The Southern Caucasus has a brain drain problem

Image by Eryk Fudala. Free to use under the Unsplash License.

This article is based on an article series originally published by Chaikhana Media. An edited version has been republished here under a content partnership agreement.

Young people and professionals from Southern Caucasus are increasingly seeking out opportunities abroad, citing local unemployment, a lack of feasible job opportunities, and limited prospects for the future in their home countries. The overall declining environment for civic space only exacerbates the situation. The CIVICUS Monitor tracking civic space freedoms lists Azerbaijan in the category of “closed,” Armenia as “obstructed,” and Georgia as “narrowed.” Meanwhile, the 2021 Youth Progress Report produced by the European Youth Forum ranked Armenia 43rd, Georgia 53rd, and Azerbaijan 83rd in its Youth Progress Index out of 150 countries.

According to this global index study by Global Economy, Armenia ranks first when it comes to “human flight and brain drain,” followed by Georgia and then Azerbaijan.

Armenia

The Armenian government has adopted several measures to stymie brain drain, although the impact has been muted. In May 2021, the government passed an action plan which aims at “preventing brain drain, reducing unwanted emigration flows from the point of view of sustainable human development of Armenia.” The “2014–2025 Strategic Plan for Perspective Development of the RA” notes Armenia’s scientific community has particularly suffered since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Recent studies find employment is a major driver for people leaving the country. Participants in the 2022 “Capturing migration in Armenian and regional contexts” study conducted by the Caucasus Research Resource Center-Armenia Foundation (CRRC-Armenia) reported security concerns and employment as the main motivators to emigrate. However, a 2021 study by CRRC-Armenia found that the majority of people living in Armenia are more interested in temporary migration (57 percent of respondents) rather than permanent relocation (33 percent of respondents).

A study by the International Organization for Migration recommended several steps to reduce migration, including improved education, greater employment opportunities, efforts to address inequality, and cooperation with the diaspora.

But these initiatives have not stopped young Armenians from leaving, like 27-year-old Nora Galstyan, who told Chaikhana Media in an interview that she “ran away from the life and reality in Armenia.” Galstyan is based in Germany and works as a human resource management specialist. In Armenia, she fought daily for such basic norms as the freedom to make her own decisions, she told Chaikhana Media. “The demand for constant explanations, excuses, and justifications were exhausting, and at some point, I realized that I can no longer live like that,” she said in an interview.

Georgia

In neighboring Georgia, the situation is not that much better due to a lack of educational reform and poor employment incentives.

Four months into the pandemic, 21-year-old Nika Gogitidze gave up looking for work in Georgia and resumed his computer science studies in Qatar. He had returned home when the COVID-19 lockdowns started, but after months of fruitless searching, he realized his skills were not needed in his native country.

The outflow of intellectual resources is a complex problem in Georgia, which has limited demographic and intellectual resources, noted Natia Gorgadze, a researcher specializing in education and a program manager at the Center for Civil Integration and Inter-Ethnic Relations. She told Chaikhana Media:

Unfortunately, today our country's employment market is limited in scope. There are fields where employment is practically impossible to find or it is impossible to get a decent salary, therefore, specialists who find themselves in other countries and see their own professional success there, in the long term, obviously, are leaving their homeland.

Others cite failures within the education system, like the economist and entrepreneur Marina Pkhovelishvili. According to Pkhovelishvili, it is the lack of skill-building infrastructure that is pushing young people to stay abroad after they complete their studies. “Unfortunately, Georgia is not characterized by a lot of technological infrastructure, which creates the most relevant ‘pull factors’ in the process of brain drain,” Pkhovelishvili told Chaikhana Media.

The 25-year-old Teona Dolidze is just of many young Georgians who left because of these deficiencies. In an interview with Chaikhana Media, Dolidze said she was unable to find an educational establishment in Georgia that could offer her education in viticulture. As a result, she found better opportunities in Italy, where she is now based.

Azerbaijan

In Azerbaijan, brain drain is also nothing new. But unlike Armenia and Georgia, here the state deliberately developed scholarship programs to send Azerbaijani students abroad, in an attempt to develop human capital who would then return home and share the new knowledge. Most recently, the government launched a program to encourage young people to study in high-demand professions abroad to help develop the sectors at home. This program promises to fund the education of up to 400 students a year who have been accepted to select bachelor's and master's programs abroad. To date, out of 673 applicants, only 80 were selected for a bachelor’s degree program and 149 for a master’s degree. Similar to previous government-sponsored scholarship programs, once students graduate, they are expected to return to Azerbaijan and work for five years.

But education and migration specialists warn that the initiative falls short of addressing the myriad reasons causing brain drain. Chief among them is the lack of employment opportunities for recent graduates as well as the lack of quality education provided at home. One study from October 2022 by the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection of the Population found that one of every 25 people between 20–25 years old are unable to find a job in Azerbaijan. As such, although there are few official statistics about emigration from Azerbaijan, international studies show there has been a steady increase over the past few years, following a period of declining numbers.

Lack of well-paying jobs — or job prospects altogether — as well as old-fashioned social norms, are keeping some of the students disinterested in returning.

Ulkar Mammadzada, 29, received a government scholarship under a previous iteration of the program, which ran from 2007–2015. She is now working in Dubai as a revenue growth manager at Hilton Worldwide.

Even though the government takes good care of students attending this program, Ulkar said she never worked in Azerbaijan and moved to Dubai for a job offer right after graduating. “I remember there was an interview with the president [Ilham Aliyev]. He said, ‘we don’t mind if our graduates stay abroad because they are also representing the country abroad. There aren't too many Azerbaijanis abroad, so it is a good representation.’ So I kind of hung on to those words,” she told Chaikhana Media.

“I would love to work in Azerbaijan if I could actually make a difference…one of the reasons I wanted to leave Azerbaijan in the first place was because there was so much injustice and unfairness when it comes to so many things. It is so demotivating, and I don’t want that [injustice] to happen to me… I don’t want to be stuck there looking for a job.”

Others like Osman Gunduz, who heads the Azerbaijan Internet Forum, are hopeful. Speaking to Chaikhana Media, Gunduz cited the opening of technoparks, industrial parks and the launch of new green energy infrastructure as incentives for students currently enrolled in educational programs abroad to return to Azerbaijan and find well-suited positions in the course of the next three to five years.

But whether all three South Caucasus nations succeed at reverting its ongoing brain drain remains to be seen.

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