End of “Compatriots”?: Government says Russian immigration program unacceptable for Armenia

The controversial Russian immigration program called “Compatriots”, under which citizens of post-Soviet republics are enabled to become permanent residents in remote provinces of the Russian Federation, appears to have caused concerns at the government level in Armenia.

Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan said on Wednesday that the realization of this program that effectively encourages outward migration is unacceptable for Armenia.

”Compatriots”, which some call the Russian equivalent of the U.S. Diversity Visa Program, or “Green Card”, was initiated following the decree by the Russian president in 2006 with the main purpose of settling sparsely populated Russian provinces and compensating for the natural loss of the population in this country that has the largest territory in the world and a population of only about 140 million.

Citizens of post-Soviet countries who speak Russian and have families and meet some other criteria of the program sign contracts under which they settle in one of the 38 entities of the Russian Federation. There they get a job, a lump sum government payment (starting from $5,000), as well as have favorable conditions for purchasing property or land and enjoy some other benefits. The Russian government thus hopes to replenish the country’s dwindling working-age population, a major demographic concern for the country at present.

The program was first launched in Armenia in 2009 and quickly became a reason for criticism leveled at the Armenian government, which, by agreeing to become a participating country, probably had expected to derive some use out of this enterprise in the form of remittances wired to Armenia by migrants from abroad and seen as a major source to reduce social tensions in the country.

Labor migration and remittances are a major component of the economy of Armenia, where the average monthly salary amounts to $150, and the average size of a remittance from Russia to almost $500, which on an annual basis accounts for nearly 10 percent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product. Russian President Vladimir Putin stressed this circumstance while meeting his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sargsyan in Moscow in August.
According to various estimations, the annual amount of international transfers to Armenia makes $1.5-2 billion.

According to the data of the Armenian Migration Service, during the past four years the “Compatriots” program in Armenia had a total of 26,000 applicants, of whom 1,500 have given up their Armenian citizenship and moved to live in Russia.

According to the Russian Federal Migration Service, nearly 10 percent of the participants who filled out questionnaires of the program in the first quarter of this year are residents of Armenia.

Given the fact that more than a million people have already left Armenia since the country gained independence in 1991, these figures cannot but be viewed as alarming. Still, in the past the government itself seemed to take it in its stride, saying that there wasn’t any serious outflow of the population from the country. Meanwhile, the negative balance of Armenia’s migration in 2011 made 43,820 – a sharp rise from the 2008 figure of only 23,000.

During the question-and-answer session with government members in the National Assembly on October 3 opposition Heritage faction lawmaker Alexander Arzumanyan asked Prime Minister Sargsyan to comment on the fact that the state migration service of a foreign state is actively operating in the territory of Armenia, which results in thousands of citizens permanently leaving the country and giving up their citizenship against the backdrop of a generally high level of out-migration.

The prime minister said that the government, too, was concerned about this problem. He said the issue had been raised at meetings with Russian counterparts, including within the framework of the intergovernmental commission between the two countries. Sargsyan said that the Armenian side considered unacceptable the implementation of such a program in its present format.

“We have expressed our clear position. It is known to the political leadership of Russia. The ‘Compatriots’ program will no longer operate in Armenia in this format. The activities of such an organization in Armenia are not permissible,” said the prime minister.

Sargsyan added that the issue will be included in the agenda of the Armenian-Russian intergovernmental commission that will meet in Yerevan on October 12. Sargsyan said he was sure that the Russian side understood and accepted the position of Armenia regarding the program.

Meanwhile, conditions of the program are changing to make it more attractive to potential migrants. From September this year, a contract with migrants is signed for an indefinite period of time, whereas previously it was only two years (after which it could be extended).

Another major change in the program broadens the circle of relatives considered to be “family” so they could be taken along to Russia – another step that apparently makes it easier for people to make up their minds to emigrate for good.