Even when Hasan Suleymanov had a steady job, he could barely get by on his salary of less than $300 per month as an architect and designer. Then, Azerbaijan’s economy started to nosedive, forcing his employer – which he asked not be named – to close down in 2015, making his situation untenable.
Suleymanov suddenly was no longer able to pay off a debt he had incurred to buy a computer, and the bank that gave him the loan was threatening to sue him. He tried to go to the State Employment Service, which helps unemployed Azerbaijanis find work, but they could not find him a new job. Stress kept him awake at night.
Finally, he decided to leave. He now lives in a 15-square-meter room in Cologne, Germany, working as an intern at an architecture firm.
“No one wants to leave his hometown, loved ones, all his memories and childhood behind for something totally new and unknown,” Suleymanov said.
Suleymanov is part of a growing trend. According to government statistics, the number of Azerbaijanis permanently leaving the country doubled from 800 in 2014 to 1,600 in 2015, the most recent year for which data is available. While the numbers are relatively small for a country of over 9 million, the official figures likely dramatically undercount the real number of emigrants, said Alovsat Aliyev, the head of the Azerbaijan Migration Center, in an interview with EurasiaNet.org. (Aliyev himself is an émigré, currently seeking political asylum in Germany). And with the worsening of the country’s economic woes in 2016, it is reasonable to assume the pace of emigration is picking up.
The state’s permanent migration figure relies on migrants registering either at the Passport Registration and Migration Department or at Azerbaijani consulates abroad. Most migrants do not do that, and as a result, official statistics “highly underestimate the real outflows from the country,” European Union researchers concluded in a 2012 report.
Anecdotal evidence indicates that there has been a large increase in permanent migration since the beginning of Azerbaijan’s economic downturn. While temporary labor migration, in particular to Russia, is nothing unusual during the post-Soviet period, it is now becoming permanent as the economic situation has declined, said Aliyev, the migration activist.
“Before it was only political activists who were leaving the country, but now the people who cannot pay their debt to local banks because of the economic crisis and poverty in Azerbaijan leave the country too,” he said. Many of these claim to be political asylum seekers in order to gain residency in the West, Aliyev said. According to his records, in August alone 647 Azerbaijani citizens applied for asylum abroad, and the number appears to be increasing.
The rise in migration poses yet another challenge to Azerbaijan’s image, as it undermines a message promoted relentlessly at home and abroad by the government that the country has a prosperous and vibrant society.
There is no disputing that abundant energy exports have enabled Azerbaijan to come a long way since the 1991 Soviet collapse. The country’s GDP per capita grew from under $400 in 1995 to nearly $8,000 in 2014, according to World Bank data. In 2015, however, that per capita figure dropped sharply to about $5,500. And the distribution of wealth is wildly uneven, with a relatively small group of individuals possessing a disproportionately large portion of assets in Azerbaijan.
The issue of migration has been a particular point of emphasis in Azerbaijani government rhetoric. Trying to score points in a propaganda struggle relating to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Azerbaijani officials often go out of their way to call attention to the high level of outmigration from Armenia, Baku’s neighbor and enemy. The two states have fought for control of Karabakh for almost three decades. In a speech last April, President Ilham Aliyev contrasted Azerbaijan as a “modern, stable, predictable, self-sufficient country,” to Armenia, which he portrayed as beset by “economic difficulties, isolation, migration, [and] poverty.”
Armenia still has much higher levels of migration than Azerbaijan. According to data from the International Organization for Migration, in 2015 about 24 percent of Armenians lived outside of Armenia, while 11 percent of Azerbaijanis live outside of Azerbaijan.
As Azerbaijan’s crisis has deepened, government officials have warned that the country must brace for harder times. Despite such exhortations, popular patience seems to be wearing thin. In the city of Goychay, for example, protests broke out recently after a young man tried to kill himself, saying he could no longer provide for his family. One Azerbaijani MP, Aqil Abbas, responded bluntly to the protests saying: “If the government doesn’t provide you with work, it’s giving you land – go sow some onions and provide for your family.”
Another MP suggested in December that hard times could have benefits for the population. “There are people who don’t eat bread, meat, or fish because they want to stay in shape – if there is little food, eat less and stay in shape,” said Huseybala Miralamov.
A few officials have taken aim at Azerbaijani economic migrants. After protests over power cuts and clashes with police in the region of Bilasuvar, an MP representing the area compared the protesters there to Azerbaijani labor migrants in Russia, describing both as the “scum of society” in a December 24 interview with Radio Liberty. The statement caused a good deal of outrage among Azerbaijani migrants in Russia, who took to social media with statements explaining that they had to migrate because they could not find work in Azerbaijan. The MP, Astan Shahverdiyev of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party, later apologized.
Meanwhile, Suleymanov is trying to build his life in Germany. He is learning German and working on building his architecture career. And he has no plans to go back to Azerbaijan. “I wouldn’t have left if I didn’t feel so helpless and hopeless,” he said.
Lamiya Adilgizi is a freelance Azerbaijani reporter.