Why Central Asian Labor Migrants Keep Coming to Russia Post-War
A significant number of Central Asian citizens have been moving to Russia under the label of labor migrants since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Some Central Asian states became economically dependent on remittances, while Russia, on Central Asian cheap labor. More recently, labor migration became a crucial concern for Russian officials, mainly because of the demographic issues it expects to have in the coming years: the aging of the working population will slow down the digitalization of the economy, life expectancy and healthy life expectancy will increase, the proportion of people living alone will rise, frequent changes of different generations are expected, as well as the growth of cities and concentration of population in cities of regional significance and megacities, along with intellectual emigration (brain drain).
In response to the demographic crisis, temporary labor migration has become a sought-after resource for the Russian economy. As of May 2021, the number of labor migrants amounted to 2.68 million people, which accounts for 95% of all labor migrants – most of them are citizens of Central Asian countries. The leading suppliers of immigrants are Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
Unfortunately, there is not much research on the economic effect of immigrants, and the media rarely publish information that reveals the real-time economic component of immigration. One of the rare finds is the report by the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Russia published in “Izvestia” on the funds received by the country’s budget in the period from 2015 to 2020 due to the issuance of patents (a document that entitles a foreign citizen or stateless person who arrived in Russia in a manner that does not require a visa to work for an individual or legal entity) to foreign citizens. Advance payments for patents for the period from 2015 to 2021 amounted to 386 billion rubles. To a large extent, the Russian budget receives most of its revenues through registered patents provided by immigrants from Uzbekistan (60% in 2020) and Tajikistan (36% in 2020).
While it is too early to say that Russia might be a country dependent on labor migrants, it is fair to say that attracting labor migrants is undoubtedly a priority. For instance, The Concept of the State Migration Policy of the Russian Federation for 2019–2025 – one of the most crucial documents in the migration sphere, refers to strategic planning documents that were developed taking into account the strategies of national security and socio-economic development of the Russian Federation. This document substantiates the need to increase immigration flows and notes that migration policy aims to create a situation that meets the country’s interests.
In addition, as Kommersant reported at the end of September 2022, when partial mobilization began in Russia, the authorities of most of the Central Asian republics issued appeals in which they warned fellow citizens “not to participate in hostilities on the territory of foreign states.” Otherwise, they would face criminal punishment in their homeland for being “mercenaries.” Some precedents are as follows. As the AiF newspaper reports, the special services of Kyrgyzstan opened a case against Almaz Kudabek back in April. He declared himself the commander of the “Turkic battalion” Turan “in the Armed Forces of Ukraine.” A citizen of Kazakhstan, against whom a criminal case was opened in the Summer of 2022, could face up to nine years in prison if his participation in the armed conflict on the territory of Ukraine is confirmed. These and similar cases of calling out labor migrants by Central Asian governments, including naming and shaming by civil society, caused anxiety among Russian officials and media: that there will be a decline in the Central Asian labor migrant force.
Notwithstanding the challenges above, there are several reasons not to expect a decrease in labor migrant flows to Russia. First is the small nature of the labor market at home for Central Asian migrants. Despite the decrease in the number of jobs in Russia and the depreciation of the ruble, the Cabinet of Ministers of Kyrgyzstan does not expect a massive return of compatriots. The Minister of the Economy of the Kyrgyz Republic, Amangeldiev, is sure that the Kyrgyz people who have been laid off will find another job. And if not, the Cabinet of Ministers will try to redirect them to other countries since there are few vacancies in Kyrgyzstan.
Moving more to the West from Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan’s population is actively growing. According to demographic forecasts, by 2030, 900-950 thousand new citizens will be born in the country annually. As a result, by 2030, the country’s population will exceed 41 million people. Estimates show that the number of young people under 18 and the adult working population will also actively grow among the age groups. This is a crucial challenge for Uzbekistan for the next decade because all these people will have to be integrated into the economy, which will require creating new jobs for them. This will hardly be possible in the foreseeable future without labor migration. Even today, the domestic economy cannot provide everyone with sufficient jobs.
Another and more important reason not to expect a decline in labor migrants is Putin’s incentivization techniques. In 2023, a number of changes will come into force that will significantly simplify the process of building labor relations between workers from the EAEU and employers in Russia. The main ones are:
In 2023, Federal Law No. 240 of July 14, 2022, comes into force. It states that working migrants will be able to change the purpose of entry without leaving the territory of the state of employment. In practice, it works like this: for example, when crossing the border, a migrant indicates the purpose of the visit – tourism and then decides to get a job. The employer, who is ready to employ him, transmits information that he plans to hire a migrant, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs makes changes to the system.
In November of 2022, President Vladimir Putin signed a decree giving foreigners the right to serve on conscription in the Russian army. The decree also assumes that citizens with dual citizenship will be able to serve under the contract in the positions of a soldier, sailor, sergeant, foreman, warrant officer, midshipman, or officer.
At the end of February, Putin issued another decree, simplifying foreign citizens’ military service conditions. Now the first contract for military service with foreigners can be concluded in one year. Previously, the contract was supposed to last at least five years. Under Putin’s decree, foreigners who signed a contract with the Armed Forces can acquire Russian citizenship in a simplified manner – without a residence permit and without complying with the requirement of continuous residence in the Russian Federation for five years. This became the most significant incentive for Central Asian migrants to sign contracts with the Armed Forces.
To solidify the argument of this article, after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, citizens from Central Asia received a record number of Russian passports despite the threat of being mobilized and sent to the war zone. Over the past year, contrary to economists’ forecasts, the level of labor migration, among other things, returned to the pre-pandemic level.
Prepared by Darina Zhunussova. September 20, 2023.