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YEREVAN | The Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts is housed in a modern, stone-coated structure that sits atop a rise in the middle of Armenia’s capital. On one wall of its main exhibition hall hangs a world map covered with dozens of red dots in different sizes.
The dots point to the origins of the Armenian books and documents on display at the institute, from early medieval bibles to 19th-century legal papers. Predictably, a red swarm hovers south of the Caucasus, between the Black and Caspian seas. But then the dots spread to other regions, countries, and continents – from Italy to Iran to India.
The red dots are more than a bibliophile’s record. They tell a story of people who for centuries traveled, studied, and worked far away from their ancestral lands. Migration is nothing new for Armenians.
But today it is approaching crisis levels, and doing damage that could take decade to undo – to the country’s demographics, its families, and its skilled work force.
In charge of managing Armenia’s current wave of migration is Gagik Yeganyan, head of the State Migration Service. His 35 employees occupy an old office building three metro stops from Yerevan’s city center.
“During our long history, and due to our geographical location at the crossroads of the Persian, Byzantine, and Roman empires, Armenia has always been somewhere in the middle, and that has led to a lot of forced movements of people,” Yeganyan says. “And Armenians, like other nations, try to follow their interests and try to find better conditions to live. This is what you call push and pull factors.”
Seventy-five percent of Armenians who leave the country do so to find work, Yeganyan said.
“Journalists or people from civil society organizations often ask me, ‘What are you doing to decrease emigration?’ What can I say? To tackle migration you have to go deeper, you have to tackle the reasons. I’m not in a position to create job opportunities here. That’s the task of the whole government. I can only try to provide services to people who are moving abroad or coming back.”
And there are many of them. In the early 1990s, as many as 1 million people left Armenia as a result of the collapse of the Soviet economy and the war with Azerbaijan. They joined already sizable Armenian diasporas in Russia, Ukraine, the United States, and Europe. Today some 3.1 million people live in Armenia, down from 3.5 million a decade ago.
Reliable statistics on migration in Armenia are hard to come by, but according to the Armenian Statistical Service, more people leave the country than enter it each year. In 2007, departures exceeded returns by about 22,000. In 2008 the gap rose to more than 32,000 before dropping to 21,000 in 2009.
A 2009 International Labor Office study on migration and development in Armenia revealed that on average about 60,000 labor migrants go to seek jobs in Russia annually. Usually, these migrants return home to visit their families at least once a year.
Aram Asatryan, 73, went to work in Russia for the first time in the summer of 1980. He picked watermelons on a farm in the Volgograd district. He later switched to construction, working for himself or managing other laborers, overseeing building sites, and setting up a business with relatives in Russia. He continues to shuttle between the countries.
In December, when I met Asatryan in his apartment in the Jrvezh suburb of Yerevan, he had returned from Moscow a month before.
“I’m an old man and there are no opportunities for me in Armenia,” Asatryan says. The domestic construction business is heavily monopolized, he adds. “You never know what will happen to your investment, you don’t want to risk your money.”
His son has a doctorate in agricultural sciences and lives in the United States. His daughter lives in Australia.
“In summer, go to Sarukhan,” he tells me. “It’s a small town east of Yerevan. You’ll meet women, kids, and grandpas. But no men of working age. They’re all gone, working in Russia.”
Asatryan says he doesn’t know if he will go to Russia next year. Then again, he hasn’t known each year since 1980. And yet he kept going back, for five, six, eight months at a time.
Ruben Yeganyan, a demographer at the Caucasus Research Resource Center in Yerevan, says that even among the so-called seasonal workers, up to 15,000 leave Armenia for good every year.
“This is a social, demographic cost,” he says, ticking off the results: declining birth and marriages rates, brain drain, capital flight. “Children don’t live in normal families. With parents separated, children grow up in feminine environments at home and in schools.”
On the other hand, the value of remittances sent home nearly equals the national budget, reaching $2 billion in a good year, or 20 percent of GDP, according to the State Migration Service. There are also new skills and knowledge acquired abroad; when migrants return they can bring new ideas, new culture. Armenia is a mono-ethnic society, for good or ill, and these days not being aware of other societies, cultures, and traditions is a handicap.
Square One is a modern, American-style cafe, right in the middle of Yerevan, just at the entrance to a newly built district my guide called “an elite block.” The cafe is frequented by Yerevan’s expats and young, well-off people. In the evenings the flicker of laptops, tablets, and smart phones illuminate the tables.
