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Armenia: Russian Guest Worker Program Highlights Population Drain

A Russian government program that pays Russian-speakers to migrate to Russia is upsetting many Armenians who believe it is contributing to a demographic problem in Armenia.

Officially, the program is meant to benefit those who term the Russian Federation their “homeland.” In reality, the program, which has operated in Armenia since 2009, defines the word “compatriot” in terms of the Soviet past; Russian-speaking citizens of countries throughout the Commonwealth of Independent States, with or without a past family history in Russia, are eligible to apply.

After signing a two-year contract, participants are assigned a job (possible options range from nurse to construction worker), a lump payment from $4,000 to $8,000 depending on resettlement location and occupation, and a place to live in one of 24 Russian regions. The program aims to repopulate Russian regions that have experienced demographic declines over recent decades. Only applicants with families are eligible for Compatriots.

Standing in a long line of people waiting to meet with a Compatriots program coordinator in the town of Vanadzor, a few hours north of Yerevan, 56-year-old Lyova Gabrielian says that the program gives his family of six a better chance for economic security.

“I have no other option,” Gabrielian said, referring to Armenia's economic troubles. “I’ve been working in Russia for many years, and now I have a chance to move there with my family. What should I do in Armenia? There are no prospects here, while Russia offers me such an opportunity.”

The Federal Migration Service reports that 2,000 applicants from Armenia took part in the Compatriots program in 2010, with most settling in the regions of Kaliningrad, Tambov, Kaluga and Lipetsk.

Meanwhile, controversy about the program is spreading in Armenia, which faces an outflow of 60,000 migrants per year, according to official figures.

Officials in Yerevan have not expressed any objection publicly to the Compatriots program. A senior official at Armenia’s Migration Agency likened the Compatriots program to the United States’ Green Card program, and underlined that Armenia can do nothing to stop it. “We don’t think that the program is a problem for Armenia, as the number of people who migrate is not as much as the commotion around the issue,” said Irina Davtian, deputy head of the Agency’s Department on Migration Programs.

Armenian Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian has pledged that the government will act to reduce migration, adding that efforts to foster higher living standards in Armenia would naturally reduce the impulse of citizens to leave. Current conditions, including double-digit inflation and limited job opportunities, are helping to stir up popular discontent.  A program like Compatriots essentially provides the government with a way to let off steam from that spreading discontent.

Nonetheless, many Armenians believe that the program is draining away some of Armenia’s best and brightest. On March 18, the opposition-associated youth group Hima (Now) staged a protest against the Compatriots program outside government headquarters. Bearing posters reading “Enough Russian Exile” and “An Armenia without Armenians,” dozens of participants called on the government itself to take part in the Compatriots program and move to Russia.

One outspoken senior opposition figure, Vahan Hovhannisian, leader of the nationalist Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun’s parliamentary faction, also is critical of the program. In March 1 remarks to parliament, Hovhannisian charged that the program contradicts Russia’s strategic partnership with Armenia by undermining Armenia’s economic development. “We must not allow this,” he said.

The Compatriots program’s representative in Armenia, Svetlana Stepanova, declined to answer EurasiaNet.org’s questions. “We have been mixed with dirt so many times within the framework of this program, that we don’t comment or give interviews,” Stepanova said.

For now, attractive alternatives to keep working-age Armenians in Armenia are few. Officially, unemployment stands at 6.9 percent, but unofficial estimates place the rate of joblessness well into the double digits, particularly outside Yerevan.

Motivated largely by financial reasons, some 1.1 million people have left Armenia since independence in 1991, according to official data.

Although Prime Minister Sarkisian maintains that migration is now decreasing as living standards allegedly gradually improve, Karine Kuyumjian, head of the National Statistical Service’s Census and Demography Department, tells a different tale.

“Migration tends to increase year after year, which cannot but cause concerns,” Kuyumjian said. “People are dissatisfied, but the situation deteriorates even more when there is a legal opportunity for migration that offers attractive conditions.”

Some 39 percent of roughly 1,000 Armenians surveyed in a Gallup poll published last August stated that they would like to live permanently in another country; that figure was the highest among the 12 former Soviet republics studied.

The government has approved an “action plan” to address the issue, but, so far, no details have been made public. Speaking to reporters on February 25, Prime Minister Sarkisian named developing Armenia’s IT and agricultural spheres, and developing new social welfare programs as among the options for the plan.

But one sociologist claims those options are not enough to reverse the existing trend. “The government is demonstrating a very indifferent attitude, particularly towards this [Compatriots] program, which raises much concern,” commented Sociometer Director Aharon Adibekian.

With popular expectations focused on the government, rather than the private sector, on generating jobs, public concern is likely to increase. “The state left no other option for us, and they [the officials] should not be surprised at people’s migration,” a Compatriots applicant said. “They themselves contribute to this.”

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

Armenia: Russian Guest Worker Program Highlights Population Drain

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