For years, Tolkunbek Akmatov spent long hours driving freight trucks and taxis through Moscow’s notoriously hectic traffic. An immigrant originally from Kyrgyzstan, moving to Russia allowed Akmatov to occasionally send money to relatives in his home country and put his two sons through university.
But for many migrants in Russia these days, success stories have become rarer.
“Work is disappearing and everyday things become more difficult [for migrants],” said Akmatov, who previously ran a Kyrgyz diaspora organization in Russia called Nookat.
The Russian economy has so far proved very resilient to the war. Economists believe sanctions could eventually devastate Russia’s economy, but the effects are taking longer than expected. Russia’s GDP contracted by more than 3% this year, but that’s less than half of what the International Monetary Fund originally predicted.
Similar to the COVID-19 pandemic, the war’s economic effects are hitting essential workers in Russia first, many of whom come from Central Asia and work in restaurants or on construction sites. Migrants employed by international companies that pulled out of Russia because of the war were some of the first affected.
“[Foreign] businesses like McDonald's, KFC and Ikea, their employees were out of a job,” Akmatov said, referring to how sanctions affected workers in Russia from countries like his native Kyrgyzstan.
Akmatov said that many of those workers who were laid off by foreign companies found other work. But as the war drags on into its ninth month, many have found that jobs are disappearing again.
Rakhat Sherali, a program specialist at Insan-Leilek, an organization based in southern Kyrgyzstan that aids migrant workers in Russia, said her office has received calls from hundreds of migrants who were fired from their jobs after the war started. Sherali said Russian employers typically fire migrants first and keep Russian citizens on the job. Some Central Asian migrants searching for new work in Russia said the wages offered have decreased by half of what they were before the war.
“When you have so much competition between migrants, the pay they’re offered goes down,” Sherali said.
Central Asian countries that were once part of the Soviet Union share deep cultural and historical ties with Russia. Many people in Central Asia still speak Russian. So, when the Russian economy started taking off in the early 2000s, people from Central Asia began migrating to Russia in droves in search of work.
In Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, a row of businesses line a street near the city’s western bus station, advertising shared taxis to cities all over Russia. From Bishkek to Moscow, it’s about a four-day trip by car. Migrant workers take shared taxis from their home country to Russia because it’s cheaper than flying.
Levi Bridges/The World
Business owners who run transportation companies between Bishkek to Moscow said that business diminished to just a trickle when Russia announced a mobilization campaign earlier this year to send men to fight in Ukraine, although they said it’s starting to pick up again now that the draft has wound down.
Many Russian citizens fled to Central Asia to escape the draft, but they were also joined by migrants and immigrants who sought safety in their countries of origin. In some cases, Russian authorities picked young men up right off the street and sent them to the army. Migrants in Russia have also been issued draft papers.
“I don’t feel safe going back to Russia until they stop turning people into cannon fodder,” said one young man who returned to Kyrgyzstan after 15 years of working in Russia as a cook and construction worker. He declined to give his name, because he plans to return to Russia and fears getting in trouble with the authorities.
The departure of migrants from Russia also causes financial repercussions for their families. The man who returned to Kyrgyzstan recently because of the draft left behind his wife and three children in Moscow.
Now, his wife is struggling to survive on one income.
“She’s got to pay rent, feed the kids and the snow is already falling, so we need to buy them new clothes,” he said.
Even though some migrants are leaving Russia, their relocation hasn’t yet had a massive effect on Central Asia’s economy, according to Rustam Urinboyev, an associate professor at Lund University in Sweden who researches labor migrants in Russia.
“But in the long term, if the Russian economy deteriorates and the ruble collapses, probably there would be a massive return of Central Asian migrants to their home countries,” Urinboyev said.
Levi Bridges/The World
Sherali, of the migrant aid organization Insan-Leilek, said that nearly half of the migrants in Russia she and her associates spoke with as part of a recent survey said they would return to their birth countries if the Russian economy continues to deteriorate.
If migrants continue to return to Central Asia, sanctions could inadvertently devastate the economies of Central Asian countries like Kyrgyzstan, where remittances sent by migrants make up nearly a third of the GDP.
Central Asian governments started preparing for that possibility this year by working to create new guest-worker programs in Asia and Europe in case Russia’s economy totally collapses.
“My plan [for the future] is to work abroad, probably in Europe,” said a woman in Bishkek named Gylmairam who previously worked in Moscow for a decade.
Levi Bridges/The World
This year, Gylmairam’s husband got a visa to work on an apple farm in England during the summer through a new program that recruits Kyrgyz workers.
Many analysts have argued that the war in Ukraine has weakened Russia’s influence in Central Asia, where locals fear that Russia might one day invade their countries as well, and many dream of emigrating to Europe or the United States. But economic and historical ties still bind the region closely to Russia.
Gylmairam said she hopes to join her husband in England next year as part of Kyrgyzstan’s new guest-worker program. But she said that she hasn’t ruled out going back to Russia either, if the economy there improves.
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