There I met Zaruhi Gasparyan, 26, who works at the American Bar Association of Armenia. She studied linguistics at Yerevan State University and afterward applied to several universities in the European Union. She was accepted by three of them and chose to study EU affairs in Parma, Italy.
“Studying was just a way to see the world, see how it is to live in another country, to live somewhere else. I didn’t go abroad to earn money. I was bored in Armenia and wanted to experience something different,” Gasparyan says.
At first, when she came back to Armenia after a year abroad, her foreign experience didn’t help much in getting a job. What made a difference was a traineeship she did later at the European Commission in Brussels. Only then did employers notice her. She received 13 job offers from private companies and government agencies in Yerevan. She chose the Bar Association, which helps to implement legal reforms in the country.
“It’s not jobs or money that attracted me to the EU,” she says. “It’s the freedom – personal freedom, political, economic. If I ever move abroad this will be the reason.”
Freedom is probably not the first reason to move for the men in Arevashogh, a village in the mountainous northern region of Lori, 10 kilometers (six miles) from the epicenter of a deadly earthquake that struck the area in December 1988.
Arthur Magoyan, 43, married with two teenage children, worked to rebuild the place after the disaster. Then, in 1995, he started traveling to Russia to work. How do these journeys work in practice?
“At the end of October I came back after five months of laying tarmac on roads in Moscow. In May I’ll go back again. I’ll pay some 100,000 Armenian drams [€200] for the ticket and take a plane to Moscow. I take this bag” – he displays a midsize knock-off Reebok bag – “and I fill a good part of it with bottles of local brandy and semisweet wine for my Armenian relatives, who sort out a job.”
Hrahat Kostumyan is in charge of finances for the village of about 3,200. He says 90 percent of the men of working age go abroad regularly.
“The only stable jobs here are at the local elementary school and the village health center. There are some occasional public works too,” Kostumyan says.
“A worker in the Lori region in Armenia can earn $200 a month. In Russia he will get $1,000. And Russia is the only realistic destination for these men: they know the language, they don’t need a visa, and they usually know someone there. The best people leave – highly skilled workers, master craftsmen. It’s difficult to do anything here at home without these people.”
Kostumyan admits that some men leave their families and don’t return. “Most of them keep sending money for a while, but they have a second family over there. That men have parallel family lives – one in Armenia another in Russia – is an open secret in many Armenian families.”
Back in Yerevan, at a local organization called the International Center for Human Development, I meet Vahan Asatryan, an expert on migration. “Take whatever problem in Armenia – economic, financial, demographic, political – and indeed you’ll have migration as a dominant factor,” he says.
Well over half of Armenians declare they would leave the country given the chance, Asatryan adds.
“Eighty percent of Armenian migrants go to work in Russia and other post-Soviet countries. But you’ll hardly find a migrant who is properly registered, with access to health care, social insurance, etc.,” he says. “The fact is that in Russia most migrants get low-skilled jobs, and that doesn’t benefit the Armenian economy in the long run.”
In an effort to improve the lot of its labor migrants and import those skills learned abroad, Yerevan and Brussels forged an agreement in October aimed at stemming illegal migration while creating more opportunities for legal migration from Armenia to self-selected member states. The EU already has similar pacts with Georgia and Moldova.
Asatryan says the authorities don’t want to completely change emigration patters, “but we would like to shift the flow of migrants from Russia to the EU a little. In Russia the working conditions are usually poor and people often don’t get paid.” The new EU agreement “can help by opening possibilities for more regulated labor migration with proper safeguards, social rights, visa facilitation, and better working conditions.”
At the same time, Yerevan should help those about to leave with services like job searches and vocational and language training, says Ummuhan Bardak, a labor market specialist at the European Training Foundation, an EU agency based in Turin, Italy, that is surveying former and potential migrants in Armenia.
Those who do go back home should get government help reintegrating into the Armenian labor market or support in setting up businesses, Bardak said. Surveys show that many migrants are game to become entrepreneurs, having gained the necessary savings and experience abroad.
By the time I finished the tour of the exhibition at the Mesrop Mashtots Institute, I’d learned the story of a nation that developed its culture and economy, preserved its traditions, and enriched the lives of its foreign neighbors while being on the move. It was a tale of suffering and longing, but also a tale of accomplishment and national rebirth. As Armenians continue to move, this story goes on.