Vol. 3, No. 6 (March 15, 2010)

Demography and foreign policy in the South Caucasus

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

Demography is destiny at least in the long term, historians have long insisted, but even in the course of a single generation, changes in the relative size and composition of the populations of countries in particular regions can exert a huge impact on what governments can and want to do and equally on the ability of outside powers to influence the situation.  That is very much the case in the South Caucasus at the present time, even though the highly politicized nature of the numbers, not surprising given what is at stake, makes such comparisons difficult but at the same time absolutely necessary.

Over the last two decades, there have been significant changes in the relative size and growth rates of the populations of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia, but even more important for the future of domestic and especially foreign policies of these states, there have been changes in the ethnic homogeneity of these countries, the age structure of their populations, and the numbers of migrants living abroad, especially in the Russian Federation where the host government has shown itself prepared to use them as a lever on their homelands.  And all of these both shape the policy options and possibilities of the three governments in the region.

The last common census for the three republics of the South Caucasus was in 1989 prior to the breakup of the Soviet Union.  Since then, Azerbaijan has conducted enumerations of its population in 1999 and 2009, Armenia in 2001 with another scheduled for 2011, and Georgia in 2002 with another slated for later this year.  Each government has published estimates at various points in the intervening period, and Russian scholars have attempted to maintain data sets on all three.  But perhaps the most useful common source is the CIA World Fact Book, which each year provides estimates on all the measures of concern here.  Its latest (July 2009) figures will be used here. [1] 
Three demographic measures have a particular impact on government policy in the case of the three countries of the South Caucasus: the size and growth rate of the population, its ethnic homogeneity, and the number of its citizens working and living abroad.  They are the factors that will be considered here, not in order to predict government policies but rather to suggest the framework or constraints that demography imposes on decision makers in all of them. 

First of all, all three countries in the South Caucasus have seen their rate of growth decline but both from a different starting point and to a different level, shifts that point to an even greater divergence in their respective populations in the future.  According to the World Fact Book, in July 2009, Azerbaijan had a population of 8.24 million, Armenia a population of 2.97 million, and Georgia a population of 4.62 million.  Those figures represent a change in the relative size of the three since 1989, not only because of military conflicts and population shifts but also because of demographic behavior.

As Russian scholars have shown, there has been a dramatic decline in birthrates and fertility rates in all three countries (Vishnevsky 2005).  The greatest declines have been in Azerbaijan, but because its population started at vastly higher rates than did the other two, Azerbaijan still has a much higher fertility rate than do the others, 2.04 per woman per lifetime compared to 1.36 for Armenia, and 1.44 for Georgia.  While none of these numbers guarantee a replacement of the population—for that, demographers say, a fertility rate of 2.24 is needed—clearly, Azerbaijan is much better positioned to maintain its population than is either of the other two.  In 2009, in fact, Azerbaijan had a growth rate of 0.762 percent, while Armenia’s population declined 0.03 percent and Georgia’s 0.325 percent, according to the World Fact Book.

The declining fertility rate in Armenia has sparked new concerns there about the future.  Thirty years ago, Armenian demographer Ruben Yeganyan points out, the average Armenian woman had 2.6 children per lifetime, just over the replacement level requirement, but now Armenia faces a future in which its population will decline quite possibly at an ever more rapidly accelerating rate.  He also points out that Armenia’s birthrate of 13.7 children per 1,000 population, while roughly the same as Georgia’s 13, is far below Azerbaijan’s rate of 18.8 children per 1,000 population (Ovanisyan 2010).

These overall fertility and birthrate figures, of course, represent a major determinant of the ability of these states to field and maintain an army and thus to defend or advance in other ways the interests of the state.

Second, all three countries in the South Caucasus have become significantly more ethnically homogeneous, for reasons both common to all three and specific to each one.  At present, ethnic Azerbaijanis form 91 percent of the population of that country, ethnic Armenians form 98 percent of the population of Armenia and ethnic Georgians form 84 percent of the population of Georgia, including the population of the two breakaway republics, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

These figures are in all cases dramatically higher than at the end of Soviet times, the result of both political and economic developments.  Many ethnic Azerbaijanis fled Armenia during the early stages of the Karabakh conflict, and many ethnic Armenians fled Azerbaijan at the same time, while many non-Georgians fled that country especially during the Gamsakhurdia period when Tbilisi pursued a “Georgia for the Georgians” policy.

