Ukraine war hits Azeri labor migrants

Journalist: Sakinakhanim Mammadova, , Photographer: Tati Sattar
Edition: Labor
Topic: Employment

Generations of Azerbaijani labor migrants have looked north for work and a chance to earn more money for their families.

But today, millions of Azerbaijanis working in Russia and Ukraine are finding themselves forced to decide between their jobs and their safety as Russia’s war disrupts the economy on both sides of the conflict.

Elvin Magsudov, 33, opted for safety, moving from Ukraine to Moldova after Russia's invasion. The decision has cost him dearly, however: the new job pays less and his expenses increased.

“This war ruined all my plans,” he says. “My working conditions and living expenses in Ukraine were very good compared to Moldova. Compared to Ukraine, my salary in Moldova is very low—the difference is significant. The cost of living in Ukraine was twice as cheap…Prices have risen here, from clothing to food.”

Despite the challenges of settling in Moldova, Elvin says he is not planning to return to Azerbaijan, noting that it is difficult to find a good-paying job and his family depends on the money he sends them. 

Economist Natig Jafarli believes that many of the estimated two million Azerbaijanis who worked in Russia— and half a million in Ukraine—before the war are likely to stay there despite the challenges and dangers created by the war. Their families back home will feel the pinch of the sanctions and job security, however.

“Labor force, purchasing power, incomes have decreased, and there are obstacles to remittances,” he says, noting Azerbaijanis in Russia can no longer use international wire transfer services due to the sanctions.

While the volume of remittances from Russia and Ukraine has fallen since Moscow illegally annexed Crimea in 2014, labor migrants sent an estimated $1.2 billion in 2019, before the pandemic. 

Economist Gubad Ibadoglu told Voice of America in April that 60 percent of remittances to Azerbaijan came from Russia in the first nine months of 2021, adding that “a sharp decline in this transfer is expected this year.”

“In the year of the pandemic, this number decreased by  700-800 million dollars. Although there was some growth in 2021 last year, Azerbaijanis are now facing certain difficulties due to the Russia-Ukraine war,” economist Natig Jafarli says.

In Bilajary, a suburb of Azerbaijan’s capital Baku, Yegana Mamishova and her two children are already feeling the difference. Regina, 42, works as a teacher but her salary is not enough to support the family; they depend on the money her husband Hafiz Mamishov, 48,  has sent from Russia for the past five years.

“My husband currently works in the construction sector in Russia. He has been working in Russia for 5 years and sends us money,” she says, adding that due to the sanctions “he can no longer send us money.”

Now they are cutting corners to live on the 400 manats ($235) she earns a month as a kindergarten teacher.

Yegana notes that her husband only left Azerbaijan because he could not find a decent job after leaving the military.

Officially, unemployment in Azerbaijan is just shy of six percent, a fraction of the rate in neighboring Georgia and Armenia. 

But labor migrants like Aliheydar Azimzade, 24, note jobs can be hard to come by.

Aliheydar Azimzadeh with his nephew Tahir, 10. Aliheydar says “He is like my own son. He follows me in some things and wants to be like his uncle.”

Efshar Azimzadeh, 48, Aliheydar’s mother.

After graduating from university in Ukraine in 2015, Aliheydar stayed there, buying a house and opening a business. He was there when the invasion started and, after staying for a week, decided it was better to risk his luck in Azerbaijan. But the transition has not been easy.

“Although I am currently looking, I still cannot find a job,” he says. “The biggest problem is unemployment. I plan to return to Ukraine if the war ends because my work and my house remain there.”

Aliheydar’s house in Veravul, Azerbaijan, where he grew up. His family has strong roots in the village but he plans to return to Ukraine once the war ends due to the lack of work.

Asaf Mishiyev, 29, has also struggled to rebuild his life in Azerbaijan after returning from Russia five days after the war started. 

A musician, Asaf has spent most of the last 11 years in Moscow. He tried once before to resettle in Baku but eventually returned to Russia due to better pay and more opportunities to pursue a music career.

“There were more opportunities [in Russia], both in terms of income and music. I can give you a simple example that it is difficult to find musical instruments in Azerbaijan. Also, if Azerbaijan satisfied me, I would stay in my own country. In terms of work, this is a bit difficult. Everyone has to work to survive, that's why I chose Russia,” he says.

“In 2017, I returned to Azerbaijan and opened Show Time café, for the modern youth. You could listen to live music and watch movies in our cafe. But two years later I closed the cafe and returned to Russia for work.”

Today he is teaching vocal and guitar lessons to earn a living. “There are even classes that I teach for free, and there are classes that are paid. Students find me more through the ads we place on social media accounts. I had more students in Russia,” Asaf notes.

For Sevdiyar Hadiyev, 57, the choice is simple: once the war ends, he wants to return to his life in Kharkov, Ukraine, where he lived for 30 years.

Sevdiyar Hadiyev, 57,  at a cafe near his house with his friends.

A native of the Azerbaijani village of Lerik, Sevdiyar has not been able to find work at home since returning for a visit in September. After a lifetime in Ukraine, he found himself stuck in his native village after the war.

“The situation in Ukraine was better than here,” he says. “I plan to return after the war.”

This article was produced in the framework of the Chai Khana Fellowship program - Spring 2022

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