• Jakub Stepaniuk

Tackling Migration: can Russia’s Economic Crisis destabilise Central Asia?

Source: https://studyinrussia.ru/en/life-in-russia/arriving-in-russia/migration-law/ (Shutterstock)

Eurocentric discourses on the recent migration crisis in the EU often make it extraordinary and exceptional. Media and politicians tend to portray the ongoing influx of people as if they were plagues which clustered to haunt and punish poor Europeans for everything what happened in the undetermined past. As far as I can agree with the pure statistics, saying that nowadays there are indeed more migrants and refugees coming than ten years ago (and we, Europeans, did contribute to some extent to make these numbers higher than originally expected), the current migration crisisis definitely neither historically extraordinarynor geographically exceptional. Having a look at hundreds of instances of past armed conflicts, xenophobic policies and imperialistic dreams, will be enough to prove a simple sociological thesis: migration is nothing more than a normal and natural phenomenon occurring in history to resonate any change of social environment. Similar to the European way, migration takes place everywhere, while extraordinaryand exceptionalepithets often adorn the one in Latin America or the one I want to analyse here – Central Asia.

I will try to make it as easy as it can be through dividing the past thirty years of Central Asian migrations into three continuous stages. The first one was anything but a reaction to the fall of Soviet Union. The emergence of new nation states along the borders, which so far were supposed to facilitate Soviet administration, forced thousands (not to say millions) of people to adjust to a completely new political reality. Those who did not fit in often decided to change their place of residence. As communism theoretically quelled nationalism, it did not really matter that Ukrainians worked in Uzbekistan or Azerbaijanis in Kazakhstan, all of them were Soviet citizens anyway. Beyond the ones who were happy to move around, plenty of USSR citizens were callously forced to abandon their homes and pushed to other republics (especially during the Stalinist era). The collapse of the Soviet fatherland, which was substituted with new national entities, turned thousands of people into members of new national minorities. As nationality proved to be a viable ingredient of new state-building projects, many decided to reverse their Soviet fate and came back to their pre-1917 homes.

The first wave of migration continued until the end of the past century. Soon after, it started to increase again. Apart from their nationality, there emerged new numerous reasons which made the people to leave Central Asia. One of the most significant arguments was definitely a widespread impoverishment and dramatic conditions of economies which, deprived of the Soviet support, could not endure local needs of employment. Secondly, new political regimes turned out to be much more repressive than Gorbachev’s human face, therefore everyone who found himself or herself in opposition to the authoritarian governments (sometimes called sultanistic) eventually found in a prison cell. Thirdly, absent or latent during the Soviet past, ethnic tensions between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz or Islamic radicalism in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan appeared as additional threats to local security and stability. No one should be therefore surprised as many could not stand new challenges and decided to find a more liveable place, mainly in Russia.

State statistical offices of Central Asian countries proudly uphold discourses of leading presidents to describe their fatherlands in colours of golden paradises. If information concerning the thousands who left those fatherlands due to poverty or persecution was published it would be considered a critical punch to governmental policies, therefore the state numbers pretend that nothing bad is actually happening [1]. More reliable data comes from the Russian border security forces. The estimated number of arrivals determined as the ones with a professional purpose show that in the peak time there were around 600 thousands of Kyrgyz, 1.5 millions of Tajiks and 3 millions of Uzbeks in the country. While almost one third of the Kyrgyz GDP was made out of remittances, in Tajikistan this figure reached a record value of 49%. In addition, with statistics on Kazakh students who send a clear signal of preference to study abroad (70 thousands estimated to study in Russia and 17 thousands in China), one can agree that the issue of migration is common for all Central Asian states (except for Turkmenistan, where the Niyazov and Berdimuhamedov authorities banned everything what associates with human freedom, including travelling abroad).

Millions of low-cost workers from Central Asia turned out to pay off for Russia as well. The demand of numerous factories for cheap labour forces seems to be fulfilled while Moscow can simultaneously take political advantage. Dependency on Russian remittances serves as a great leverage to exert pressure to keep Bishkek, Tashkent and Dushanbe within the grip of its own sphere of influence. Strong economic interconnectivity translates also into preserving the Russian language with the status of a local lingua franca or prevalence of Russian media outlets and culture. All of these consequently allow Moscow to develop its glorious geopolitical project of the Eurasian Economic Union. While Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are already part of the alliance, rising pressure might urge Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to join it in the future as well.

However, recent figures show a gradual decline of the number of economic migrants from Central Asia. Many identify the serious economic crisis which stroke Russia, evoked by the sanctions introduced after Crimean crisis in 2014, as well as decreasing global prices for gas and crude oil to be a key reason. Rising social scepticism towards Central Asian newcomers is also noticeable as Russian nationalists complain about their reluctance to integrate with local communities. Accusations of spreading radical Islam, joining organised crime networks or contributing to terrorist activity stimulate violence and exclusion. Does it mean that the second wave of migration will terminate soon? As the economic crisis in Russia will definitely influence the migration, it is quite hard to imagine all the workers coming home as Central Asian economies are still too feeble to accommodate them at their own labour markets. Since the majority of Moldavian and Ukrainian migrants left, preferring to work in the EU [2], it is more than probable that Russian enterprises will haunt for subsidiary cheap labour force (and Central Asia turns out to be a main source here). In the light of growing Chinese presence and its Belt and Road Initiative, targeting Central Asia with a particular significance, Russia will definitely struggle to maintain current influences. Since remittance dependency serves so far as the strongest card in Moscow’s geopolitical deck to blackmail Central Asian authorities, measures limiting the number of migrants will rather stay only in the mouths of nationalists.

Consequences of the Russian economic crisis might be more serious when taking the perspective of Central Asian migrants. In case the Russian market will not be attractive anymore, it is probable that the variety of destinations becomes more colourful. Phenomena already occurring, show that plenty of people would rather stay in the region and work in more affluent Kazakhstan or move to culturally close Turkey. The future of Central Asian migration is also going to depend on decisions and interests shown by the EU and China. As the numbers of labour forces in Russia will continue to decrease I would not be far from the truth to state that Central Asian migration is currently entering its third stage. Referring to the main thesis of this paper, migration is just a natural sociological process meaning that the aftermath of Russian economic crisis would sooner diversify the palette of labour destinations than destabilise Central Asian economic security.

[1] Following the state statistics: 37 thousands left Kazakhstan in 2018, 7 thousands left Kyrgyzstan in 2018, 41 thousands left Tajikistan in 2017; similar figures are provided for the numbers of arrivals making the migration rate close to zero.

[2] The consequence of EU visa liberalisation policy introduced in 2016/2017 in the aftermath of Association Agreements with Moldova and Ukraine.

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