Crossroads Asia | Society | Central Asia

Central Asia’s Russian Migration Puzzle

An interview with Caress Schenk.

By Khamza Sharifzoda for
Central Asia’s Russian Migration Puzzle

In this photo taken on Tuesday, June 26, 2018, Two municipal workers stand ready to clean an area ahead of the Denmark-France World Cup match at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Russia.

Credit: AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

Russia remains a top destination for migrant workers from across the former Soviet Union, especially Central Asia. Immigration is a sensitive subject in nearly every migrant-receiving country, and recent trends have generated opportunities for positive improvements but also featured negative reactions among the Russian public. As Dr. Caress Schenk, an associate professor of political science and director of graduate studies at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan, tells Khamza Sharifzoda in the following interview for The Diplomat, people’s feelings about immigration are often divorced from economic realities, and enforcement does not always match regulations. 

In the last two years, was there any piece of legislation or regulation that had a significant impact (positive or negative) on labor migrants in Russia? 

Migrants in Russia need to stay on their toes to keep up with regulations because things are always changing. Even between major reforms of the legislation, which happen frequently enough, the way laws are enforced can change without notice and can be different across regions, and even from migration office to migration office, or between two different officials. Some people call this a lack of coordination, while others could call it bureaucratic discretion. It depends on your perspective as to whether you think this is a normal thing or not. In terms of major laws, things have been more or less stable in the last couple of years. In 2018, there was a new requirement that migrants could register only at the place where they live rather than where they work. This caused quite a lot of discussion in the migration community. But I haven’t seen much evidence of a big impact on the ground. Registration for migrants has always been difficult, it will continue to be difficult as long as it exists. Relatively minor changes don’t always change the practices of migrants, landlords, policemen who check documents, or the migration services a great deal. 

The Russian economy suffers from a shortage of labor, yet the Russian government continues to take measures to restrict migrants’ access to the labor market. Why is this the case? 

First, it’s important to understand that this sort of tension exists in virtually every migrant-receiving country in the world. Why is this? It’s because immigration is such a politically thorny issue that’s really able to mobilize people’s emotions, and research demonstrates again and again that people’s feelings about immigration are often disconnected from realities, but that those feelings matter a great deal for how policymakers need to interact with the public. If we step back from the emotion of immigration politics, we can ask if it’s really realistic to hold policymakers to the impossible task of adopting and then implementing policies that are going to satisfy people. I think it’s not. For me, that’s what makes immigration politics so interesting, though, because there are so many opinions and interpretations of facts and interests and emotions involved that trying to sort it all out is a hugely complex and intellectually satisfying puzzle. 

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Second, on the issue of Russia specifically, labor shortages and immigration restrictions are only two pieces of the puzzle. We also have public opinion, we have bureaucratic and law enforcement practice, there are the interests of policymakers at various levels, not to mention the needs of employers and the desires of migrants and migrant groups. The desires of these various groups can pull in different directions when it comes to creating immigration policy. And while its true that there are labor shortages, not everyone would agree that the policies that are currently on the books are particularly restrictive. In fact, in 2015 there was a major “liberalization” of the law allowing an unlimited number of migrants from Central Asia access to the labor market. In practice, however, the process of legalizing one’s status involves a fairly daunting bureaucratic procedure and requires migrants to pay constant attention to their immigration status on a monthly basis, because to stay legal they have to pay taxes on a monthly basis and if they pay even one day late or lose one of their tax receipts, their status is jeopardized and in some cases this is grounds enough for deportation. 

I’ve argued in my book Why Control Immigration: Strategic Uses of Migration Management in Russia that in past policy cycles, the Russian government has carefully weighed public opinion and the demands made by economic and political actors and decided on an acceptable level of immigration. What does this mean? It means that the official number of labor migrants in Russia cannot be more than around 2 million. Because according to past experience, this is the number that the public will accept without protest. Advertising bigger numbers comes with a risk of serious complaints from society. Does this mean only 2 million migrants are actually working in Russia at any given time? No. Because 2 million migrants aren’t nearly enough to do all of the work that needs to be done in the Russian economy, on construction sites, in janitorial services, in street markets, and in other spheres where migrants usually work. It just means that there is an acceptable level of official migration, and the rest of the migrants that come based on economic demand will become undocumented or informal workers.  

