Russia as a means of survival? Georgian Armenians fear hunger if borders remain closed
Tens of thousands of Georgian citizens are completely dependent on another country – they have Russian passports, they earn a living in Russia and in their old age hope for a Russian pension.
Every year hundreds of men from the mountainous region of Georgia Javakheti, mostly settled by ethnic Armenians, travel to Russia for seasonal work. Now, during the coronavirus pandemic, they demand only one thing – to open the borders in order to go to Russia to work.
Samvel Ayvazyan, 66, lives in the village of Kulikam, Akhalkalaki region.
All his life Samvel went to work in Russia. For four years now, as he retired, he almost never leaves his village, works with his family on their plot, mainly planting potatoes and other vegetables.
But you can’t feed a family with rural work, he says. His main income is a Russian pension of 17,000 rubles [about $225], which he receives monthly. This is almost 750 lari, which is three times more than the Georgian pension of 240 lari [about $72].
“I have been a citizen of Russia since 1999. Then only a few had a Russian passport, now many have it. Thanks to my Russian pension, we live without debt,” he says.
Thousands of people in Javakheti live with Russian passports and on Russian money – mainly due to the fact that they spend six months a year in Russia doing seasonal work.
However, the coronavirus pandemic changed their plans, and many have been forced to stay at home.
In Javakheti, several protests have taken place over the past two months, in which residents of the region demanded that the authorities open the Russian and Armenian borders so that seasonal workers could leave.
“Otherwise, there will be hunger in our families,” they say.
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Others, on the contrary, are stuck in Russia and cannot return to their homeland.
“In March it will be exactly one year since I’ve been working as a driver in Moscow,” says Artur Melkoyan, a 33-year-old resident of Akhalkalaki.
Arthur went to Russia on March 6, 2020, and by mid-March both Georgia and Armenia closed their borders due to the pandemic.
Now Arthur can return to his homeland, but he is in no hurry, as he may not be able to quickly leave back to Russia:
“I have a family of nine. If I go back and get stuck in Georgia, they will starve. It is impossible to support a family with a small plot of land and two cows. This year I sent almost half a million rubles home. I do not complain, I work, I get paid well, I take good care of my family, but this is not life, far from everyone I miss my children and my parents,” Melkonyan says.
In the mountainous region of Javakheti in southern Georgia, 93 percent of the population is ethnic Armenians. Most do not know Georgian, and are poorly integrated into Georgian society.
As in all of Georgia, there is huge unemployment in this region. Basically, Georgian Armenians grow potatoes, are engaged in cattle breeding and beekeeping, but this is not enough to survive.
After the Russian military base in Akhalkalaki closed in 2007, which was a source of income for the 1,500 local Armenians who worked there, the region was left without a livelihood.
The only way out was emigration. Many locals have left for Russia or Armenia for permanent residence and send money to their relatives who have remained in the region.
Most of them live in two countries – they spend six months in Russia at seasonal work, and six months at home.
According to the local media portal jnews, at least one person in 63 percent of families in Javakheti leaves for Russia to work.
Men, as a rule, leave without their families – it’s cheaper that way. They rent a house with other Armenians and live in cramped apartments for several people.
They usually travel in early spring and return in late fall, which is why they are called seasonal laborers and seasonal husbands.
They are mainly engaged in manual labor – in the construction of roads, bridges, buildings, and so on.
Despite the fact that 36-year-old Artak is from a different generation, his fate is not too different from that of Samvel. He is also a Georgian Armenian, a citizen of Russia, every year he travels to Russia to work and accumulates money on which his family lives all year.
In old age, he also sees himself as Samvel, in his native village, surrounded by his family and hopes for a Russian pension, which will provide him with a calm old age.
“All members of my family, except my mother, are citizens of Russia. Russian citizenship is very important because there is work there. A Russian passport is the key to my work, the key to solving all my financial problems,” he says.
There are no statistics on how many percent of the Armenian population have Russian passports, but we can say that there are thousands of people, not hundreds.
Many local residents received Russian passports back in the 90s of the last century, when the 62nd divisional Russian military base was stationed in Akhalkalaki. The entire military personnel at the base, of which more than a thousand were local Armenians, were obliged to accept Russian citizenship.
In the 90s and after, dealers appeared in Akhalkalaki who sold Russian (and Armenian) passports to those who wanted to work in Russia.
Today, Russian passports are obtained by those who have relatives – parents, son, daughter, brother or sister – with Russian citizenship. And there are many of these among the Javakheti Armenians.
After Armenia passed a law in 2007 allowing dual citizenship for foreign citizens of Armenian origin, Javakheti Armenians began to travel to Yerevan to obtain an Armenian passport – it was much more convenient to travel to Russia with it (for Georgian citizens, visas are required to travel to Russia).
As a result, the situation has developed that many local residents today have two passports – Georgian and Russian or Armenian.
Many people manage to hide the second passport, knowing exactly which customs office to show which passport. And some have lost their Georgian citizenship, because according to Georgian law, a person who has the citizenship of another country automatically loses Georgian and must acquire it again.
From time to time, the topic of local Armenians with Russian passports pops up on the political and media agenda of Georgia – especially after the August war, as well as after 2014, that is, after Russia’s intervention in Crimea.
There was a debate that Russia could use this pretext to invade Javakheti, given that the justification for Russia’s invasion of South Ossetia was to protect its citizens.
The local population is assured that in the region they take Russian passports not because of a good life, but in order to survive – it is easy to leave for Russia to find a job, receive a pension, and so on.
“What can I say? We love our country, we would love to build roads at home, not in Russia, but there is no such work on site. This year, everyone worked on their land, there was not a single uncultivated land. So what? Agricultural products have no value, you cannot live on it, ”says Samvel Ayvazyan.
Recently, however, due to the lack of Georgian citizenship, it has become increasingly difficult, local residents say.
There are many problems with registering land or property – there are restrictions for foreign citizens in Georgia in this regard.
And the most “recent” problem is related to the pandemic – the treatment of coronavirus in Georgia is free only for citizens of Georgia. Everyone else, including local residents of Javakheti who are not citizens of Georgia, must pay for this.
Samvel says that he contracted the coronavirus in December, and says that for all these years, for the first time, he had discomfort due to the lack of Georgian citizenship:
“I was seriously ill, went to the hospital and it turned out that since I am a citizen of another country, I will not be treated for free. I had to pay 600 GEL [about $180] per day at the clinic. Many people now have problems because of their citizenship. “