“To take one’s head and leave:” Brain drain in Armenia

Journalist: Mariam Yeghiazaryan,

Illustrator: Mary Hovsepyan

Edition: Future

Across the South Caucasus students and young professionals are seeking better education and job prospects abroad. The government's initiatives to entice them back appear to be falling short.

"I ran away from the life and reality I had in Armenia," says 27-year-old Nora Galstyan. She has lived in Germany for four years, where she works as a human resource management specialist.

Armenia has the highest level of brain drain in the South Caucasus, according to the brain drain index. In 2022, Armenia scored 6.7 (42/177) out of a maximum of 10 points, compared to Georgia’s 5.8 (42/177) and Azerbaijan’s 4.40 (116/177). The H index (scientific research impact index) ranked Armenia 91st in the world (Georgia ranks 85 and Azerbaijan ranks 94). 

The Armenian government has adopted several measures to stymie brain drain although the impact has been muted. In May 2021, the government passed "On approving the concept and action plan of RA Migration state management", which seeks "preventing brain drain, reducing unwanted emigration flows from the point of view of sustainable human development of Armenia." The "2014-2025 Strategic Plan for Perspective Development of the RA" notes Armenia’s scientific community has particularly suffered since the fall of the Soviet Union.  

Recent studies find employment is a major driver for people leaving the country. Participants in the 2022 "Capturing migration in Armenian and regional contexts" study conducted by the Caucasus Research Resource Center-Armenia Foundation (CRRC-Armenia) reported security concerns and employment as the main motivators to emigrate. A 2021 study by CRRC-Armenia found that the majority of people living in Armenia are more interested in temporary (57% of respondents) migration rather than  permanent (33% of respondents) relocation, however.  

The International Organization for Migration’s "Data on migration  in the context of Agenda 2030: Assessment of Migration and Development in Armenia" recommended several actions to reduce migration, including improved education, employment, efforts to address inequality, and cooperation with the diaspora.  

Sociologist, conflict expert and researcher Hayk Smbatyan, 27, left Armenia to study in Sweden after earning his bachelor and master degree at Yerevan State University.   He decided to move abroad when he was a student and study in Scandinavia, because he was convinced that education is the basis of the high quality of life in Scandinavian countries. After several unsuccessful attempts to get postgraduate education in Denmark and Norway, he realized that the knowledge obtained from the Armenian educational system was not enough to do a PhD in Scandinavia, so he received a second master's degree in Sweden.

"It seems to me that people ‘take their heads and run away’ from somewhere when they comprehend that there is no place for those brains and that they have no choice,” he says. 

Eventually Smbatyan found he was drawn to returning home and sharing the knowledge he learned in Sweden with the next generation of social scientists. 

“As soon as I realized that I can make a choice and have some freedom to direct my brain somewhere, I felt that I should come back,” he says. 

“Every time I learned something new in Uppsala, I wondered how it is possible that this topic has not reached Armenia, and how could so much knowledge bypass Armenia. It is absurd to me. It could have contributed to understanding problems here and in the region in general. I acknowledged that I have something to give to Armenia.”

He underscores that the fact that there is now “a place for his brain” in Armenia is thanks to the efforts of his associates, colleagues, acquaintances and his own initiative—not the domestic labor market.

"The market is not adaptive,” he says. “I don't want to make everything about the labor market, because I believe that in any case, at the heart of brain drain, it is more about personal freedoms… [people] do not think that they have anything to do in this country, that their knowledge and experience can be useful to this country in any way.”

Galstyan, the human resources manager in Germany, initially also planned to return to Armenia. But life in Germany slowly changed her mind.

“When I lived in Armenia, I fought every second for my identity, and ideologies, for the freedom to make my own decisions. The demand for constant explanations, excuses and justifications were exhausting and at some point, I realized that I can no longer live like that,” she says.

“I would really like to invest my knowledge in the country where I was born and grew up, the country that is close to my heart, whose every detail is familiar to me. I feel that I could make more of an impact in Armenia than in a foreign country where more than 80 million people live: if I were not here, my role would be served by hundreds of other people, but in Armenia, I could do something truly significant. If the Armenian society could be at least a little bit more respectful and kind towards half of its population― women, if it would not limit and suppress them in every way, let them live freely, many people with potential will be discovered.”

To view similar stories from Aerbaijan and Georgia, please see:

In Georgia, students look abroad to build a future

Azerbaijan funds students abroad to stymie brain drain

This feature story was prepared with support from the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) South Caucasus Regional Office. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of FES or Chai Khana.

This article was produced in the framework of Chai Khana Fellowship program - Summer/Autumn 2022

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