Friday, February 16, 2007

Armenia Fears Population Crisis

By Naira Melkumian in Yerevan

Government sees drop in population as a threat to national security.

In a bid to curb a steep demographic decline, the Armenian government has produced a strategy to boost the population - but many have criticised the move as cosmetic.

“You can observe a negative trend in the reduction in the number of people of reproductive age, which, alongside the overall ageing of the nation, may lead us into serious problems in the labour market and for our plans to secure steady economic growth,” the deputy minister of labour and social affairs, Artsvik Minasian, one of the architects of the new strategy, told IWPR.

The past ten years have seen the country’s official population dwindle by 500,000 people. According to government statistics, Armenia currently has around 3.2 million inhabitants.

However, most experts say these figures are exaggerated. The US government’s CIA Factbook lists the population as being 2,976,372 in 2006, while some say it is even lower than that.

The United Nations Population Fund predicts that if current trends continue, the population will shrink to 2.33 million by 2050, while that of Azerbaijan - with which Armenia remains in a state of frozen conflict over the disputed territory of Nagorny Karabakh - will exceed 11 million.

“With the Karabakh conflict still unresolved and the real prospect of renewed fighting with Azerbaijan, the demographic crisis could become a serious threat to security,” said Aram Sarkisian, member of parliament and leader of the opposition Democratic Party.

The main reasons for the decline are a haemorrhage of people through emigration, plummeting birth rates, an ageing nation, high mortality and increased incidence of disease among people of reproductive age. All of which are linked.

Ruben Yeganian, a researcher at Yerevan State University, estimated emigration numbers at 800,000 since independence, or close to a quarter of the population.

“The lower birth rates are partly due to the emigration-caused imbalance of the ratio of sexes at reproductive age,” said Suzanna Barseghian, demography expert at the Armenian Centre for National and Strategic Research.

One result of this is that in the 20-24 age group, there are more women than men, meaning that many women who would otherwise bear children, do not.

Work done by researchers at Yerevan State University says that a low birth rate, far more than increased mortality, is the main factor inhibiting a natural growth in the population. Armenian parents tend to have only one or two children.

On average, 36,000 babies are now born in Armenia every year - less than half of the number of several years ago. In order to encourage fertility, the government has decided to provide a one-off allowance of 200,000 drams (around 500 dollars) to mothers giving birth to a third child. Only socially vulnerable families will qualify for the grant. The labour ministry says some 3,000 families will receive the money.

Deputy Minister Artsvik Minasian told IWPR that the government planned to increase the maternity allowance for all women giving birth in future, but for the time being state resources were limited.

Armenian mothers currently receive a one-off allowance of 35,000 drams (100 dollars), while needy families get 70,000 (200 dollars) per child.

As part of the new demographic strategy, the government also says it aims to provide free medical examinations for women, especially those in rural areas, to launch employment programmes as an incentive to bring male migrants back to the country and even to introduce a course of lectures on demography in universities.

Minasian says he believes the new demographic strategy will help improve the situation in Armenia by 2009.

However, the plan already has many critics, amongst them Stepan Safarian, a senior expert at the Armenian Centre for National and Strategic Research, who called the proposals “cosmetic”.

“What are these 200,000 drams gong to give?” he asked. “It’s just one-off help and it won’t change the difficult social conditions, in which a majority of the population lives.”

Aram Sarkisian said the “the government’s steps looked like more like a pre-election stunt than a serious concept”.

“We need fundamental changes, we need a special state fund to support young families,” he said. “But I don’t think that our government of ultra-liberals is capable of making this kind of move, which need to be made by Social Democrats.”

Yerevan resident Anna Harutyunian, 30, said she was not encouraged by the new government plans. “Look, Russia provides mothers with a benefit for a second child, here we are offered help only for a third child and even this is not for all families, but only for the most needy,” she said. “I have one child and will think twice before I decide to give birth to another. You’ve got to put them on their feet, give them am education.”

Naira Melkumian is a freelance journalist based in Yerevan.

Note: Above are excerpts from the article. The full article appears here. Clarifications and comments by me are contained in {}. Deletions are marked by [...]. The bold emphasis is mine.



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