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Migrants Take Hit From Ruble's Freefall

  • Farangis Najibullah

Saadi Solehov was recently forced to shutter the stall at a southwestern Moscow market where he peddled clothing for the past four years -- the fall of the ruble was too much for the young Tajik's business to take.

"My income is in rubles but have to send home dollars," the 24-year-old Solehov says. "I would earn 30,000 rubles monthly, at best -- roughly $1,000. After paying for my food and rent, I was regularly sending home $400 until September."

That's about the time the ruble, which had been slowly depreciating throughout the year, entered an increasingly sharp fall.

The Russian currency had begun the year at a rate of about 33 to the dollar, but as the effects of international sanctions imposed over the Ukraine crisis began to emerge it neared 40 by the end of September, hit 50 in November, and plummeted to an all-time low of nearly 80 on December 16, before recovering to about 60.

For Solehov, it means his family of 12 -- which depends on the remittances he sends home to Tajikistan every month -- is suffering greatly. But they are far from alone. Like Solehov, millions of migrants across Central Asia and Europe who depend on Russia for their livelihoods are feeling the pinch as well.

Russia is one of the world's largest migrant destinations, with 1.1 million legally registered to work there (according to Russia's Federal Migrations Service) and an estimated 3.5 million more illegally.

Working in construction, manufacturing, and agriculture, they send billions of dollars in remittances to their home countries, many of which depend on the inflow to buttress their economies.

Among the Central Asian states -- Russia's largest source of migrants -- Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are first and second, respectively, on the World Bank's list of remittance-dependent countries.

In Armenia, remittances made up more than 17 percent of GDP in 2013, although private money transfers have been in steady decline in recent months.

And in Moldova, where remittances made up a quarter of GDP in 2013, cash flow from Russia has shrunk by nearly 19 percent this year.

Future Not Bright

But if migrants and their families are anxious to see the end of a bad fiscal year, they shouldn't expect better fortunes in 2015, according to analysts.

Firuz Saidov, a Dushanbe-based independent analyst, predicts that Tajikistan will feel the real impact of the ruble's fall next year. "The ruble's serious decline began around September and October, which roughly is the end of the labor-migration season," Saidov explains. "Most of the migrants returned home by November and, as usual, will spend their money until the beginning of the next season, in April."

When the money runs out, the many domestic business and jobs that depend on the money made in Russia -- restaurants, bazaars, etc. -- will take a hit. "As people's purchasing power drops, these places will be out of business, too," Saidov says.

Ruslan Eshimov the head of Zamandash, a Kyrgyz migrant association in Moscow, predicts that "there will be fewer jobs for migrants in Russia next year" if the ruble crisis continues. And that means that Kyrgyzstan will feel the impact, he adds.

In the meantime, former clothing-stall owner Solehov is busy looking for work. With jobs hard to come by at home, returning to Tajikistan is not an option, he says. Times are tough in his home village of Eloki, 50 kilometers west of Dushanbe, where his family's plans are on hold for now.

His mother, Mutabar Mirzoeva, says there is no money to hold her son's planned wedding, and that means the new home they were constructing for him and his bride has also been halted.

The family "will complete the construction and get Saadi married when the situation improves in the future," she says, but for now the house will stand half-built while the Solehovs focus on more immediate needs, like simply putting food on the table.

Written and reported by Farangis Najibullah with contributions from Tom Balmforth in Moscow and Zarangez Navruzshoh in Dushanbe
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