ECMI Minorities Blog. Russian Migrants in Central Asia – An ambiguous Reception

Aziz Berdiqulov
2022-07-25
Image courtesy: shutterstock.com

*** This entry is part of the special section of the ECMI Minorities Blog on National Minorities and the War in Ukraine. ***

AuthorAziz Berdiqulov  |  https://doi.org/10.53779/ABPL3118

Since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, there has been an outflow of Russian citizens who left their country, for many reasons. Some left to carry out their businesses elsewhere because of economic sanctions imposed on Russia, while others sought a safe place for security reasons. According to some estimates, around four million people left Russia since the beginning of 2022. In most cases, people leaving the country are highly qualified specialists able to work remotely or find new employment opportunities relatively fast.

Destinations for Russians vary, and examples include Israel, Turkey, Caucasus, and Central Asia. Caucasian and Central Asian countries have become particularly popular and attractive for several reasons. Firstly, in most of these states, Russian is spoken freely and by most people, making it easier for Russians to navigate and integrate, particularly in capitals and other urban areas. Secondly, close ties with Russia and the post-Soviet legacy contribute to the familiar cultural and everyday environment for newly arrived Russians and minimize potential cultural shocks. Thirdly, compared to Russia, living costs in these countries (particularly Central Asia) are considerably lower, making them very affordable for people looking for options to settle. And finally, the rules of residence and stay are very favourable towards Russian citizens, allowing them to stay visa-free on average for 90 days and longer.

Russia and Central Asia: between minorities, labour migrants and bilateral relations.

It is important to highlight that Russians have previously lived in all Central Asian states. The biggest Russian minority resides in Kazakhstan, where they constituted around 18% of the total population as of 2022. In Kyrgyzstan, this number is just over 5%. No census was conducted in Turkmenistan, however, according to some recent estimates, the share of the Russian population in the country amounts to 2%. A similar percentage of Russians live in Uzbekistan, with the figure for Tajikistan being 0.5%. The region saw a big outflow of Russians since the collapse of the Soviet Union, when countries launched nation-building projects centered exclusively around “titular” nations (or majorities), introduced new language laws limiting the use of Russian, or faced conflicts, such as the civil war in Tajikistan.

Furthermore, the region and its former metropole maintain close relations. For example, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia (along with Armenia and Belarus) are members of the Eurasian Economic Union. Such countries as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan occasionally endeavour to keep their distance and limit Russia’s political influence, however, Russia remains their main political partner. It is also a top destination for Central Asian labour migrants, and according to some estimates over 4.2 million Central Asian citizens or 16% of the region’s economically active population has left for Russia for work. Remittances generated by labour migrants constitute a huge share of the national economies of Central Asian states. For example, in 2013, remittances made up around 52% of the GDP of Tajikistan and 31% in Kyrgyzstan. Russia often uses labour migrants as a tool to pressure Central Asian decision-makers to favour its policies.

War in Ukraine: reactions of Central Asian leaders

At the beginning of the war in Ukraine, the Central Asian leaders initially refrained from making statements in favour of any party involved. At the UN General Assembly, for example, the Central Asian representatives either abstained or did not participate in voting for resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion. As for country-level statements, Kazakh president Kassym-Jomart Tokaev, during the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, declared in the presence of Vladimir Putin and other high-level Russian politicians that Kazakhstan does not recognize the so-called “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk (LNR and DNR). So far Tokaev remains the only Central Asian leader who openly expressed his country’s position concerning the conflict in Ukraine. Sadyr Japarov, president of Kyrgyzstan, in his talks with Putin said he was in favour of a peaceful settlement of the conflict, which pro-Kremlin mass media attempted to present as Kyrgyzstan’s support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Leaders of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan so far did not make any public pronouncements concerning the war. Interestingly, the now-former Uzbek minister of foreign affairs Abdulaziz Kamilov made a statement that Uzbekistan will not recognize the DNR and LNR. Shortly after that, Kamilov was dismissed and now acts as the Deputy Secretary of Uzbekistan’s Security Council. Upon Kamilov’s dismissal, Kremlin announced that Tashkent was supportive of Russia’s “special military operation” and some experts noted that president Shavkat Mirziyoyev did not attempt to correct that. Such mild official reactions to the situation in Ukraine could perhaps be interpreted as another factor encouraging Russian migrants, as in such circumstances the risk of a potential negative reaction of the local population to those coming from the invading country might be considered as reduced.

