Challenges at the Threshold of Armenia’s 20th Anniversary of Independence

By Dr. Haroutiun Arzoumanian

Throughout our history of more than 3,000 years, the necessity of independence has become a luxury denied to Armenians most of the time, yet the nation survived against all odds due to its adherence to a strong cultural identity. The Armenian highlands of Eastern Anatolia and Southern Caucasus have been on the crossroads of invaders from the East and the West, and from the North and the South. Instability, persecution and oppressions have been the order of the day most of the time.

At the peak of her civilization just about 1,000 years ago, the Bagratid Kingdom of Greater Armenia (Medz Hayk) covered about 300,000 square kilometers, and Ani, its capital, had a population estimated to be at 200,000. The city of London, England, in the year 1100 had an estimated population of 18,000 in a country of 130,000 square kilometers (about half the size of Historic Armenia). Even with its share of invasions, plagues, natural disasters and wars, today’s population of metropolitan London is about 14 million, and the population of England is more than 50 million.

With a “normal” course of events, if Armenia had kept its geographic size a millennium ago, its population today would have been about 100 million, instead of a mere 2.2 million on one-tenth of its historic lands.

We can argue at great length whether this demise of the Armenian people has been due largely because of external forces above and beyond the control of our people, or because of the legendary inherent “disunity” of the Armenian people, or a combination of both. And if so, which is the bigger factor? Admitting that scattered and isolated princedoms in remote mountainous areas of Historic Armenia could have perpetuated a trend of disunity, it is hard to dismiss the more overbearing factor of foreign dominations, whether by neighboring states (Persian, Byzantine and Russian empires) or by invaders from far away (Arabs, Tatars, Turks), some more prolonged and more oppressive than others.

Armenians could endure and wait out for the oppressive empires to decay and pass away, but the Mongol-Seljuk-Ottoman domination has been the longest and the most cruel. And when the Ottoman Empire crumbled and most of the other dominated countries regained their independence, Armenia geographically remained largely in the heartland of the residual morsel of the Empire that became the current Republic of Turkey, propped up by Western powers at the gates of the rising star of the communist empire. The post-WWI brief (two-year) independence of Armenia could be considered a stillbirth. A smaller fraction of the Armenian homeland survived under the Communist regime and gained independence in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Empire.

The unexpected and much-cherished fledgling independence of Armenia was harshly challenged by the devastations of a disastrous earthquake, by a war with neighboring Azerbaijan, a blockade by Turkey, collapse of the economy by a total industrial paralysis, massive unemployment, food shortage and energy crisis, hence, massive exodus of the population. Introduction of the much-touted democracy and market economy was thwarted, and a culture of oligarchy emerged almost as a natural development of Soviet corruption gone rampant. Power and wealth became the privilege of a minority, while the majority of the population remained below the poverty level, with hardly any middle class, which should be the largest sector of a democratic country. Patriotism, national interest, cultural heritage were neglected by the rich, whose only interest was to get richer at any cost, and by the poor, whose priority was to survive. Foreign aid, diasporan help, the essential trade of the country and even the working breadwinner of the people were exploited and usurped by the oligarchs. It was hoped that this is a difficult transitional phase that will be reversed in a generation. Here we are, almost a generation later, with a flourishing capital, Yerevan, but a rapidly deteriorating country.

The new generation, even with the best education, has little hope of finding a job and getting into a career of his choice. He is reluctant to get married, to have an apartment and to raise children. These are luxuries he cannot afford as an honest worker. The situation is less promising in the countryside. Even in industrialized and modern democracies, agriculture is now and then subsidized and/or protected by the government: seeds, irrigation, sale of produce, etc. are monitored and regulated. In Armenia, 75 percent of the land is mountainous and non-arable. According to some statistics, less than half of this cultivable land is being farmed. Available land, water and produce are being more and more exploited by the oligarchs.