But this complex “ethnic sorting out,” familiar to students of European history over the last five centuries, is far from over.  The percentage of ethnic Georgians will certainly rise if Tbilisi does not regain control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and the percentage of ethnic Azerbaijanis in Azerbaijan could increase or decrease once Baku recovers control over Karabakh and the adjoining regions occupied by Armenia depending on whether the ethnic Armenians there remain in Azerbaijan or decide to leave. 

If a significant fraction of ethnic Armenians remain—and some of them arrived in these regions after 1993—then the ethnic homogeneity of Azerbaijan will decline, but if some or all of them decide to leave after Azerbaijan recovers the area as the OSCE Minsk Group proposes and as Baku is committed to achieving, then the percentage of ethnic Azerbaijanis in Azerbaijan would rise still further, possibly to as high as that measure of ethnic Armenians in Armenia. 

The implications of shifts toward greater ethnic homogenization also are uncertain.  On the one hand, reductions in the size of ethnic minorities in states may have the effect of eliminating tensions with neighboring countries.  But on the other, the rise of ethnically homogenous states may lead policy makers to pursue more nationally defined policies, measures that could have the effect of making the lives of minorities still more difficult and relations with neighboring states more complicated.

And third, the three countries of the South Caucasus have seen significant outmigration, with the number of workers living abroad and their remittances home playing a key role.  Because of the economic dislocations following the demise of the Soviet Union and because of differential growth rates among the post-Soviet states, significant numbers of Azerbaijanis, Armenians, and Georgians have gone abroad to work and in many cases continue to send money home, transfer payments that at various points have been a major source of support for some groups in these countries.

Estimates about the number of migrant workers from these countries vary widely, making any discussion problematic.  According to UN estimates, there are more than 1.5 million ethnic Azerbaijanis in the Russian Federation, one million ethnic Armenians there, and a smaller but significant number of ethnic Georgians.  According to the World Fact Book, outmigration, largely driven by economic problems, continues from all three countries.  In 2009, 1.69 Azerbaijanis of every 1,000 residents left Azerbaijan, 4.56 Armenians out of every 1,000 left Armenia, and 4.26 Georgians out of every 1,000 left Georgia. 

Because its economy is doing relatively better, Azerbaijan is suffering less outmigration than the other two, but officials and experts in both Armenia and Georgia are concerned by these population losses for two reasons.  First, such outmigration, while it may reduce social tensions by providing people with jobs, may ultimately cost the countries involved their future because migrants tend to be members of younger age groups, precisely the ones from which another generation will come or out of which the state can draft its soldiers.

And second, and perhaps especially important for the South Caucasus, the Russian government at various points has indicated that it will treat migrant workers from particular countries according to the policies that the governments of those countries adopt toward Moscow.  Given the dependence of these countries on transfer payments from their migrants and the very different relations Russia has with Georgia and Armenia, that implicit threat is no small factor in the calculations of the foreign policy elites in Tbilisi and Yerevan.

As students of politics know well, governments have a variety of ways to reduce the impact of demographic trends for a time, but they will be constrained by these changes over the longer term whatever they may assume and in ways that at present they may not have yet taken into account. 


Ovanisyan, Lilit (2010) “Today’s Generation of Armenia Only Reproduces Itself by Half”, in Russian, Caucasian Knot, 3 March, available at http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/166138/ (accessed 14 March 2010).

Vishnevsky, Anatoliy (2005) “Demographic Crisis in the CIS countries”, in Russian, Demoscop Weekly, No. 197-198, 4-17 April, available at http://www.demoscope.ru/weekly/2005/0197/tema04.php (accessed 14 March 2010).  


[1] See https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/index.html (accessed 14 March 2010).