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8 March 2024

Armenia Engages its European Diaspora in a Non-political Grass Roots Attempt to Stabilize the Country

The 2024 “Engage Armenia Forum” has set off a five-country roadshow around Western Europe to drum up more active diaspora participation in Armenia’s development. A varied range of options are on offer, and such grassroots attempts to internationalize the country could be a major boost towards ensuring a more stable, peaceful Caucasus.

Engage Armenia Forum

Image: Mark Elliott

At University College London on 6 March, Engage Armenia 2024 kicked off a series of interactive events that will continue in Amsterdam, Brussels, Geneva, and four French cities. These sessions aim to raise awareness of a whole raft of very concrete programmes designed to encourage investment, volunteering, and—particularly—inward immigration to Armenia, which are aimed essentially at diaspora Armenians. 

Armenia has been suffering a long-term demographic decline.  Preliminary data from the 2022 census gives the permanent resident population of the country as 2,928,914—a reduction of some 90,000 over the previous census figures in 2011. Birth rates are currently around 1.76 per woman, well below 2.1, which would be needed for a neutral ‘replacement rate.’ That leads to worries that such a decline will continue, causing serious long-term social, economic, and social issues. Back in 2019, soon after coming to power, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan outlined an ambitious series of national goals, including boosting the population to 5 million by 2050, increasing GDP 15-fold, and bringing annual tourist numbers to 15 million visits. These figures seem improbable, and the same speech became infamous for highly incautious statements on Nagorno Karabakh’s status—comments that essentially led to the Second Karabakh War.

A better way forward?

Nonetheless, the need to boost the economy and the population remain valid goals. And many groups of well-meaning international Armenians have been putting a great deal of effort into helping think up ideas to aid the country. At Engage Armenia, representatives of several such groups shared details of how they could help diaspora Armenians to, as one speaker put it, “build a secure and viable state.”

The first presentation came from Sevan Kabakian, representing Birthright Armenia, an outfit that, since 2004, has brought over 2600 young diaspora volunteers from 55 countries to Armenia. Most take part for periods of between four weeks and one year, with 3.5 months being the typical average.  However, over 300 have stayed after completing the programme, and some 50 have started businesses in Armenia. Kabakian related the story of one volunteer’s mother asking her, “Why stay in Armenia? Armenia has no future!” to which she replied, “I am Armenia’s future.”

One very tangible example of that programme’s success came in the form of Sisian Boghossian. From Toronto, though originally of Iranian-Armenian descent, she went to Yerevan in 2019 with Birthright Armenia but rose meteorically and is now Head of the national Tourism Committee. Talking up the country’s delights under the tagline ‘The Hidden Track,’ she reported that tourism now represents around 10% of Armenia’s GDP, with 2.3 million arrivals in 2023 (a record, though possibly skewed as at least half of those were from sanctions-hit Russia). Underlining the importance of tourism in the perception of a country, she claimed that Armenia is rated 7th in a list of the world’s safest places to visit.


However, as other speakers underlined, the aims of Engage Armenia go far beyond tourism. “We are very emotional people—I know you all agree with that one,” chuckled Sevan Kabakian. “The problem with emotional responses is that they diminish impact—now is the time for more engagement. Challenges haven’t ended—biggest challenges are ahead of us—it needs all of us to be involved now.” The goal, he insisted, was to move from emotion to a grounded approach towards Armenia’s success. Many of the organizations present stressed how the generosity of help needed to be paired with a suitably hard-nosed understanding of business realities. For example, Gevorg Poghosyan introduced the ReArmenia collaboration platform, which links experts to the carefully vetted Armenian companies that need them. He jocularly stressed that the idea was to connect to “genuinely dynamic people—not like the relatives who are sitting there just asking for money.”  Most of the audience smiled, knowing the kind of relative in the quip.

Financial guru Hrayr Barsoumiam of Optimize Consulting, warning of the perils of the Armenian business landscape, reminded those taking the plunge that they’d “need to do it smart, need to do it right” rather than working on romantic notions: “a view of Ararat isn’t enough!”

Introducing Impact Hub Yerevan, Nazareth Seferian pointed out that businesses in Armenia have long been hamstrung by an unimaginatively restrictive banking system which doesn’t understand social enterprise. Impact Hub’s ViaFund bypasses that impasse by making interest-free loans to projects where it would maximize effect—for example, at Aregak Bakery and Café, a Gyumri coffee shop which gives real opportunities to folks with learning disabilities (including Downs syndrome) while not shirking on providing a café environment that is top of its category.

At the other end of the scale, the CEO of Tumo, Marie Lou Papazian, underlined that being an Armenia-based business start-up doesn’t mean you can’t go global. Tumo is a centre for creative educational technologies that has been rolling out its innovative learning models well beyond the Caucasus. It recently opened a centre in North Hollywood (California) but it is also targeting the huge but underdeveloped educational market in the impoverished ‘global south.’


Towards the end of the sessions, organizers revealed that, of 120 registered attendees at the London meeting (the majority UK-born), around a quarter claimed to be actively thinking of moving to Armenia. This should be seen as a sign of hope, not just for Armenia but for the region in general.  If such a cohort of internationally-minded returnees to Armenia really can “build a secure and viable state” through imaginative educational and economic improvements, the result should also translate into a push for geopolitical progress. A more prosperous, modern Armenia would likely enjoy better regional cooperation and so, in the long term, improved hopes of a lasting peace with Azerbaijan and a full reopening of trade with Türkiye that can bring dividends to the whole of the Caucasus.