The 2020 Artsakh War that was launched by Azerbaijan in late September and lasted for 44 days resulted in around 5,000 killed and still missing servicemen from Armenia and Artsakh; according to officially reported data, over 3,400 were killed and more than 1,500 are missing. The actual number of deaths is still unknown, but on January 21, Deputy Prime Minister Tigran Avinyan assured Parliament that the number of killed soldiers will not exceed 4,000. Since the late 1980s, the total number of deaths on the Armenian side in the conflict with Azerbaijan is around 12,000.
Over the past three decades, Armenia has faced severe demographic problems caused by the First Karabakh War, the 1988 Spitak earthquake, and the dire socio-economic conditions in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet-era command economy. As a result of these factors, the country faced a major wave of emigration in its first years of independence, from 1992 to 1994.
War casualties are one of the major components of Armenia’s demographic crisis. Beyond their immediate impact, they also leave traces for years afterwards.
A wartime demographic cycle consists of two phases: the destructive phase and the compensating phase. The first stage is characterized by an increase in the number of losses, a decline in the number of marriages and a consequent decrease in births. The compensating stage should occur with birth growth and a “baby boom” phenomenon.
Summing Up the Data
According to official data, the number of dead soldiers in the First Karabakh War was around 6,000, covering the deaths from 1988 to 1994 (including the period in 1994 after the armistice was signed in May of that year). Among them, about 3,300 were residents of Nagorno-Karabakh; the rest were from the Republic of Armenia, with only around a hundred foreign citizens with or without Armenian origin.
Complete dates of birth and death are available for 5,850 servicemen from the first war. The median age was 29. Among them, 578 were 15-19 years old; 3777 were 20-35; 778 were 36-40 years old; and 717 were over 40. According to the published data, 84 minors between the ages of 15 and 17 were also killed. The combined military personnel of Armenia and Artsakh was, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), about 40,000, which means that nearly 15% of its personnel (approximately 1 in 7) were killed during the war.
According to an analysis by Hrant Mikaelian for Caucasian Knot, the highest number of deaths for the Armenian side were registered in January 1993, during the counterattack launched by Armenian forces on the directions of Kelbajar (Karvachar) and Horadiz, and in April 1994, when the Armenian army started the “Terter” operation that was suspended when the sides reached a ceasefire agreement on May 14, 1994.
All the data available on the servicemen killed in the 1990s war is published at kniga.am. The first war left more than 20,000 soldiers wounded. The Ani Armenian Research Center counted the number of disabled persons in the first war and its aftermath at more than 10,000.
Yet, the war in 2020 cost younger lives; the median age of fallen servicemen is 23. As of February 6, Armenia's Ministry of Defence has released the names and dates of birth of 2,174 soldiers, 43% of whom (939 soldiers) were born between 2000 and 2002 (Able-bodied males are called up for two years of military service between the ages of 18 and 20). Around 79.3% or 1,723 soldiers are under 35.
The Evolution of the Death Rate
According to official data, the highest number of deaths in Armenia was registered in 1988 due to the earthquake, which itself took 35,000 lives (though various sources estimate a higher number of casualties). In 2020, 35,371 deaths were registered in Armenia, including 3,405 dead due to COVID, and taking into account to date 2,291 killed servicemen (this number will undoubtedly rise). However, amid the high number of deaths, the birth rate didn’t change in 2020 (36,448), making the natural population change the lowest at 1.077.
In 1990 and 1991, officially recorded death numbers were 21,993 and 23,425, respectively․ Deaths increased in the following years, reaching 25,824 in 1992. In that year, the highest number of killed servicemen was recorded: nearly 2,500. Thus, the impact of war on the death toll was already evident in 1992. On September 25, 1992, the New York Times reported that the fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan had become more intense “amid reports that military and civilian deaths had climbed to more than 500 this week.” Around 1,000 servicemen were killed in 1993, and the registered deaths in Armenia increased by 1,676 that year.
Recorded deaths in the country started to drop after 1994, when 24,648 cases were recorded. But the number of killed servicemen was around 2,000.
