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Southern Georgia’s Armenians are not well integrated. That men spend nine months of the year in Russia is a problem — it separates them from the rest of their country.
‘Why don’t you speak Georgian?’ ‘Don’t you live here?’ ‘Aren’t you citizens of Georgia?’
Such questions, with different intonation and different degrees of discontent and disdain, are often asked of Armenians living in Javakheti. Basically, the higher the degree of discontent and disregard in the questioner’s voice, the stronger is their confidence that they already know the answer.
To get closer to an understanding of these issues, one must live in Javakheti for at least a year.
Let's start with today. Some beauty salons have already begun inviting back workers who were temporarily fired because of a lack of clients. The need for sculptors of female beauty is now increasing every day.
A seasonal beauty industry
Most families in Javakheti live a full life only three to five months of the year. The remaining seven to nine months, women wait for their husbands with the full burden and psychological responsibility of the household, while their husbands are away working, mainly in Russia, to feed their families.
In November, the ‘Renaissance’ season begins in Akhalkalaki: men begin to return to their families, and life switches from a waiting mode to a fast action mode. There is a rise in the number of beauty salons, because women who have waited for months for their husbands, want to look as good as possible.
Just as the beauty industry is seasonal in Javakheti, many things here carry a seasonal character and depend on labour migration. From December to March, demand for hairdressers, manicurists, and beauticians will increase to such an extent that there will not be enough for everyone and reservations have to be made well in advance. After March–April, a crisis will come again, and hairdressers will look for other work. But they will make sure they will be taken back when the time comes.
Labour migration is an obstacle to integration
The question of integration of Armenians, who live compactly in Georgia’s south, has been relevant for several decades. The integration process has been slow due to a number of barriers.
Along with not knowing the state language, labour migration is an important obstacle to integration. In a region with high levels of poverty, the main driving force of life is in many respects findings ways of earning daily bread. The availability of such earnings determines many other things.
The model of most families in Javakheti is shaped by labour migration. The man goes to work, sends money home in his absence (if he is paid at all), then he comes back in winter with presents and a big sum of money, which pays for a lavish New Year’s celebration.
And if the year has been particularly good, it will be possible to either buy good household appliances or a car, or to renovate a room or the entire house. But when spring comes, the man will buy a ticket, sometimes on credit, to go work abroad again.
Women here do not work; it’s widely considered that this is not necessary, because a man provides for the family. For a woman here it’s important to look after the household, raise the children, and prepare pickles, jams, and preserves for winter. When the husband arrives, there will be many guests, and they will gladly attack the prepared pickled vegetables and jams.
The children here have few prospects. The boys in the family usually think about how to find a good job in Russia — where they will not be scammed of their pay. And the girls only dream that their life will be better, that they will be lucky in marriage and that their husbands will take them to a big city.
In this model of the family, there is no motivation, for example, to learn the state language or to seek some kind of professional growth, to be an active citizen, which might entail a degree of integration.
The lack of men produces an effect on civil consciousness. During local self-government elections in 2017, many voters were listed as ‘abroad’ (as many as 10%). The people who are absent are even more cut off from participating in civic activities in their country. In the country where they earn their living, they have no rights as citizens. As a result, they are alien in both places.
The families of migrant workers are not particularly eager to vote either; only if they are asked. But in this case they do not feel a civic duty. Neither those who are ‘abroad’ nor their families feel that they are a part of the country in which they live.
A poll in Javakheti conducted by the Rondeli Foundation, ‘Barometer 2013’, suggests that people here watch mainly Armenian TV (76.1%) and Russian channels (59.3%). Much less popular are Georgian public television (24.6%) and other Georgian channels (20.4%).
What this means is, the local population knows more about officials in Armenia and Russia than in Georgia, and see current affairs in Georgia through the lens of Armenian or Russian television. Despite the many thousands of lari and dollars spent by the government and donor organisations to solve this problem, the percentages stay the same.
Labour migration carries with it many problems for the locals of Javakheti. One example from the recent past: when Georgia and Russia broke off diplomatic relations, all the men who worked in Russia faced the dilemma of staying at home and not having the means to support their families or finding a way to exit the country.
At some point, especially resourceful people found a solution — getting a dual citizenship with Armenia. In 2008, thousands of residents of Javakheti took this option. Many were unaware that this could lose them their Georgian citizenship, and many closed their eyes to this.
In 2014, amendments to Georgia’s Law On Migration entered into force. These meant a foreign citizen did not have the right to stay in Georgia for more than 90 out of every 180 days. At the same time, people who had accepted Armenian citizenship were identified en masse and deprived of their Georgian citizenship.
This meant that many families were now divided not only by geography, but also by the law. True, after a few months of suffering, exceptions were added to the law, and now these people can stay here 360 days a year. However, this example is a good indicator of how labour migration affects people's lives and strongly hampers integration into their country.
There is reason for hope
Over the past ten years, the pattern of university choice has changed. While before everyone went to study in Yerevan, now half of the students from Javakheti, if not more, go to study in Georgian universities: in Tbilisi, Batumi and Akhaltsikhe. This has been facilitated by a preferential program for minorities known as ‘1+4’ for admission to universities.
This program allows prospective minority students to take a general knowledge exam in their native language, and then attend a preparatory Georgian language course if they pass. After this they can proceed to obtain a bachelor's degree. This is the most effective integration programme in the country, and most likely its results will soon become clear.
There are also young people who wish to get a diploma not for the sake of having it, but also to really develop themselves. They are still very few, and some are still forced into the routine of labour migration, because sustaining a family on only enthusiasm cannot last for long.
At the moment, the most important thing is that the tendency to enter Georgian universities continues. For this, conditions need to be created for young graduates to find work and create something of their own. It’s necessary that they can return and have an occupation and source of income in Georgia.
This article was prepared with support from the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) Regional Office in the South Caucasus. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and may not necessarily reflect the views of FES or OC Media.