The population of Armenia dropped by about 40 percent in the last two decades due to emigration and diminished birthrate. In the mid-’90s there was some easing of the exodus and some increase in those returning to the homeland. But at the onset of the world economic crisis the bleeding restarted with a vengeance. From 2008 to the present estimated 150,000 people left the country. If the current rate of emigration continues unabated, in about 15 years the population of Armenia will drop below the million mark. In the meantime the population of Turkey and Iran is estimated to surpass the 100 million, while Azerbaijan and Georgia will also have a corresponding increase. How could Armenia with a population of less than a million maintain a reasonable existence surrounded by hundreds of millions of mostly unfriendly neighbors?

A declining birth rate does not help either. Sociological statistics have demonstrated that for a society to maintain a stable number, the average birth rate should be 2.1 per female of child-bearing age. In Armenia that index is currently 1.36. Has the country diminished to a critical mass? Have we passed the point of no return?

Armenia is certainly not the only country that has a far larger number of her nationals scattered throughout the world than those residing in the homeland. But diasporas are susceptible to gradual erosion and assimilation especially in a situation of globalization. Large countries can afford to lose a small fraction of their population to dispersion and assimilation. In Armenia a large number of the population relies on assistance sent to them by family members, relatives or friends abroad. But how long can this continue? Is it too pessimistic to be concerned about the very existence of the Armenian nation that after centuries and millennia of struggle and survival, by losing the homeland and the Diaspora, to become an extinct species in the history of mankind? Why this attrition of the Armenian nation at home and abroad? Or is it a sort of self-inflicted genocide?

What a paradox! Millennia of survival of adverse conditions seem to have forged traits of higher intellect in the Armenian genes as evidenced by giving the world a disproportionately larger number of prominent people in all walks of life – artists, artisans, scientists, statesmen, sportsmen, economists, developers, businessmen, military, etc. – yet they are allowing their own homeland of a rich cultural heritage to go down the drain; a glittering capital city in a decaying country; a strong Diaspora extending a helpful hand to Armenia yet facing eventual assimilation and loss of identity; a rare opportunity of independence in a fraction of the homeland, yet instead of replenishing the population, developing the country and pushing its borders through its rightful historic lands to a sea, the country is getting depopulated and the noose of unfriendly neighbors is tightening around its neck.

The crux of the problem appears to be the intolerable situation faced by the vast majority of the citizens in Armenia, especially those living outside Yerevan, and even many living in Yerevan. With very few exceptions, the oligarchs do not seem to have the least concern that for their selfish reasons they are pushing the homeland to a third world country category marked with hunger, destitution and hopelessness.

What is the solution? Obviously there are no easy and fast solutions, short of a revolution, which is unlikely and could be catastrophic. There are some tell-tale signs that finally something is being done by the government, starting from the President, to crack down on corruption and abuse by those who are supposed to serve the population, not to exploit them, and to reinstate moral and ethical principles in governance. The scandal and forced resignation of the mayor of Yerevan seems to have unleashed a series of dismissals of ministers (justice, economics, education and others). A $30-million credit will be availed by two major banks to encourage small and medium businesses. Unemployment is slightly down and attempts are being made to control the marked inflation of food and clothing prices. Is this too little, too late or the beginning of a deeper and more encompassing measure of reforms?

The diaspora is scrambling to accomplish the monumental task of a diasporan unifying structure to harness the potential of the Armenian dispersion for a more efficient pursuit of pan-Armenian objectives. This effort seems to have transcended utopian vagaries to a more realistic approach of a democratic and mature setup of regional and central components. By necessity, such a structure should also work closely with the Armenian government because the diaspora needs Armenia and vice versa. The establishment of the Ministry of Diaspora in Armenia has been a good step in the right direction. Hopefully, in the minds of leaders of Armenia, the perception of the Diaspora as only a cow to be milked is changing from a parochial to a more realistic and mutually engaging relationship.

At this milestone of the 20th Anniversary of Armenia’s independence one must stop for a moment and evaluate the temporal and spatial reality of the larger picture of the Armenian nation.

(Dr. Haroutiun Arzoumanian of Montreal is a member of the ADL and Tekeyan Cultural Association.)