Emigration is the single most detrimental threat to the Armenian nation today, even more so than governmental corruption. The National Statistics Service insists that the population of Armenia is still 3.2 million, a figure it has maintained since 2001 since the last census was taken. Meanwhile, behinds closed doors rumors are heard that there are barely 2 million people actually living in the country today. A new census is slated for this year, but its findings will be unpromising. Untold thousands leave the country every year as permanent emigrants.
Emigration is increasing for several reasons. The main one is, of course, a lack of jobs and persistent mass poverty. Perhaps the most effective way to address this problem, while keeping the youth from leaving, is for the government to attract more investment in the IT sector. The overture to give tax breaks to technology companies doing business in Armenia is still not aggressive enough. The IT sector needs to increase four-fold. Technology centers need to be established across the country, from Kapan to Alaverdi, and new talent must be continually cultivated.
In the meantime, as part of a mass rural development plan, entire villages are being uprooted and transplanted to remote regions of Russia, where people are offered free housing and employment.
According to the National Statistics Service, the total number of poor increased from 27.6 percent in 2008 to 35.8 percent in 2010, despite the tens of millions being pumped into the country in foreign aid packages, investments, loans, and remittances. During the same period, there was about a 10 percent increase in poverty in rural Armenia. The 2010 poverty line was set at a monthly income of 33,517 dram, or about $90, per adult.
There are also problems related to sustaining small businesses. Rents are going up, and small stores find it hard to compete, especially with the chain supermarkets that are branching out across the city. Higher rent and prices for imported goods mean less profit when customer loyalty dwindles. The lower middle class—the core of Armenian society –has less and less to spend.
The third reason is attributed to bad attitudes and pervasive apathy. I still hear statements like, “The country’s not a country,” and “Is Armenia even a country for you to come here?” as if it were all a big joke. A defeatist dissatisfaction with everything and blind indifference to the general state of affairs are suppressing the vital strengthening of society. The only segment of the population that has the genuine right to express a feeling of hopelessness is the poor/very poor. Many of Armenia’s destitute populace have no choice but to leave for Russia or elsewhere to find work.
Another reason to leave is that it’s fashionable. The youth dream of leaving the country and moving to more exotic places like the U.S., Canada, and Europe. It’s the cool thing to do. Even if someone has a hard time making a go of things where they end up, emotionally, financially, or whatever, the stigma that it is “shameful” to go back inhibits their desire to return. So you have one group that is ecstatic about living elsewhere in the world—anywhere but Armenia—and another that regrets leaving in the first place, but won’t return to the homeland.
The majority of Armenian citizens have a lot to be thankful for. Although they may be blind to it, they presently have a relatively stable government and economy. The government insists that the economy will grow by 4.2 percent this year and that it will meet its target in collecting about $2.3 billion in tax revenues. Armenia is considered by the Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org/index/country/Armenia) to have a “moderately free” economy—ranked 39th in the world ahead of Norway, France, Turkey, and Azerbaijan—and is now implementing a revised, amicable registration process for doing business. It benefits from the support of the European community, the Americas, China, Japan, and of course its big brother, Russia. Petty crime is not common in many parts of the capital and arguably less so in the regions. There is little to fear by walking the streets of the city center late at night, and that’s something that certainly can’t be said of many cities around the world. And despite the beating of war drums by its oil-happy neighbor to the east, there isn’t a clear sign of a possible resumption in hostilities. No one in the international community, Armenia, or Artsakh seems to take the rhetoric seriously. Moreover, Armenians have had the privilege of living in a democracy for 20 years, enjoying the freedoms of casting a ballot, thought, expression, and enterprise, all of which are taken for granted.
Emigration long ago became a national security risk for Armenia, fueled by boundless cynicism and apathy towards nation building. If it continues unchecked, the emigration problem will instigate a severe, harrowing depopulation of the only parcel of land the Armenian nation can legally call its own. And ultimately, that will mean others will move in to take their place. The exodus from Armenia needs to be curbed, and that entails more than just evasive action taken by the Armenian government. It will need the support and encouragement of the Armenian Diaspora to ensure Armenia becomes a country that anyone returning would never dream of leaving again. That has to happen now.