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War and Migration: Central Asian Migrant Worker Flows Amid the Ukraine Conflict

The same circumstances that do not dissuade Tajik migrants from heading to Russia drive some Russians toward Kyrgyzstan and beyond.

In the first quarter of 2023, 350,000 Tajik citizens migrated to Russia — 100,000 more than in the same period in 2022. More than 630,000 Uzbek citizens did the same, a 72 percent increase on the 366,000 that made the journey in 2022. Nearly 173,000 Kyrgyz citizens made the journey too, among others. 

When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, one of the first worries for Central Asia was the impact of the conflict on labor migrants in Russia. Those concerns were valid but ultimately misplaced: Although remittances fell in the immediate wake of the invasion and the first rounds of sanctions, the Russian ruble did not collapse as expected as the conflict persisted. By the fall of 2022, for example, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) revised its earlier estimates for the region’s economy upward, citing “a boost to consumption driven by public sector wage hikes, high remittance flows and a sharp increase in shadow trade with Russia, as well as gains in commodity exporters.” 

Instead of falling, remittances have remained strong. Given the war, Russia needs labor as much as it ever has, if not more. According to Russian authorities, almost 1.3 million foreign citizens entered Russia in the first quarter of 2023 (January 1-March 31) with “work” as the stated purpose of their visit — that’s 60 percent more than the same period in 2022.

In its May 2023 report on regional economic prospects, the EBRD noted that “Central Asian economies have proven resilient to adverse geopolitical developments related to Russia’s war on Ukraine.” When it comes to remittances, the report noted that they have “also increased on sustained labor demand in Russia and a stronger ruble.”

That said, there are valid concerns related to Central Asian migrant workers in Russia, namely regarding the nature of work shifting to the dangerous work of war. 

As RFE/RL’s Farangis Najibullah reported earlier this month: “Military recruiters ‘who were somewhat discreet in the past’ have become more open and assertive in approaching Central Asian migrants, many claim, as Russia scrambles to recruit more fighters for its army in Ukraine, which has suffered massive losses since its full-scale invasion in February 2022.”

In addition to the more aggressive recruiting at migrant centers, Najibullah noted legislative efforts targeted at drawing dual citizens into service. 

On May 6, Mikhail Matveyev, a member of the Duma, said in a post on his Telegram that “a whole army of Central Asians” receive Russian citizenship every year but, in his view, don’t contribute to Russia’s defense. “So what’s the problem? Why are they not mobilized? Where are the Tajik battalions?”

In the first quarter of 2023, according to Russian statistics, about 45,000 citizens of Tajikistan received Russian citizenship — that’s around 10,000 more than in the same period in 2022. In the 1990s Tajikistan signed a dual-citizenship agreement with Russia; Turkmenistan is the only other Central Asian country with such an agreement with Moscow. Other Central Asians who acquire Russian citizenship are not recognized as dual citizens by the Russian government — dual citizenship is also not officially recognized by the governments of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, or Uzbekistan. Nevertheless, in the first quarter of 2023 almost 7,000 people from Kazakhstan, 5,400 from Kyrgyzstan, and 4,700 from Uzbekistan became Russian citizens (plus 912 from Turkmenistan).

As Tajik migrants interviewed by RFE/RL’s Tajik Service noted, there is a clear economic incentive for obtaining Russian citizenship and a lengthy history of Tajiks migrating to Russia and becoming Russian citizens. As difficult as life in Russia may be, prospects are still better than remaining in Tajikistan. The war in Ukraine has not served to turn Tajiks away. One Tajik who obtained Russian citizenship in the last year told RFE/RL’s Najibullah that he liked living in Russia, but said he wouldn’t serve in the military in Ukraine: “Maybe, I would have fought for Russia if it was attacked… But Russia is the aggressor in this war. I don’t feel bad about not fighting for Russia in Ukraine.”

Earlier this year, RFE/RL identified at least 14 Tajiks who had been prisoners in Russia who died in Ukraine. At least one told his wife that he was being forced to go. This mirrors wider reporting that Russia, suffering immense casualties in Ukraine, has been sending convicts to the frontline, primarily via private military companies like the notorious Wagner Group.

Dual citizens in Russia may have increasing cause for worry as the war drags on. Matveyev’s Telegram post typifies one vein of thinking in which Central Asians who have been naturalized as Russian citizens can be cast as not doing their part in the “defense” of Russia — this also builds on decades of nationalistic and paternalist attitudes toward Central Asians more broadly that have long undergirded mistreatment of migrant workers in the country.

Even as Central Asians continue to follow in the footsteps of their countryfolk and migrate to Russia, some taking Russian citizenship, the reverse flow kicked off by the September 2022 “partial mobilization” has evolved into new business ventures aimed at acquiring other citizenship for Russians. 

In a recent RFE/RL report, Najibullah and Toktosun Shambetov highlight private firms charging between $1,500 and $14,000 for assisting Russian citizens in navigating the process to obtain Kyrgyz citizenship. Kyrgyzstan, unlike Tajikistan, does not have a dual-citizenship agreement with Russia, which places those who acquire a second citizenship in an interesting place in which two countries may consider them a citizen while not necessarily recognizing their other citizenship. At the same time, this would allow a Russian citizen who has also obtained Kyrgyz citizenship to travel with their Kyrgyz passport rather than the Russian one.

Najibullah and Shambetov reported that, according to the Kyrgyz Population Registration Department, “1,631 Russian citizens applied for Kyrgyz passports between January and the end of September 2022. That is an increase of more than 400 percent from the same period in 2021, when 385 Russian nationals applied for Kyrgyz citizenship.”

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Flows of people — driven by myriad motivations, though often economic interests — like flows of water follow the path of least resistance. The same circumstances that do not dissuade Tajik migrants from heading to Russia drive some Russians toward Kyrgyzstan and arguably beyond, with a Kyrgyz passport in hand.

Source: The Diplomat