‘Putinka’ is generally considered a vodka of Russian origin, but in a village called Lijq in Armenia, people use the term to refer to a newly constructed district. A resident of Putinka explained that they named it in honour of Vladimir Putin, as the district was built with money brought back by seasonal labour migrants from Russia. In this village of 5,277 inhabitants, seasonal labour is the main source of income for the majority of families: 90% of men aged 20-60 regularly leave for Russia in March, mainly for work in the construction industry. In December, when construction season ends, these migrants return to Armenia. This example is not an exception: migrants send about $1.9 billion in annual remittances to Armenia; these serve as a major source of income for about one third of the Armenian population.
The coronavirus pandemic outbreak has put seasonal labour migrants in a very vulnerable situation as a number of them were either forced to return to Armenia or were not able to leave for seasonal work in Russia. Families who heavily rely on remittances face serious socio-economic problems. ‘Borders are shut down, I work abroad for six months to solve my family's problems throughout the year. How are we supposed to live now?’ wondered Armen, a seasonal worker from the Gegharqunik region. In response to the situation, the Armenian government offered no-interest loans and requested that seasonal migrants currently in Armenia submit information about their professions to the relevant government agencies for finding suitable employment opportunities in the country.
Through in-depth interviews with returned migrants and community leaders in the Gegharqunik region, we analysed new practices and alternative employment strategies of returned labour migrants, in particular the extent to which returned migrants use professional skills, new qualifications, and experiences they have acquired abroad back in their homeland. As a result, we offer four different scenarios of pandemic-coping strategies among seasonal migrants that allow for early predictions for whether the re-establishment of favourable employment conditions in the host country will affect migration trends in Armenia.
‘I did not learn a new profession in Russia’
Most migrants reported that they had been doing unskilled work in Russia for years and had not acquired any new professional practices. Armen is a migrant who has worked in Russia for 5 years in the construction sector: ‘Russia has not given anything in terms of learning a new profession’. According to the head of the community, the only remaining possibility for these migrants is purchasing land and doing agricultural work, as the majority do not believe that working in the construction sector in Armenia is profitable. Interviews reveal that these migrants are simply waiting for the borders to be opened, as they want to migrate back to Russia for work.
‘I have learned a new profession, but I have no place to apply it’
Тigran and Ashot are brothers that have been working in Russia for 9 years. They did not receive any professional education prior to migration. After working in the construction industry for several years they studied carpentry, but there is little demand for this profession in their village. They want to use the possibilities offered by the government to work in nearby cities, but this costs extra money: ‘The only area of employment for us is agriculture, we can cultivate grain, potatoes...however, it is difficult for us, as youngsters, to connect with the land’. According to the mayor, there are many such qualified professionals in Lijq and if the village receives more investments or offers more employment possibilities, these migrants will contribute to the prosperity of the community. Otherwise, they are more likely to return to seasonal work in Russia.
‘Thanks to migration, I have become a qualified professional and now I can support my family in my country’
Several migrants have given positive feedback regarding migration’s impact on their professional progress and the possibility to apply their professional development to their homeland. Interviewees who reported gaining a new profession or improving their skills abroad believe that they have increased chances of finding a job in the homeland and gaining financial independence. Mariam received an offer from an acquaintance to work as a cleaner in one of Moscow's restaurants 6 years ago and decided to migrate to Russia. However, as she explains further: ‘I realised that labour-intensive conditions were not for me, so I started studying hairdressing. After a few months, I started working as a hairdresser. Due to the coronavirus, beauty salons were closed and I had to return to Armenia.’ The Armenian government allowed her to rent a space and open her own beauty salon. At the time of the interview, Mariam was still preparing to open the salon, and was hopeful that she would manage to run her business after coronavirus restrictions are eased in Armenia. Mariam and other migrants in a similar situation are more likely to remain in Armenia by launching their own businesses or working in different enterprises after Russia opens its borders.
‘Coronavirus forced me to do business’
Aram, who worked as an engineer in Russia, has never thought of opening a business. However, after the closure of the enterprise he worked for in Russia, he returned to Armenia. As he and his family underwent financial hardship, Aram considered opening a small business. As a result, he set up a greenhouse where he grows and sells vegetables. Although this positive outcome scenario is not widespread, a few migrants reported that the current instability made them think of building their future in Armenia.
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It has been reported that several seasonal labour migrants found a fifth scenario: alternative routes to reach Russia despite the border closure. They first fly to Minsk, then rent a taxi to Moscow while putting themselves at legal, social, and health risks.
Interview analysis shows that Armenia should make efforts to create new employment opportunities, especially in the fields of agriculture and construction industries, as well as develop new skills among returned migrants. These would make it possible to avoid not only unsafe migration routes but also increased unemployment rates amongst returned migrants. In this case, it could be perhaps possible to speak about a sixth scenario in the future: construction of a locally named district next to ‘Putinka’.
Nare Galstyan specializes in migration and diaspora studies, and lectures at Brusov State University.
Professor Mihran Galstyan is an ethnographer, a leading researcher, and head of the Ethno-Sociology Department at the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography of the Republic of Armenia.