Is Armenia’s demographic decline reversible?

Op-ed by Karen Harutyunyan, editor-in-chief

The permanent population of Armenia, defined as people with permanent residency, was 2,928,914 as of October 2022. This is according to preliminary results from the 2022 population census published by the Statistical Committee of Armenia late last month. This is a decrease of about 90,000 from the 2011 census, which recorded a population of 3,018,854. The decline is more than the entire population of Vanadzor, Armenia’s third-largest city.

Armenia’s fertility rate has been declining since the 1990s. In 2022, the fertility rate was 1.758 births per woman, well below the replacement rate of 2.1. This means that the population is not replacing itself naturally.

According to United Nations projections, Armenia’s population will shrink to 2.72 million by 2040 and to 2.57 million by 2050. Despite these grim projections, Armenia’s previous and current leaders continue to set ambitious goals for population growth without strategic policies to achieve it.

Former President Serzh Sargsyan set a goal of increasing the country’s population to 4 million by 2040, while current Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan says he is aiming for a population of 5 million people by 2050. As in the past, it is unclear if there is any concrete plan or strategy behind these goals.

Armenia doesn’t have the privilege of counting on illusions about a mass in-migration of Diasporan Armenians from Europe and North America. In fact, continued out-migration to these geographical destinations remains a serious challenge.

Low birth rates, out-migration, an aging population, and sex-selective abortions are among the key factors that will impact Armenia’ demographic trajectory in the foreseeable future.

What is clear is that a sustained demographic decline will pose serious security, economic, labor, and social problems for the country.

Steps that can help reverse Armenia’s demographic decline

Armenia’s demographic decline can and must be averted, but it will require bold and innovative action. Along with policies aimed at increasing birth rates, there are several other steps that Armenia can take to meet its demographic challenges.

Firstly, the Armenian government should encourage Lebanese and Syrian Armenians to repatriate by providing them with incentives and opportunities. The dissolution of Armenian communities in the Middle East is a matter of time, and the government should counter possible resistance by local community and religious institutions, who may be unwilling to lose their congregation members.

Secondly, Armenia must improve its infrastructure and establish domestic and bilateral legal frameworks with the US to assist the repatriation of retired American-Armenians.

Armenia must also take decisive steps to attract other nationalities and consider their immigration and integration. Among these groups can be the stateless Christians and Yazidis of the Middle East.

Armenia would also benefit from the in-migration of Indian nationals, who could contribute to the workforce shortages in the country, especially in the booming construction and service sectors.

Armenia should take the opportunity and create policies that would incentivize the permanent stay of the Russian, Belarusian, and Ukrainian emigres who fled their countries due to the Ukraine war. Their number accounts for about 100,000, a majority of whom are skilled workers in IT, High Tech, and other industries. They are an unexpected boom for the Armenian economy. Israel received such a ‘generous gift’ as a result of the break-up of the Soviet Union, with around one million Russian Jews emigrating and turning Israel into a start-up nation with one of the highest per-capita GDPs and HDIs.

All these groups could be issued “Armenian green cards” to enjoy all the privileges of the country except the right to vote. To preserve and promote the development of Armenia’s unique language, culture, and heritage, any changes should be implemented delicately. Armenia should become a trilingual country with Armenian as the only state language and the lingua franca for all its residents, and English and Russian as working languages.

Of course, immigration of non-Armenians may pose risks as well, but the benefits outweigh the potential costs.

Despite all the right-wing populism, immigration is the great advantage of Europe which experiences the same demographic problems as we do. We can learn from their successes and failures.

Armenia needs to make itself a more attractive place to live for both Armenians and foreigners.

It’s time for out-of-the-box thinking and action.

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