Wednesday, 27 March 2002

ARMENIAN CENSUS NUMBERS SPARK DEBATE BUT ARE GOOD NEWS FOR PRESIDENT

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By Jeffrey Swedberg (3/27/2002 issue of the CACI Analyst)

BACKGROUND: On February 15, 2002, the National Statistics Service of Armenia held a press conference announcing that there were 3,020,768 people in Armenia. The preliminary census data, collected from October 10-19, 2001, indicated that 950,000 Armenians have emigrated since the Soviet collapse in 1991. According to the United Nation's International Organization for Migration (IOM), Armenia has the highest rate of population outflow in the former Soviet Union.

BACKGROUND: On February 15, 2002, the National Statistics Service of Armenia held a press conference announcing that there were 3,020,768 people in Armenia. The preliminary census data, collected from October 10-19, 2001, indicated that 950,000 Armenians have emigrated since the Soviet collapse in 1991. According to the United Nation's International Organization for Migration (IOM), Armenia has the highest rate of population outflow in the former Soviet Union. Nonetheless, the fact that the official population remained over 3 million came as a relief to many, considering the speculation that the number might have fallen below 2 million. Emigration has been a way of life for Armenians who have left their ancestral homeland in the Southern Caucasus and Eastern Anatolia for locations around the world for centuries. The Diaspora grew dramatically after World War I. Those that survived the massacres and deportations in Eastern Anatolia created communities throughout the world that still serve as population magnets. However, the biggest incentive for leaving Armenia in the past decade has been the economy. When the Soviet Union collapsed, so did Armenia's command economy and its people's living standards. Armenians took advantage of the most tangible new freedom in their lives - the right to emigrate. Most went to Russia, where there was no need for a visa or learning a new language. Many went west, to Europe or North America. Emigrating Armenians were soon followed by family members who sold their apartments at fire sale prices, leading to a collapse in the local real estate market. The Armenian government was not eager to undertake a census, which it delayed for years citing budgetary reasons. Privately, however, there were also fears that foreign governments would be less likely to provide aid to a country with a small population. There were also intangible psychological implications. Armenia is still in an unresolved state of conflict with Azerbaijan. While Azerbaijan has its own emigration problems, its population stands at a far more robust 8 million. Perhaps most importantly, Armenia's falling population stood as an indicator of the lack of faith its citizens placed in its government. Rather than stay and work toward improving their homeland, Armenians were giving up on it. Emigration stood as a terrible signal to adversaries as well as potential foreign investors. Ultimately, the international community pressured the Armenian government into holding the census and agreed to cover most of the costs.

IMPLICATIONS: Planning for the census was taken during an uncertain time for the Armenian leadership. President Robert Kocharyan had been slowly reestablishing control following the dark days of late 1999 and 2000. The investigation of the October 27, 1999 killings in parliament of Prime Minister Vazgen Sargsyan and Speaker Karen Demirchian was focusing on the President's inner circle, damaging the President's legitimacy. A presidential promise to create 40,000 new jobs was being viewed with skepticism and ridicule. An opposition politician named Arkady Vardanian had mobilized tens of thousands of Armenians in the street to demand Kocharyan's resignation in late 2000. All the while, the press was full of rumors that the population may have fallen to as low as 1.5 million. There is a great deal of confusion and uncertainty regarding census numbers in Armenia. The last official census took place in 1989, under Soviet rule, shortly after a major earthquake displaced large numbers of people in the northern part of the country - skewing the estimate. The numbers released in February 2002 need to be approached carefully. They are based upon simple tallies of the enumerators' reports. The data is currently being keyed in and the final numbers should be released this summer. Census experts in the international community working with the Statistical Service are confident the numbers are not fraudulent, although there are still a number of outstanding questions regarding the data, especially as it relates to those "temporarily" out of the country. Then there are the reports from foreigners that were counted in the census, or Armenians who say they were counted both at their own home and at their parents' home. While it is hoped the final numbers will clarify these questions, the truth regarding the real population remains murky. Many in the opposition greeted the news that Armenia still had over 3 million people with skepticism. Anti-Kocharyan newspapers had reported for months that the National Statistical Service had been ordered to ensure that the count came in over the symbolically important 3 million mark. As is the case with most official announcements in Armenia, from election results to job creation numbers, many assume (although it is hard to prove) that the numbers are fraudulent.

CONCLUSIONS: Recently, the numbers have been coming in on Robert Kocharyan's side. In late 2001, the President announced that he had created 44,000 new jobs (and was not counting the thousands of temporary census workers.) Skeptics in the opposition press scoffed, but with little effect. Ninety percent of Armenians get their news from the pro-Presidential Public Television and are being told that things are getting better. Indeed, the Armenian economy grew by over 9 percent in 2001, one of the highest rates in the CIS. Around 12 percent of Armenia's GDP comes from remittances from those who have moved abroad. Economic growth has restored the GDP to around 70 percent of where it was in 1991. Armenians are still suffering, but not as badly as they were. According to the IOM, emigration has come off its 1992-1995 peak of some 150,000 people a year to around 30,000 to 50,000 per year. The slow turnaround is generating results for Kocharyan, who has announced his intention to run for reelection next year. Public opinion polls show he has around 51 percent approval - far higher than his nearest rivals in the fragmented opposition. From economic numbers to census figures, Kocharyan may be benefiting from a climate of significantly reduced expectations.

AUTHOR BIO: Jeffrey Swedberg directed democracy programs in Armenia for the International Foundation for Election Systems (2000-2002) and the National Democratic Institute (1998-1999). Copyright 2001 The Analyst. All rights reserved

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