During the First Karabakh War, many Armenians residing in the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) and its surrounding regions did not flee, resuming their lives close to the warzone. Around 50,000 Karabakh Armenians were displaced, out of a population of approximately 150,000 throughout the four years of war.
There were about 1,300 civilians killed in the NKAO and the Republic of Armenia. Residents of Armenia were killed in settlements close to the border with Azerbaijan. According to official data provided by Karabakh officials, there were a further 400 missing civilians (including 179 women and children) in the NKAO. These figures do not include the number of missing people from the Shahumyan and Gulistan regions. Unconfirmed sources reported another 500-700 missing people from the Shahumyan region alone. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), 4,000-5,000 people went missing from Armenia and Azerbaijan, as a result of the first war.
During the 2020 war, an evacuation of Artsakh residents began as early as September 27, as the scale, intensity and danger of the drone war launched by Azerbaijan was unprecedented and incomparable to previous battles. Armenia reported the death of at least 52 civilians, including children. Despite the intensity of indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas by Azerbaijan, the displacement and usage of shelters helped avoid more casualties. “The frequent attacks on towns and villages in Nagorno-Karabakh could have resulted in a larger number of civilian casualties had many civilians not left the region or taken shelter in basements,” Amnesty International wrote in its report on the civilian casualties from both sides.
The war forced most of the population of Artsakh to flee, but once the deal was signed and the Russian peacekeeping mission established its presence, people began returning to Artsakh, whether their original settlements remained under Armenian control or not. According to Artsakh officials, as of January 20, around 95,000 people had returned to Artsakh.
Fertility Rate and Unborn Children
Post-WWII Soviet Armenia had a high fertility rate of 4.9 children per woman in 1958. However, the figure dropped dramatically from there, hitting 2.5 in 1983. After decreasing for decades, it made a recovery just before the Karabakh conflict broke out in 1988. The five years between 1984 and 1988 were the only ones to mark an increase since 1959․
The year 1988 had a negative impact on Armenia’s demographic landscape due to the Spitak earthquake that left about 35,000 people dead and tens of thousands homeless. This natural disaster, the Karabakh war and the economic crisis of the early 1990s led to roughly 600,000 leaving the country.
Since the early 1920s, when Armenia's current borders were largely formed, most children, about 400,000, were born between 1985 and 1990. Some 20-30 years later, by around 2010 they entered their reproductive age. As a result, the number of births in Armenia has been increasing since 2010. It is expected that this trend will now reverse as the cohort reaching parental age every year begins to shrink.
According to the UN’s 2019 World Population Prospects report, the annual change in Armenia's fertility rate has dropped dramatically since 1989. It was -1.7% in 1990 and -5.92% in 1994. The lowest rate was recorded in 1998 when the fertility rate dropped 6.7%; the nadir among available historical data. In the following years, the decline gradually diminished, turning positive again in 2004․
As of 1987, births recorded in Armenia were around 78,000. The following year saw the start of the Karabakh Movement and the Spitak earthquake. In 1988, the number of births declined by 4,000, and in 1992, 70,000 children were born in Armenia. The natural change in Armenia’s population decreased in the years following the war. As the death rate dropped, so did the number of babies born. Thus, the “baby boom” that was supposed to occur after the emergencies in Armenia to compensate for the losses caused by war and the natural disaster did not happen. Instead, a decline in the number of births began.
The birth rate was about two children per woman during the war, as well as in 1995 and 1996. This figure has been steadily declining since 1997 fluctuating between 1.5 and 1.8 children per woman.
The 2020 Artsakh War and Its Demographic Consequences
Polls show that Armenians had taken the status quo for granted before the 2020 Artsakh War began. Even in peacetime, frequent violations of the ceasefire, occasional skirmishes and incidents on the frontline, and the 2016 Four Day April War left more than 2,300 soldiers killed.
In the wake of the 2020 war, there are expectations of a new wave of emigration, which is currently being delayed due to COVID-19 restrictions. This would only exacerbate the demographic situation. It remains to be seen if the theoretical “baby boom” will follow the war, but the tragic human losses leave an irreplaceable absence of would-be parents that will be difficult to recover from.