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Is there a new brain drain in Azerbaijan?

14 November 2017
Heydar Aliyev International Airport in Baku (Azerbaijan Airlines /YouTube)

Although official figures show low levels of emigration, many young students and specialists from Azerbaijan appear to be moving abroad for work. This has led many in the country to begin to question: is there a new brain drain in Azerbaijan?

In the 1990s, many former Soviet republics experienced a massive outflow of intellectuals, scientists, artists, musicians, and other educated professionals. Due to catastrophic economic consequences of the Soviet collapse, many moved to the US, Europe, and Israel. At the time, the term ‘brain drain’ was widely used, but in the ensuing years, as the situation stabilised, the term fell out of fashion.

Now a new generation of young talent has grown up — young people who speak English well and espouse Western values — who dream of leaving Azerbaijan and actively work to achieve this goal. The recent devaluation of the manat and related cuts in banks and other companies have only intensified this trend.

Starting from scratch

When Jamil Gasimov left Baku six years ago, at first glance, he had no reason to. At 27, he had a high-paying job in a large holding company, an apartment, a car, and good prospects. But he moved to Lithuania to start life from scratch, once again becoming a student with an uncertain future.

‘The main thing that made me leave was constant stress and the Azerbaijani mentality, which contradicts my temperament and worldview. I didn’t have enough breathing space and was depressed about the rights situation in the country, where whoever is rich, brash, and loud is on the winning side’, Gasimov told OC Media.

After gaining a master's degree in information technology from a university in Vilnius, he now works as a data processing manager at a company that organises clinical trials for new drugs. He rents an apartment, is learning to play the guitar, and is waiting to be able to apply for permanent residence in Lithuania.

Had he continued working at his former job in Baku, he would probably have had a successful career with a salary two or three times his current one. But Jamil doesn’t regret his decisions, because he obtained what he says was looking for — spiritual comfort.


Jamil regularly talks to friends and acquaintances in Baku, and believes that a brain drain from Azerbaijan is in full swing. ‘Among my acquaintances, everyone who could has already left. The rest are planning to or dream of doing so. And they are all educated people with good potential. I think if this continues, this will noticeably damage the development and future of Azerbaijan’, he says.

Thousands are leaving

According to Azerbaijan’s State Statistics Committee, around 3,300 people have emigrated from Azerbaijan this year. However, Togrul Mashalli, an economist at Baku State University, is sceptical of the official figures. He says that entry and exit statistics give a clearer picture of the situation.

In 2016, around 4,281,000 citizens left the country — only 4,220,000 returned. This leaves 61,000 people unaccounted for. According to the Mashalli, this number provides a much better idea of ​​the true level of emigration. Although no one can say with certainty what percentage of all those who have left are the ‘drained brains’.

Conflict expert and migration researcher Arif Yunus notes that the nature of migration from Azerbaijan has changed. Namely, while previously rural residents were moving to Russia, now people from Baku and other large cities, as well as qualified young people, are leaving for Europe.

‘Today, those who have received a good education but couldn’t find a decent job in Azerbaijan are leaving’, Yunus told OC Media.

There are also no statistics reflecting the number who have not yet emigrated but very much want to do so, though there are indirect indicators. A crowded hall at a recent seminar in Baku on how to move to Canada, the popularity in social networks of the topic of obtaining a green card, and the growing popularity of intermediary firms rendering assistance in migration, all point to a growing wish to emigrate to the West.

However, Mashalli says that emigration from Azerbaijan will not have serious effects, at least in an economic sense.

‘For the past 20 years, Azerbaijan has had a lack of qualified specialists. Only now has an opportunity to improve the situation arisen, because of the people who received their education abroad, but they have began to leave. In the end we are left with what we had before; It won’t be better or worse’, he says.

Emigrant from the school bench

Until recently, 30-year-old Rustam Salakhov worked in a foreign embassy in Azerbaijan. A month ago he left to Spain.

He enrolled in the Complutense University of Madrid, majoring in the history and anthropology of America. Rustam says he has been interested in everything connected with Spain and Spanish America since he was 14.

‘I think having a diploma from a Spanish university is a good opportunity to stay in the country’, he told OC Media.

