Could a massive loss of population be the ultimate price cash-strapped Armenia pays for closer ties with Russia? That is the question troubling many Armenians after Russian President Vladimir Putin on April 21 signed a law granting Russian citizenship to residents of former Soviet and Russian Imperial territories who can demonstrate that they speak Russian fluently and habitually.
Successful applicants must surrender their existing citizenship, but that will do little to deter thousands of job-hungry Armenians, local experts fear.
“This is a long-wished-for law for Armenians, and I think many of them will apply for the program, giving up their Armenian citizenship,” commented ethnographer Hranush Kharatian, a reform activist who formerly ran the government’s Department of National Minorities and Religious Affairs.
With a current population of just over 3 million people, Armenia has lost many residents since the collapse of the Soviet Union to migration, most frequently, to Russia. That trend shows no sign of stopping. Data from the Russian Migration Service states that in 2013 the number of Armenians who visited Russia increased by 20 percent to 670,000.
Temporary jobs in construction, trade or the service sector are the main draw. Armenia has an official unemployment rate of 16.2 percent, but unofficial estimates – particularly for those under 25 -- soar far higher. With one-third of the population living in poverty, according to government data, Russia, the region’s largest labor market, holds a strong attraction.
This January alone, remittances from Russia accounted for 81 percent of the total $99.5 million Armenians received in financial transfers, according to the Central Bank of Armenia. In 2013, Russia accounted for roughly 86 percent of the more than $1.6 billion received via such transfers.
Preserving that cash flow is key for tens of thousands of Armenian families who live on the money sent by relatives (mostly male) working in Russia. A recent change to Russia’s migration regulations that restricted foreigners to 90-day stays out of any 180-day period caused widespread alarm.
Consequently, noted demographer Ruben Yeganian, many labor-migrants “will want to become Russian citizens to resolve their issues with being able to work” there.
Among them are the Balaians, a family of seven that lives in a one-room flat in Yerevan.
The 60-year-old father of the family, Gurgen Balaian, who has been working on Russian construction sites for 30 years, described himself as delighted by Russia’s new citizenship law since, lacking a Russian residence permit, he claims he has to bribe Russian police routinely to keep working in the country.
“Now, my whole family will receive Russian citizenship and we'll start to live like human beings and will receive normal pensions,” he said. “Why would I stay here? If people didn’t find jobs in Russia, they would be simply starving.”
The Balaians are not alone in their view. “[T]he government has to think about this,” commented sociologist Aharon Adibekian, director of the Sociometer polling and market research center. “If the state does not offer decent conditions for living, if there are no jobs, then people will start leaving the country, and Russia, in this case, is the best option.”
Under the changes, Russian citizenship now can be acquired more promptly, too -- in three months, compared with five years in the past. Language exams will be held monthly at Yerevan’s Russian-Armenian University. The examining office declined to tell EurasiaNet.org how many individuals had registered for this month’s test.
As yet, though, the Armenian government sees no cause for alarm. More than a year is required to assess the impact of any measure or event on migration flows, said Department of Migration and Refugees Director Gagik Eganian in reference to Russia’s citizenship law.
Newly elected Parliamentary Speaker Galust Sahakian, deputy chairperson of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia, has said he sees nothing dangerous if some Armenians opt to give up their citizenship to become Russians.
“Those who are true Armenians will not renounce their citizenship,” Sahakian asserted in an interview with the Gyumri-based GALA TV.
Before Yerevan’s September 2012 decision to sign on with the Customs Union, Armenian officials had asked Moscow to scrap a program that offered citizenship in exchange for labor at designated sites. Similarly, exceptions were requested for the stricter migration rules introduced this year.
The relaxed citizenship requirements appear, in essence, to be the response. Seeing Armenians surrender their Armenian citizenship may not please the government, but, with Yerevan’s agreement on the Customs Union still a work in progress, they are not likely to raise objections publicly.
The Union itself includes the possibility of a common labor market for member-countries. This is a feature the Eurasian Development Bank, founded by Russia and Kazakhstan, terms “a key advantage” for Armenia, which, the bank estimates, could see yearly remittances increase by $40 million.
A treaty for Armenia’s accession to the Customs Union now is expected in June.
As that date nears, political analyst Stepan Danielian believes that, like Russia, Armenia should act to protect its own interests. “We have to look for problems within the country and voice our disagreement with our own authorities,”said Danielian, director of Cooperation for Democracy, a non-governmental organization that receives funding from the Open Society Foundation-Armenia. [Editor’s note: The Open Society Foundation-Armenia is part of the network of Open Society Foundations. EurasiaNet.org is financed under the auspices of the Open Society Foundation-New York City’s Eurasia program, a separate part of that network.]
“Russia is trying to solve its demographic problems at the expense of other nations,” agreed sociologist Adibekian.
But, for now, the Armenian government appears to prefer to look the other way. Whether a person has Armenian or Russian citizenship, “[w]e are all citizens of Mother Earth,” reasoned Sahakian.
Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter based in Yerevan and editor of MediaLab.am.