The Russian ambassador to Armenia has downplayed renewed concerns in Yerevan about a controversial program encouraging and helping Armenians to migrate to Russia.
“No one forces Armenians to leave this country and go to Russia?” said the diplomat, Vyacheslav Kovalenko, at a press conference in Yerevan on Tuesday.
“Answers to the question about why people leave Armenia should be sought locally,” he added.
Concerns about the Russian immigration program originally designed for “former compatriots” who had lost ties with the homeland, Russia, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union were highlighted again in Armenia last week as a local opposition lawmaker raised the issue during a question-and-answer session with government officials in the parliament.
In his response to the relevant question on October 3 Armenian Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian shared the concern, saying that such activities of Russian immigration authorities in Armenia were “unacceptable”. He added that his government was in discussions with Russian counterparts “at all levels” to stop the realization of the program in Armenia “in its present format”.
Russia’s Federal Migration Service (FMS) began operating the program in Armenia in 2009 and has reportedly attracted hundreds of Armenian families since then. First launched in 2006, the Russian government’s Compatriots program offers employment, accommodation and financial benefits to married residents of former Soviet republics willing to settle in Russia. It is designed to address Russia’s serious demographic problems.
The program has sparked an uproar from Armenian opposition politicians, public figures and media worried about the continuing outflow of people from the country. But Russia has repeatedly downplayed these concerns, saying that only a negligible number of people are actually assisted in their relocation under the program that primarily tackles such a major concern as illegal migration.
“If you shut down the [FMS] representation, do you think people will stop going [to Russia]?” said Kovalenko, reacting to the fresh criticism. “The program, in fact, helps reduce illegal migration from the country.”
The Russian ambassador argued that more people have left Armenia since 2007 under the United States Diversity Visa program, better known as Green Card, than under Russia’s Compatriots program.
“Less than 5,000 have left Armenia through our immigration program. What is this whole noise about? What does the [FMS] representation have to do with it?” said Kovalenko.
Yerevan-based demographer Ruben Yeganian agrees that only a small number of Armenians actually apply to immigration programs when they decide to emigrate from the country.
“Shutting down this program won’t provide a solution to the general emigration problem. These people leave Armenia because they have no proper living conditions in their country,” Yeganian told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service (Azatutyun.am).
Outmigration has been a major problem for the South Caucasus nation ever since it became independent in 1991. Some 800,000 of Armenia’s estimated 3.8-million-strong population are believed to have abandoned the country during the first post-Soviet decade. Although at a slower pace, emigration continued also throughout the years of economic recovery in the 2000s when Armenia enjoyed a double-digit GDP growth for the most part of the decade. Citing official figures for arrivals and departures local demographers estimate that some 80,000 people may have left the country for good in the past few years.