Russian emigrants in Kazakhstan

Several groups of Russian emigrants can be distinguished. The first consists of businessmen and/or apolitical celebrities. They mostly leave temporarily, to wait out the turbulent times outside Russia but plan to come back as their income sources are there. The second group is the so-called “children’s emigration.” Many parents leave Russia with their children as they would like to provide them with Western education opportunities, free from political indoctrination and nationalist ideology. The third group of emigrants comprises high-tech specialists. These are usually IT-sector employees who can find job opportunities abroad quite fast. This type of outflow is particularly worrying for Russian authorities who came up with several measures aimed at keeping them in the country, such as the abolishment of taxes and military duty. Finally, the fourth group is political emigrants, which includes journalists, artists, and opposition leaders. Most of these people were declared “foreign agents” for co-operating with Western states or receiving foreign money for projects, and now fear criminal prosecution in Russia. Central Asian states were never a priority travel destination for Russian citizens before the war. Instead, millions of Central Asian labour migrants were practically the only point of contact with the cultures, languages, and identities of Central Asia for Russians. As a result, most of those recently arriving in the region did not have any prior first-hand knowledge about Central Asian states. But how do locals perceive the arrival of big groups of Russians in their home countries?

Kazakhstan – due to a relative familiarity - is the most popular destination among Central Asian countries for Russians who have chosen to relocate. Both countries share a long border; in recent years, many Kazakh artists gained popularity in Russia, and finally, the decision to switch to the Latin alphabet for the Kazakh language was vigorously discussed in both countries (with some experts seeing this as an attempt to limit Russia’s influence), which indirectly raised the interest of Russians in its neighbour.

There are further reasons why most Russians decided to leave for Kazakhstan. The country has one of the biggest economies in the region and therefore is seen as an attractive destination. Kazakhstan and Russia are members of the Eurasian Economic Union and its agreements make it easier for Russian citizens to access labour market. Finally, the above-mentioned significant presence of Russian minority in Kazakhstan makes Russian a language widely spoken and used in schools, theatres, law-making, politics, and many other areas of public and private lives.

Nevertheless, some Russians first seemed to be cautious about moving to Kazakhstan. Some were afraid that events similar to the January 2022 unrests might repeat. Since Kazakhstan requested the intervention through the mechanisms of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, to which Russia answered by sending military troops to suppress the riots, some experts believe that Russia, notwithstanding the recent pronouncements of Tokaev, can recall its recent support and use it for asking to deport Russian citizens back. Moreover, with the switch from Cyrillic to Latin alphabet for the Kazakh language planned for 2023-2031 as a backdrop, most Russians were sceptical about the possibility to communicate in their native language once they arrived in Kazakhstan. 

On the other hand, three opinion groups could be identified in Kazakhstan, based on attitudes towards the arrival of Russians in the country. The first group includes some internet users who expressed their concerns that because of Russians local prices will increase and that the newcomers will potentially buy “all of the rice and sugar” leaving Kazakhs with nothing. The second group was more positive and saw the influx as a chance to promote Kazakhstan as a tourist destination and increase the sale of Kazakh goods.

The third group included those who were not enthusiastic about the arrival of a big number of Russians in Kazakhstan as they fear the “russification” of the country. Underscoring such fears, for example, in January 2022, some members of the unregistered party “Different Russia of E. Limonov” conducted a rally “To Northern Kazakhstan!” in the Moscow metro. Party representatives were calling “to take away northern lands from Kazakhstan” in order to “protect the Russian people living in these territories.” According to the party’s coordinator Aksel, it was a mistake to provide military support to Kazakhstan in January 2022, without asking for guarantees for ethnic Russians living there.  He also noted that his party wanted to raise awareness concerning the violation of rights of Russians living in Kazakhstan and that Russia has a successful example of protecting Russians in Crimea. Naturally, there were Kazakh voices countering claims coming from Russia. In particular, experts stressed that the Russian language enjoys a very high status in Kazakhstan, with numerous universities, schools, and public institutions operating in Russian, while almost all Kazakhs are equally fluent in Kazakh and Russian. Furthermore, the lack of reciprocity was highlighted, with the legal status of the Kazakh language and of the Kazakh community much inferior in Russia. Regardless of such discussions, Kazakhstan sees the arrival of huge waves of Russians. According to some sources, as of June 2022, over 500 thousand came to Kazakhstan (in April 2022, this figure was 130 thousand).

