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Armenia: Labor Migration Program Causing Yerevan-Moscow Friction

Russia's labor migration program becomes issue in Armenia's presidential election. (Photo: Justyna Mielnikiewicz)

Armenia is pressing to terminate a Russian government program that encourages legal labor migration to Russia. But the Russian Federal Migration Service shows no sign of abandoning the initiative.

In operation since 2006, the so-called Compatriots program is intended to assist up to 300,000 voluntary labor migrants per year from former Soviet republics in finding work in under-populated regions of Russia. The Russian government covers travel expenses for program participants, provides jobs and accommodation and guarantees the migrants’ right to Russian citizenship.

Precise data on the number of Armenians who have gone to Russia under the Compatriots program is not publicly available. Some estimates put the number at only a couple of thousand. But given the overall outflow of an estimated 1.1-million Armenians since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the program nevertheless has been a target of criticism in Yerevan.

In the past, the Armenian government has tended to look the other way. But Armenia’s February 2013 presidential election, along with a September decree issued by Russian President Vladimir Putin, is forcing Armenian leaders to change tactics.

The program was initially expected to wrap up on December 31. But the Putin decree made the program permanent, and extended eligibility to the grandparents and adult brothers and sisters of migrants. That change means entire families can now easily move to Russia.

With the Armenian presidential election just four months away, incumbent authorities do not want to be seen as tolerating an exodus of working-age citizens. “Russia is trying to solve its demographic problems this way, but, in Armenia, the demographic situation is every more alarming,” commented Yerevan-based ethnographer Hranush Kharatian.

In 2011, Armenia’s official population stood at just over 2.87 million, marking roughly a 4.36 percent decline since 2001. This year, between January and September alone, migration increased by 8 percent to 97,100 individuals, according to the State Statistics Service. Adding to that outflow now would do little to enhance the government’s popularity with voters.

On October 3, Armenian Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan told parliament that the program’s “format” and “implementation in other countries” are “not acceptable for us.” Sarkisian did not respond to a EurasiaNet.org request for comment.

Just over a week later, at an October 12 session of the Armenian-Russian intergovernmental economic commission, Deputy Foreign Minister Shavarsh Kocharian reinforced Sarkisian’s message, telling his Russian counterparts that “only Armenia decides what to do on its territory. And since we have spoken against the program, obviously, it cannot be implemented here.”

Yet the program has remained in place. Representatives of Russia’s Federal Migration Service (FMS) declined to respond to questions from EurasiaNet.org. FMS representatives administer the program, operating out of offices in Yerevan and in Armenian regions.

Russia has been the major destination of illegal Armenian labor migrants for decades, with tens of thousands making the trip to support their families. During the first half of 2012, Russia accounted for more than 80 percent of the bank transfers to Armenia, worth roughly $707.4 million; a 12-percent increase since 2011, according to the Central Bank of Armenia.

Given that financial impact, ethnographer Kharatian argues that the Armenian government should focus more on eliminating the reasons for migration to Russia – estimated unemployment runs well into the double digits – than on ending the program itself. “I think closing down the program is not viable. It will look like closing the borders,” Kharatian said.

With or without the Compatriots program, if Armenians want to leave the country to work abroad, they will do it anyway, she added.

Russian Ambassador Vyacheslav Kovalenko on October 10 took a similar line. Responding to Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian’s criticism, he underlined that “no one forces Armenian citizens to go to Russia.”

Kovalenko went on to claim that the number of Armenians who have left for the United States by receiving a Green Card via a government-run lottery surpasses the number who have left for Russia under the Compatriots program. According to the US embassy in Yerevan, in 2012, 998 Armenians received a Green Card via the lottery.

Kovalenko did not address the question of why, despite Yerevan’s objections to the program, Russia has not moved to phase out the Compatriots in Armenia.

While the Armenian government long has touted its efforts to discourage labor migration by stimulating economic growth – the government claims a 7-percent growth rate so far in 2012 -- the results have not been immediate.

Faced with meager job options at home, many Armenians have no choice but to venture abroad, commented one Yerevan retiree, whose son, daughter-in-law and three grandchildren used the Compatriots program to move to Russia’s Far East. “My son works at a construction site. They have a house and lead a normal life, while in Armenia he couldn’t find a permanent job for years,” recounted 65-year-old Tigranuhi Hambardzumian. “Many people don't know about this program; if they did, they would immediately apply for it.”

A school guard working near the Federal Migration Service’s office in Vanadzor, Armenia’s third largest city, agreed: “They move there because they don’t see their future here.”

Short of an economic miracle, most likely little can change that.

Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter in Yerevan and the editor of MediaLab.am.

Armenia: Labor Migration Program Causing Yerevan-Moscow Friction

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