Unfavorable demographic trends are clouding Armenia's economic recovery prospects, according to a recent study. To improve the population picture, the Armenian government should develop programs aimed at raising the birth rate and discouraging economic migration, one of the authors of the study says.
The recent economic news coming out of Armenia has tended to be good: the country has recorded impressive economic growth rates in recent years, and a report released in late 2004 showed a significant decline in the poverty rate. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. However, the country's high emigration rate, driven in large measure by economic factors, could make it hard for Armenia to sustain the current growth pattern. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The recent report, titled Social Demographic Challenges of Post-Soviet Armenia, takes a detailed look at how economic chaos, war and natural disaster have affected Armenia's demographic picture in the post-Soviet era. The United Nations Population Fund funded the survey prepared by Ruben Yeganian, a researcher at Yerevan State University, and Karine Kujumijian of the National Statistical Service.
Large-scale emigration has been a major factor in Armenia's overall drop in population since the Soviet collapse in 1991. Though the country's emigration rates have declined 2004 was the first time since 1996 that immigrants outnumbered emigrants the report finds that the damage to the Armenian economy may prove long-lasting.
Declining birth rates, rising death rates and an ageing population have transformed the country's demographic make-up. During the 1970s and 80s, Armenia featured perhaps the healthiest demographic picture in the Soviet Union. The country enjoyed an optimal population growth rate -- 1.4 percent per year between 1979 and 1990 -- and had the highest life expectancy (about 74 years as of 1987) of any Soviet republic. A good health care system, a relatively high number of children per family (2.4 on average) contributed to Armenia's solid growth rate.
Armenia's demographic trends abruptly changed following the December 1988 earthquake at Spitak. Most of the quake's victims were in their reproductive years, putting a dent in population growth. The economic chaos produced by the Soviet Union's collapse added to the quake's legacy. Armenia's death rate began to climb to about 8 deaths per 1,000 people by 2000, an increase of 27 percent. The number remains largely unchanged today. Concurrently, life expectancy started to fall and, more than a decade after independence, has still not climbed back to its Soviet-era level. As of 2003, Armenians could expect to live for 72.3 years, according to official statistics. But the authors of the Social Demographic Challenges study suggested that the official estimate might be inaccurate, adding that actual life expectancy is probably lower.
At the same time, Armenia's birth rate has declined by half, prompting a sharp drop in the natural population growth rate. This statistic, which reflects the number of births minus the number of deaths, has undergone a six-fold decrease since 1990. That year, Armenia's growth rate stood at 16.3 births per 1,000 people, but by 2001, it had fallen to a mere 2.7 births.
Another population study, presented at an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe meeting in late 2004, made a startling forecast: if Armenia's demographic trends continue to follow the existing pattern, the country's population could fall to 2.66 million by 2025. That would represent an over 15 percent decrease from the official population figure of 3.2 million on January 1, 2005. By 2050, the numbers could tumble still further to 2.33 million.
Many specialists, however, argue that the population growth pattern is hard to accurately forecast, given the influence of fluctuating and unpredictable migration trends. In 2000, for instance, even though the population's natural growth rate increased by 10,300 people, the gain was neutralized by the 42,000 people who emigrated from Armenia. If emigration slows down, demographers say, the country's population growth picture could improve markedly.
Yeganian, however, is cautious. Armenian families, which traditionally had two or three children, now mostly have only one. A change in migration numbers, he said, is unlikely to reverse the birth trend. "This means that the ageing of the population may be a real perspective in the near future," Yeganian said. In 2004, according to official statistics, 10.6 percent of the population was estimated to be over the age of 65.
Recent surveys suggest that the number of Armenians planning to emigrate is not decreasing, Yeganian went on to say. An active government policy is needed to stimulate birth rates and reverse emigration, he added. Hranush Kharatian, who heads the government's department of national minorities and religious affairs, shares that opinion. "Even a very modestly funded program declaring the government's readiness to attract labor migrants back to the country will have a very positive psychological effect," she said. Kharatian has shared her thoughts with other government officials, but reports that, despite sympathy for the idea, no plans are in the works to realize it.
The Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper, the government's principal program document, makes no mention of demographic problems. The document simply implies that with a reduction in poverty, migration will decrease. For now, the closest program to Kharatian's proposal is a Migration and Refugees Agency public information campaign about the dangers of human trafficking and the problems migrants may face trying to obtain asylum in various countries. At the same time, the agency also tries to assist people in finding jobs abroad.
Haroutiun Khachatrian is a Yerevan-based writer specializing in economic and political affairs.