The ritual is the same everyday. Monday through Friday, Elkhan Mammadov wakes up, has his breakfast with eggs, cheese, and tea and by 9 o’clock am he is at the local Employment Centre in Astara, Azerbaijan’s southernmost city where he was born 25 years ago. There he asks if a job post has opened up, hoping for something more than the occasional job sweeping the floor at the department of housing and communal services (DHCS). And everyday, Monday to Friday, the answer is no - the same since he returned from his military service, five years ago.
As he gets another no, Mammadov storms out, feeling increasingly hopeless. Five years of constant unemployment have taken a toll on the trained locksmith but he cannot leave and search for work elsewhere as his sick mother depends on him - and his occasional, poorly paid, jobs.
“Gardening or cleaning pay 150 manat ($88), at most. It is not enough to live on and cover the the cost of medicine. I become more pessimistic every time I face yet another failure.”
He sits nervously in the local chai khana, or tea house, where he drowns his frustration in tea and endless discussions with people like him - young and unemployed.
“It is difficult, especially in the outlying districts like here,” they all agree.
Azerbaijani youth under 30 comprise 31 percent of the total population of 9.8 million and almost half of them live in rural areas - among them the official unemployment rate is 9.2, substantially higher than the average 5 percent.
Reality however, is grimmer than the official figures, economists maintain.
“Unemployment hits the younger generation more severely and those living in the regions increasingly need to migrate abroad for work,” explains Azer Mehdiyev who heads the Baku-based NGO Assistance to Economic Initiatives. “Over the last year authorities have launched various programs to support self-employment but they are not sufficient for the whole population.”
Russia and Turkey are the leading countries Azerbaijani migrants choose, but in recent years Poland has been added to the list. It is part of the EU, experts say, it offers good working conditions but it requires a less demanding visa process. Various agencies operate both in Poland and in Azerbaijan. Rufat Ahmadzade who heads the Azerbaijani branch of the Polish job placement firm Avanti Group company, states that the number of youth going abroad for work is increasing by the day.
“Many of them hope to use the Polish visa as a springboard to move to Western Europe.”
The director of a local Azerbaijani firm, who wants to remain anonymous, says they link Polish factories, enterprises and farms with Azerbaijanis seeking work - customers are mainly between 20 and 40, and wages start from $800 - a small fortune for people like Mammadov.
“There are thousands of Azerbaijanis working in the construction sector in Warsaw and Krakow,” he explains. “Several migrants join forces and rent apartments together to share the expenses and save more money. Food is not expensive, so they are able to send their savings to their families back home.”
Increasing employment and the level of education is in the government’s agenda and theEmployment Strategy of Azerbaijan for 2019-2030 pans out schemes to reduce them to 15 percent of the share of people between 15 and 24 years of age, the most vulnerable group, not enrolled in the labor market or without education.
Mammadov certainly does not feel as optimistic - he joins Asker, an old schoolmate, in his 1980s Moskvich and drive outside town, hoping to scrape up some money as a daily labourer in one of the farms that dots the countryside.
“Daily labour does not come as often as in the past. Yes, you were overloaded with work and got little money in return, but at least it was something. The devaluation of the manat in 2015 hit entrepreneurs who went bankrupt, so job opportunities dived. Now, those who managed to survive employ their relatives, to support them,” sighs Mammadov.
After 20 minutes passed between complaints about the lack of work and bumps on the muddy road, the Moskvich enters the village of Penser and heads to the farm of an acquaintance of Asker’s who has provided daily work for a few friends of his. Yet, business is not as good as usual - there is nothing for Mammadov: the farmer says he has been hardly been able to pay wages over the last three months. Family-run farms like his struggle. The largest facilities with modern technologies keep small farmers out of business, and they are government-backed.
“So you will need a job for yourself soon,” grins Mammadov.
Astara is a complex region. A short walk from the main city, also known as Azerbaycan Astarasi, takes you across the border to the homonym Iranian town - one name for two cities in two countries whose history of tense relations means long queues and eternal border control. The local economy revolves around agriculture, tea and citrus mainly with farms also engaged in livestock breeding, fishing and beekeeping. Azerbaijan’s state budget forecast for 2019 states that Astara joined the districts not requiring government subsidies as the region’s income can meet its expenses. Most small farmers however do not harvest the fruit of this alleged wealth. Despite the land reform carried out since the collapse of the Soviet Union, small farms cannot compete with large businesses and face problems like limited access to water, high prices of fertilizer and the lack of funds to purchase modern machinery.
As employment is hard to come by people are increasingly tempting luck - and turn to gambling. Sport betting facilities have mushroomed since 2011 when the government relaxed a ban introduced in 1998 in “a morality drive” in the aftermath of a scandal which involved the current President Ilham Aliyev. Casinos are still prohibited, but lotteries and sport betting thrive, the latter monopolized by TOPAZ, the country’s largest operator of online sportbooks. In Astara, like across the country, the customers’ age ranges between 20 and 35 years of age.
“Many people are addicted to Topaz around here, there is nothing to do, no work, no entertainment. Many lost their homes and families. I wish we’d be busy enough to forget about betting,” sighs Mammadov.
Like Mammadov, they hedge their bets, dreaming to return home with additional cash in their pockets. More often than not, they return with less. What remains is a vicious circle of hope and disillusionment - and regular, increasingly pointless, visits to the employment centre.
Millennials, February/March 2019