Armenians Fear Jobs in Russia Will Vanish

Concerns raised by signs of discrimination against foreign workers and collapse of the economy.

Armenians Fear Jobs in Russia Will Vanish

Concerns raised by signs of discrimination against foreign workers and collapse of the economy.

Armenians fear that a new wave of economic protectionism in Russia, where more than half a million of their compatriots work, could beggar thousands of families.



Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last month sought to limit the effect of the global economic crisis by appealing to employers to give preference to Russian citizens, potentially spelling ruin for the millions of former Soviet citizens who work in his country.



He used the example of the Caucasus region of Ingushetia to highlight the issue.



“There unemployment is 57 per cent, the highest level in the country. But even in the presence of 57 per cent unemployment, 4,000 workers have been invited in from abroad,” he said.



Armenian experts say 600,000 people have left the country to work in Russia, and expect the effect of Medvedev’s appeal and the lack of work in Russia caused by the economic collapse of recent months to be felt very soon.



The Russian government has predicted that the economy will contract by 2.2 per cent in 2009, while wage arrears are now affecting half a million people.



“The majority of Armenians work in the construction sector, which is seasonal work,” said Gagik Eganian, head of the migration office in the Armenian government, explaining why the shock would be particularly severe when spring starts.



Thousands of families in Armenia depend on remittances from relatives in Russia to survive. According to the Russian Central Bank, 70 per cent of money sent to Armenia comes from its former colonial ruler.



Karlen Mikaelian, a resident of the village of Vardenik in Armenia’s Gegharqunik region, is one such worker. He has traveled to the Russian city of Perm to work every year for a decade, and done jobs from repairing apartments to tarmacing roads.



“I cannot imagine how I could survive in the village planting potatoes and owning just one cow. When I was working in Perm I could send my family 500-800 US dollars a month,” he said.



Even if he finds work in Perm this year, he said, he doubted that he would earn as much as before.



Almost half of the migrant workers are, like Mikaelian, from rural areas of the country, while a quarter are from Yerevan, and about 30 per cent are from other cities. A study by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe said most migrants earned more than 600 dollars a month, while they would only have earned just over a third of this sum if they worked in Yerevan.



Gayane Hakobian, whose husband works in Moscow, said he had already called home and warned his family to reduce their expenditure since his salary was currently not being paid.



Her husband, a qualified paediatrician, could not even pay a small part of the family’s expenses if he worked in Yerevan. Now, she said, he was heading from Moscow to the Siberian city of Irkutsk to try and find work as a builder.



“But in Russia there isn’t any work either, people don’t have money for repairs or building, and this is what my husband has been doing. If he can’t find work in Irkutsk, we’ll just die of hunger. There is no decent work here,” she said.



It is particularly hard to find work outside Yerevan, and people from other towns dread having to look for work at home. Bagrat Sanoian, a resident of Armenia’s second city Gyumri, is currently waiting to see if there will be employment for him in Russia this year.



“Last year, I sent a total of 2,600 dollars to my family in seven months. Even then we were scraping by. That was because we always get in debt before I go away again. I even have to borrow the money for the ticket,” he said.



But workers like him are unlikely to find much sympathy in Russia, where Medvedev’s initiative was broadly welcomed by politicians and the electorate alike. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a veteran nationalist and leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, LDPR, said Russia should stop employing any foreigners at all.



“We will deal with our own affairs. We don’t need foreigners. We have no work for them to do,” he told IWPR.



And local politicians have taken steps of their own. Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov’s city hall has imposed new regulations from February 1 that force foreigners to register the lease of their flat before they register their presence with the police. This puts foreigners in a difficult position, since the first registration process takes a minimum of seven days, but they are obliged to register with the police within three days.



“If a Muscovite is looking for work, then we will definitely help him, and to people who aren’t Russian citizens, we will say ‘sorry, friend’ and we will give work to our own people,” said Vladimir Malyshkov, head of the department for consumer services in the city government, according to RIA Novosti news agency.



Police in Moscow and the surrounding region have been intensifying raids on markets, where many migrants from the Caucasus work, in their hunt for illegal workers.



“They came to check us last weekend. Not everyone had the required documents, and they refused to hold any kind of dialogue with us. One of these policemen, who I was acquainted with, said that he could not help, that they had been ordered to deport people. So 10 people from our market were deported just for that day,” said one Azeri man who owns a market near Moscow, and who asked not to be named.



The only hope remaining for many Armenians was that they could fill jobs that Russians did not want to do. Armenian Pavel Grigorian has owned a restaurant complex in Russia since 1996, and said he regularly has to bring in foreigners for menial jobs.



“I have recently tried to get Russians to come to work as cleaners, as dishwashers, but it is almost impossible to attract people with Russian passports, even if I am offering salaries a lot higher than I those offer to migrants,” he said.



Vahe Avanesian is freelance journalist in Moscow. Nelly Babaian works for the Aravot daily in Yerevan. Seda Muradian, director of IWPR’s Armenia office, and freelance journalist Yeranuhi Soghoian contributed to this report.
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