Russian emigrants in Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan, on the other hand, has quickly become an attractive destination mainly for high-skilled IT specialists coming from Russia. In addition to efforts to develop an adequate internet infrastructure, the Uzbek government reacted rapidly by adopting policies offering a three-year special working visa for foreign IT specialists and their families. As of April 2022, some 5-6 thousand Russians and Belarusians, mainly IT-specialists, moved to Uzbekistan.

At the same time, the perception and expectations of incoming Russians about Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Central Asia as a whole, became a palpable challenge. For example, some thought of Uzbekistan as a “desert, where people ride donkeys and camels.” The older generation of Russians might still remember Uzbekistan fondly as the country accepted millions of refugees fleeing from Russia during World War II, including the country’s most famous artists and writers. However, the younger generation of Russians did not share this sentiment and in general had not travelled to Uzbekistan and Central Asia before, so as to form their own perception. After spending some time there, however, many Russians were reportedly impressed by the hospitality, affordable prices, local cuisine, and the possibility to communicate in Russian.

The situation is different concerning Russians who still did not leave Russia and are considering their options. In the comments section of one of the forums discussing relocation to Uzbekistan, users question the very feasibility of leaving for Uzbekistan. Particularly, they mention “allegedly low level of self-awareness among locals” and hostile attitudes towards Russians. Some users reminisce that in the 90s they would find leaflets in their post-boxes urging Russians to leave the country and that the situation did not change much since then, especially outside Tashkent. Others ridicule the idea of moving to Central Asia by comparing it to moving to Afghanistan and Pakistan. On the other hand, Uzbeks have been publishing many guidelines on how to move to Uzbekistan, stressing that they respect Russian speakers who can freely use their language and that there is no Russophobia or chauvinism in the country. This is mainly done by IT-companies and newly emerging businesses that need highly skilled specialists, especially Russian-speakers.

Although many Russians do not plan to stay in Central Asia for a long period and rather use it as a temporary way station for their further travels, usually to Europe, Turkey, the USA, and Israel, there can be some positive outcomes in a long run. In Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan or any other Central Asian state, Russian citizens have a chance to learn about local cultures, people, languages, and identities first-hand, and thus increase the level of tolerance and positive attitudes between Russians and Central Asian nations, which is an important development, given the high numbers of Central Asian labour migrants in Russia. Secondly, local budgets, services, and businesses benefit from a big number of foreign tourists and (even if only temporary) residents.

“Our” vs “stranger” Russians

What remains unclear is how Russian migrants are perceived by local Russian minorities. For example, there is no evidence of an increased need for schools with Russian as the language of instruction or demand to provide services in Russian.  This might be attributed to the fact that most of the newly arriving Russians stay in Kazakhstan only temporarily, and thus do not affect the overall legal and infrastructural situation of the Russian minority. Even less information is available for Uzbekistan.

Similarly, no statements by the Russian minorities in Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan could be found. There can be several explanations for this. First, the Russians of Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan and institutions representing them might not be willing to comment on the topic of Russian migrants (and the war in Ukraine) due to their low level of political activism and fear of potential repercussions. Second, Russians living in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan might not necessarily feel the connection to Russians coming from Russia. For example, in Kazakhstan, there seems to be a distinction between “Russian Kazakhstanis” or “their own” and “stranger Russians.”  

This aspect adds another layer of complexity to this interesting new situation resulting in a redrawing of the map of migration trends in the region. A muted reaction of the Russian minorities to this phenomenon perhaps might be also linked to the specificities of the influx of Russians, namely its very recent and most probably only temporary character. Consequently, it is too early to make even preliminary conclusions on how the Russian emigrants affect the everyday life in their host countries, let alone social attitudes mentioned above. The discussion on any lasting change will be possible only if the newly arrived decide to stay for longer and begin the process of integration with both Russian minorities and surrounding majority populations.

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