) and the average is 6,200 drams (about $10).

Compounding the social hardship of the elderly is the fact that Armenians live longer than other ethnic groups who might suffer the same social conditions. In fact, the life expectancy in Armenia is higher than in any of the Baltic or CIS countries. In 2001, the median life expectancy was 73.5-75.9 for women and 71 for men. Specialists say extended living is not a reflection of improved social conditions, but of genetics.

"We cannot do anything," says 68-year-old pensioner Anichka Tadevosyan, who sells socks in Yerevan markets. "I can do nothing with my pension, and almost nobody has a job in my family."

The official unemployment rate in Armenia is nine percent. But like most official statistics, the number by no means captures reality, as it is simply the figure of those who have registered in the employment center of the Ministry of Social Security. Countless more do not bother.

"Times have changed as well as demands," says deputy minister of Social Security Ashot Yesayan. "Many specialists lost their skills as a result of being unemployed for many years, others became jobless as they were not specialists in the fields necessary for the times.

"Years have passed so they either must acquire new skills or use their knowledge and experience properly so that they could offer their services in the employment market of the new times. In this case only our assistance is not enough. People must have a desire to begin a new life and stop being among people with the status of getting an allowance."

The lowest salary in Armenia is 5000 drams (about $8.60) and the average is 24,000 drams (about $41) a month. But such incomes are insufficient, creating conditions that encourage emigration.

According to research conducted by the National Statistical Service, TACIS (of the European Union) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) over a 12-month period concluding in 2001: 58 percent of men leave Armenia as a result of the lack of jobs; 5.4 percent leave because they can't find work matching their specialization; 9.6 percent leave because they cannot earn enough money that will ensure satisfactory living standards and 1.1 percent leave as a result of an unhealthy intellectual and moral atmosphere.

Results of the poll show that 70 percent of those who returned to Armenia are going to leave the country again for work.

Destinations are different. While many go to Europe and the United States, more go to Russia, Ukraine, etc. because the CIS countries do not require visas from Armenians.

And when they go there, Armenians are entering environments with the highest increase in HIV/AIDS outside Sub-Saharan Africa.

According to the statistics of the National AIDS Prevention Center, 231 HIV infection cases have been registered in the republic from 1988 to June 1 of 2003. The highest number, 41, was registered last year.

Healthcare workers know that actual cases total about 10 times the official numbers. And the majority of HIV-infected are those who have lived and worked outside the republic.

Head of the Department for Preservation of Mother's and Child's Health of the Ministry of Healthcare Karine Saribekyan says that emigration, diseases and social difficulties have influenced the birth rate of the republic as well.

"For countries which are in transition, decrease of birth rate is first of all conditioned by social difficulties," Saribekyan says. "However, there are several problems. We must take in account that, as a result of emigration, many people of productive age also left the country. And their leaving caused the decrease of birth rate. These days some young people first try to get a good education, self-assurance and only after that think about children. But, in any case, as a result of some progress of living conditions, we recorded a (slight) growth in birth rate, which is encouraging."

Relative Dynamics of Births and Deaths

Years    Births    Deaths    Natural Increase
1986    81,200    19,410    61,790
1991    77,825    23,400    54,425
2001    32,100    24,003    8,097
2002    32,380    25,300    7,080

Ashot Yesayan assures that everything is getting better in Armenia with the passing of the years and he hopes that in 10 years everything will be different.

"There was a serious dispute when some time ago we started to discuss a strategic program on overcoming poverty. As a result of that dispute we came to the very important conclusion that the important thing is not to lower the poverty level but to overcome it," Yesayan says. "If someone is sitting and we want to help him stand but he doesn't make any effort to stand up, then it would be very hard for us to help him stand. So it means that overcoming poverty is not only the task of government but people themselves must have a desire for a better life. During Soviet times authorities used to do many things for people, things that people, themselves, should have done. These days citizens of Armenia must realize that the government will always help them, however, they must rely upon themselves because the country's people are its strength."

Originally published in the November 2003 ​issue of AGBU Magazine. Archived content may appear distorted on your screen. end character

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