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Armenian Expats Face Changing Russian Labour Market

New common labour market makes it easier for migrants to go to Russia, but jobs will be thin on the ground this year.
By Marianna Ghahramanyan

For more than ten years, Andranik Sahakyan has taken seasonal construction jobs in the Russian city of Orel and sent money back home to his large family in Armenia. But after returning to the city of Vanadzor to visit relatives over the New Year holiday, he is not sure whether he will be going back to Russia in March, as he normally does.

Sahakyan is worried that he will not find work this year because of the state of Russia’s economy. Falling oil prices and Western sanctions saw the ruble’s value fall by 40 per cent against the US dollar last year, and as the labour market contracts due to slower investment, seasonal workers from abroad will be among the first to go.

“Things are different in Russia now,” he said. “Work is at a standstill. It’s nothing like it used to be.”

At the beginning of January, Russia’s Federal Migration Service recorded a 70 per cent drop in the overall number of seasonal workers arriving in the country compared with the same period last year. It attributed the fall to the economic downturn and also to new immigration legislation that came into force in January 10.

Ashot Yeghiazaryan, an economist at Yerevan State Economic University, says Moscow is trying to reduce the scale of a foreign labour force that is not needed in the current climate.

When the economy was growing and oil prices were high, he said, Russian officials “calculated the number of immigrants, a quota designed to compensate for Russia’s negative population growth, whereby migrant workers would take up certain jobs. But now the number of jobs of this kind has fallen."

If they can find work, Armenians should benefit from reduced bureaucracy since on January 1, their country joined the Eurasian Economic Union, whose other members are Russia, Belarus and Kazakstan. This means they can hold a job in any of the other member states for three years without needing a work permit. All they need is a full passport and an employment contract.

Some Armenian migrants are concerned about new Russian legislation in force from January 10 which means foreign nationals can be deported and banned from re-entry if they break residence rules. Nationals of states outside the Eurasian union – Georgians, Tajiks and Uzbeks for example – face bans on re-entering Russia for between three and ten years depending how long they overstay the three-month period of residence they are allowed. By contrast, Armenians are not subject to this clause and will only face removal if they commit some breach of the law, for example by working without a contract.

The head of Armenia’s migration service, Gagik Yeganyan, believes Armenians can only benefit as legal migrants within the Eurasian bloc.

“Russia is fighting illegal migration, while the Eurasian Economic Union guarantees free movement of labour. Just as the European Union has a common labour market, workers who are nationals of Eurasian Economic Union countries – Russia, Belarus, Armenia and Kazakstan – have equal status on the territory of all four states,” he said.

Ruben Yeganyan, head of the Armenian Social-Demographic Initiative group and an expert on migration, points out that  about 200,000 Armenian citizens were denied entry to Russia last year because of previous restrictions. Referring to those subject to earlier bans, he said, "A lot of people may find themselves in a hopeless situation since there are no jobs here [in Armenia] and the option of entering Russia has been closed off.”

He still believes membership of the economic bloc will improve the position of Armenians allowed to work in Russia, although economic contraction is likely to cancel out the benefits. 

“Since we have entered a bloc in which the principal country’s economy is continuing to deteriorate, it doesn’t matter what restrictions are lifted," he added.

Because the ruble has lost value relative to the Armenian currency, the money sent home by migrant workers is worth less. A fall in the number of workers this year will inevitably reduce the amount of money transferred.

As Yeghiazaryan pointed out, "remittances from Russia are equivalent to or even larger than Armenia’s total annual exports. Exports are 1.3 to 1.4 billion US dollars a year, while transfers through the banking system come to around 1.5 billion dollars, and funds sent back by other means are estimated at up to three billion dollars. You can imagine the significance for a country with gross domestic product of ten billion dollars.”

 

Marianna Ghahramanyan is a freelance journalist in Armenia.

 

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