Rustam realised he did not want to live in Azerbaijan while he was still in school. Over time, the reasons for this only multiplied.

‘At first, I didn’t like the attitude of the state towards the population. And lately the attitude of the people towards each other was added to the mix. It’s still the Stone Age in their heads. I want to live in accordance with my values, not those of cavemen’, he explains.

After moving, Rustam is very optimistic about his future. He hopes to stay at the university after completing his studies and work in scientific research. If he doesn’t succeed in finding a job in Madrid, he will try his luck in another Spanish city or abroad, but he does not intend on returning to Azerbaijan.

Why a shortage of qualified workers in Azerbaijan?

Employers in Azerbaijan complain about an acute shortage of qualified staff. But not all blame this on a brain drain. Former marketing director at an Azerbaijani bank, Rasim Gajiyev, believes that promising young people overestimate themselves, and therefore, have too high expectations for a salary.

The president of the IT, education, and sport–oriented Ivy Group, Tameran Vagabov, has a different opinion. He believes that local specialists are ill-qualified, so it is hard to find people for positions. He blames this on Azerbaijan’s education system. The low quality of education also hampers Azerbaijanis from finding work abroad, he says.

‘Competition is very high in the West in practically all spheres, so our specialists find it hard to be competitive’, Vagabov told OC Media.

Moreover, Vagabov says that this applies even to those who received an education abroad. ‘I myself have two American diplomas and I know from my own experience that it is much more profitable for people from Azerbaijan to return to their homeland and be above all others than to try finding work in Europe and the US, where they are in for tough competition’, he says.

Sociologist Sergey Rumyantsev disagrees. He says that in some sectors, even people graduating from Azerbaijani universities are in demand abroad. These include technical professionals such as engineers, programmers, IT specialists, and physicians.

In a recent interview with the BBC Russian Service, he said that of the people who have left Azerbaijan, many were students who received an education in Europe and stayed there.

Returning abroad

Sevda Akhundova went to Poland for the first time in 2010, receiving a scholarship from the Polish Government to obtain a master’s degree. This year in Poland changed her life.

‘This has forever changed how I felt about Azerbaijan, I couldn’t feel the same there as before. I was always freedom-loving, but then I realised that all this time our mentality, built on taboos, was weighing down on me. Our homeland is beautiful, and the people are also very nice, it’s just that many are narrow minded and don’t see beyond the boundaries set’, Sevda told OC Media.

She returned from Poland inspired by a multitude of ideas that she wanted to implement in Azerbaijan. She expected to be supported and understood, but things turned out differently. It was very difficult to get used to the Azerbaijani way of life again.

Despite her education abroad, she failed to find a job in Baku for a long time. When she did find work, she was still thinking for several years of returning to Poland.

In the end, she decided to make the move, and now she is working as a risk manager at Thomson Reuters in the Polish city of Gdańsk. ‘It was not easy to get a job in Poland, but I was lucky. There was a suitable vacancy, and a friend who gave me a recommendation. After sending my résumé, I waited for an answer for a whole year. And here I am,’ she says.

She admits she genuinely misses her homeland, often listens to Azerbaijani music, and longs for the climate. But she considers her decision to be correct. She estimates around 70% of her Azerbaijani friends and acquaintances have already gone abroad, 20% are thinking of how to do so, and the remaining 10% passively dream about it.

A globalised world

One an expert in education and youth engagement, who wished to remain anonymous, is convinced the problem is not that big.

‘To begin with, the modern world is very globalised. Mobility in the workforce, including young people, has peaked. Small states like us, Georgia, or the Baltic republics have to compete for our youth with more developed countries that can provide them with more favorable starting conditions’, he said.

He points to a paradox: the better the Azerbaijani education system and the training of young people, the more developed countries are interested in them. ‘It’s neither good nor bad; it’s life,’ he says.

He says that some measures that will be helpful will involve providing young people with more attractive starting conditions, such as access to finances to buy housing, to obtain higher education, and to create their own business. The expert also points out the need to optimise the university admission process and encouraging start-ups.

This article was prepared with support from the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) Regional Office in the South Caucasus. All opinions expressed, and terminology used are the words of the author alone, and may not necessarily reflect the views of FES or the OC Media editorial board.

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