On the one hand, the Russian government has tightened access to its labor market. On the other hand, it also has eased procedures for obtaining Russian citizenship for post-Soviet countries. How does Moscow balance these two seemingly opposite policies? What is the rationale behind that? 

It’s certainly easy to see contradictions in Russia’s policies. Yet, there is a clear priority of the government to invite migrants who will stay, integrate, contribute to the economy, and uphold the values of Russia. Making it easier to get citizenship is an attempt to attract the “right” kind of migrants. Often the kind of migrants Russia wants to attract are called compatriots, or sometimes this is translated as ethnic repatriates, but more generally compatriots can be seen as citizens of former Soviet countries and Russian speakers. If we take a more general view of the “right” kind of migrants, it’s less a question of ethnicity, or where a migrant might be from, than their ability to easily integrate and willingness to stay in Russia and build a life there. It is interesting that quite a lot of accommodations were made for Ukrainian migrants coming as a result of the civil war that started in 2014, and so in some ways it seems as though the government is saying that Ukrainian migrants (and/or ethnic Russians from Ukraine) are the “right” kind of migrants. But we see in other regions of Russia that different ethnicities also participate in the programs that were created, and so we can’t say with certainty that there’s a concrete ethnic component to choosing the “right” kind of migrants. 

Russia is part of the Eurasian Economic Union, which in theory guarantees the free movement of labor among its member states. Do Russian labor market restrictions contradict the Eurasian Economic Union’s regulations in any way? 

Not necessarily. At least not on paper. The Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) gives member countries’ citizens the right to work freely in any other member state as long as they have a contract with an employer. This means migrants coming to Russia don’t have to get a patent (labor permit) or work visa, they don’t have to take a language exam, and since those things are expensive and bureaucratic, it’s a big benefit. However, I think general practice contradicts the spirit of the EAEU more than the law does. Because in practice, many employers don’t sign contracts with low-skilled labor migrants coming from other EAEU countries because then they have to pay taxes, since income taxes of migrants should be taken out of their wages and paid directly to the government by the employer. In these cases, the situation isn’t much better for citizens of EAEU countries than for labor migrants from other countries. 

President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev has recently indicated his country’s interest in the Eurasian Economic Union. One of the benefits of joining the Eurasian Economic Union for Uzbekistan and Tajikistan is arguably easier access to the Russian labor market. Is there any evidence Kyrgyz labor migrants de jure and de facto face fewer challenges in Russia? Based on Kyrgyzstan’s experience of dealing with Russia, what are the main takeaways for the Tajik and Uzbek governments? 

Kyrgyz workers have a different type of relationship with Russia, and this didn’t just start with the Eurasian Economic Union. Kyrgyz have gotten Russian citizenship in greater numbers than migrants from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. They are a more secular population; they have experience with a more democratic government. There tends to be greater gender equality and other types of social norms that come from this different experience. As a result, Kyrgyz migrants tend to be able to take advantage of relatively freer social and political opportunities in Russia, whereas Uzbeks and Tajiks are bound in many ways to their social relations and hierarchies at home. This is all irrespective of the position of Kyrgyz in the Eurasian Economic Union. 

But as I said before, even though there is a simplified legal process for Kyrgyz labor migrants, in practice their situation isn’t dramatically better than before. Because even if a Kyrgyz worker is able to find an employer and sign a contract, they don’t have any more access to services than other migrants. They don’t have access to the health care system, unemployment benefits, etc. They pay into the pension system, but it’s unclear how they’ll be able to access those benefits because it’s not a unified EAEU pension system, it’s the Russian national pension system. Migrant children can go to school regardless of their country of origin, but in practice there are a whole host of barriers that remain. A bigger issue is that Russia’s internal policing of migrants is extremely punitive. Two administrative violations of any kind (like a traffic ticket) can lead to deportation and prohibition on re-entry for several years. Status as an EAEU migrant doesn’t change this at all. A more sinister effect of this punitive system is that it becomes beneficial for migrants to solve any problems they encounter with the law through informal means like paying a bribe to a policeman, because it allows them to avoid accumulating official offenses that might lead to deportation. With all of this in mind, migrants from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan don’t stand to gain much if their countries join the EAEU. But for Russia, if they join it will be a huge loss because the migrant document industry has become huge, huge money, and the government would lose out on this income if Uzbekistan and Tajikistan join the union. 

Khamza Sharifzoda is a graduate student at Georgetown University. He specializes in the politics and governance of Russia, Turkey, and Eurasia.