Armenians Fear Jobs In Russia Will Vanish

By Vahe Avanesian in Moscow and Nelly Babaian in Yerevan

Institute for War and Peace Reporting
Feb 20 2009

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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