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In October 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a mobilisation order, eight months after invading Ukraine, marking the first mobilisation since the Second World War. The statement immediately sent waves of Russians fleeing conscription, with many seeking refuge in Central Asia.
Since the war in Ukraine began in February, Central Asia and the Caucasus have become attractive destinations for Russians. The regions offer lower living costs, Russian-language prominence, a familiar post-Soviet cultural environment, and friendly visa-free agreements. However, for Central Asia countries, this has come at a cost. As people flee Putin, Central Asian countries are struggling to cope.
Russians Seek Refuge in Central Asia
Russian minorities in Central Asia existed before the sharp post-mobilisation increase, with around 18% of Kazakhstan’s population identifying as ethnically Russian and between 5% – 0.5% in other Central Asian countries, but this figure has now become unknown with the unexpected influx of Russians. Russian citizens enjoy 90 days visa-free in Kazakhstan, 60–days in Uzbekistan, and indefinite periods in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Meanwhile, Turkmenistan requires a pre-approved visa available for pick-up on arrival in the country.
Kazakhstan’s interior minister, Marat Akhmetzhanov, stated 200 000 Russian citizens had entered the country since the mobilisation announcement amid the ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Kazakh authorities also recorded scores of Russians had entered the country with ambitions to move further into neighbouring Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Meanwhile, around 147 000 Russian citizens left Kazakhstan, although their end destination is unknown. Between September 21 and October 4, approximately 70 000 Russian citizens applied and received personal identification indicating they wished to work and move their banking to Kazakhstan, according to the statistics released by the Digital Development Ministry. Moscow revamped their conscription strategies in response to the influx of border crossings, particularly with Kazakhstan, which shares a 7 644-kilometre border with Russia. Mobile conscription centres were moved to catch fleeing Russians, ultimately resulting in a decrease in migrational flows.
In Kyrgyzstan, authorities report that more than 7 000 Russians have applied for citizenship, and at least 192 000 Russian citizens have arrived in the country since the beginning of the war, with around 600 successfully obtaining Kyrgyz nationality. Deputy Minister of Digital Development says citizenship was granted to those who are investing in the country, and it has not been rewarded to those fleeing military service.
Uzbek officials have yet to release any official numbers, but analysts say Uzbekistan received a similar amount of refugees to their Central Asia counterparts.
Back in Russia, Some Central Asian Citizens Face Forced Russian Military Conscription
The fleeing of Russia has restricted the ability of Central Asian nationals to leave Russia, who have also faced unfair conscription. Around four million migrants live in Russia, including two million Uzbeks, who primarily work in agriculture and construction. The war is risking major unemployment for Central Asian workers, many of whom lack permits. The increased economic strain due to western sanctions could exacerbate xenophobia, causing some employers to hire newly unemployed Russians. Western companies leaving Russia, as well as many companies collapsing as the economy deteriorates, may prompt employers to lay off Central Asian workers in favour of Russians, potentially leading to nationals returning.
According to reports from human rights defenders, Central Asian migrants, along with non-Russian minorities, have disproportionately fallen target to Moscow’s sweeping recruitment. Migrants working in Russia have been enrolled in the Russian military, with many accounts indicating they were conscripted at migration centres. Concurrently, some cases involve individuals without paperwork and Russian residency being forced to sign military service papers.
It is unclear how many Central Asian citizens, and dual nationals, have been drafted by the Kremlin since the sweeping mobilisation. These reports have led to some Central Asian leaders reiterating a ban on their citizens from participating in the war in Ukraine, warning nationals may face penalties for involvement.
The Unprecedented Influx of Migrants Places Stress on Central Asia
At the beginning of 2022, Central Asian countries were concerned with refugee flows from Afghanistan following the Taliban’s takeover. No authorities expected scores of Russian refugees to pour into the region, and naturally, they have immensely struggled to handle the vast number of migrants continuing to enter the country. Some arrivals are affluent and can afford to invest back into the economy. In contrast, others, especially young men who left rapidly in September have been relying on locals.
Across Central Asia, the cost of living including rent has skyrocketed, with many hotels and hostels unable to spare beds. Likewise, a simple ripple effect is felt across the Caucasus states. Some locals are worried that they may be evicted from their homes to make way for Russians willing to pay a higher rent. In Tajikistan, rent prices have increased between 13% and 20% as hotels remain overcrowded with Russians, many arriving as family units. In Uzbekistan, 150-dollar apartments are being increased to 400, threatening locals, who could be thrown into a non-vacant rental market as property owners are taking advantage of the situation by deliberately raising prices. Overall, consumer demand for food, medicine, clothes, services and transport has dramatically increased.
Tension Between Central Asia and Russia Rises
The contemporary imperialist relationship between Russia and Central Asian countries is predicated by a long colonial history. The region has started to solidify a more assertive line taking advantage of Moscow’s economy and reliance on Central Asian trade routes to evade sanctions. Tajikistan President Emomali Rakhmon has expressed that the Kremlin’s attitude towards Central Asia has not improved since the collapse of Central Asia, even addressing Putin directly, stating: “We have always respected the interests of our main strategic partner,” adding “we want respect too.”
While Western partners observe the region from afar, China is the least interested in seeing Russia retaliate against the Central Asian states, having invested billions of dollars in regional infrastructure projects. In September 2022, on the way to Samarkand to attend a summit of the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Chinese leader Xi Jinping visited Astana, where he said that China supported Kazakhstan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. It remains to be seen, therefore, whether this impromptu parachuting of Russians into Central Asia will create an opportunity for the reconsidering of mutual relations—if not at an official level, then at least at a societal level.
The war in Ukraine has also seen Central Asia countries taking steps away from Moscow, with Russia’s regional relationships becoming increasingly strained. During a visit to St. Petersburg, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomat Tokayev dismissed Putin’s claims on Ukraine. Later, a Rossiya 24 interviewer suggested Kazakhstan is somewhat beholden to Russia, to which Tokayev responded by stating, “in Russia, some people distort this whole situation, asserting that Russia supposedly saved Kazakhstan, and Kazakhstan should now eternally serve and bow down to the feet of Russia,” adding this is “far from reality.” Tokayev notably held no bilateral meeting with Putin during his hosting of the CIS summit.
Central Asia economies will not be able to absorb the possibility of a major and sudden inflow of returning workers as some may look to return home permanently due to the weakening of the Russian ruble. Although Central Asian countries and Russia have held strong economic ties since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the foundation has weakened now as sanction-heavy Russia has seen its economic activities contract. This trend will have a ripple impact on Central Asia in the immediate and long term, likely pushing them closer to Turkey. Russians can contribute positively to Central Asia countries, given they integrate successfully and invest in their host countries. Nonetheless, the influx of refugees and tricking in of returning citizens on the heels of a weakening Kremlin economic ecosystem has Central Asian governments hoping for an end to Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Perri Grace is a disinformation and geopolitical analyst specialising in hybrid warfare and propaganda within authoritarian regimes. She holds a MA in Conflict and Security from the United Nations Institute of Training and Research, where she completed her research in international law and disinformation. Perri is a researcher in the Platform’s Central Asia Programme.