The Russian invasion of Ukraine this year triggered unprecedented migration flows across the post-Soviet space. Kazakhstan, which shares the world’s longest continuous border with Russia (at 7,644 kilometers), has seen an influx of migrants since the war began. Moscow’s recent “partial” military mobilization exacerbated the situation, sending a dramatic wave of Russian migrants into Central Asia. The sharp increase of Russian migrants into Kazakhstan raised many questions about their place in Kazakhstani society, their influence on the economy and politics, as well as the general future of the country.
On September 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared a “partial military mobilization.” It caused panic among some Russian citizens, particularly young men most likely to be targets for mobilization. Many made the decision to flee in a matter of hours, choosing the most accessible international borders to cross in a hurry. Georgia and Kazakhstan, both of which share relatively open borders with Russia, were the first destination for many fleeing. According to some figures, in the two weeks after the mobilization nearly 80,000 Russians entered Georgia, and almost 300,000 crossed into Kazakhstan. Overbooked flights and trains pushed many to find ways to leave Russia by car or foot, creating overcrowding and chaos on the land borders between the countries in the first week. Hundreds of videos surfaced on social media, personalizing the level of desperation and confusion at Kazakhstan-Russia border checkpoint. Uralsk, Petropavlovsk, Astana, and Almaty received the most migrants. The first two are cities situated close to the border with Russia, while Astana is the capital and Almaty is Kazakhstan’s largest city.
Uralsk resident and prominent Kazakh journalist Lukpan Akhmedyarov explained that most of the migrants are men, with more than half between the ages of 18-28. Another substantial group is men in their 30s, with few migrants being men 40 years and older. Although the latest wave of migrants are mostly men, some brought their entire families or partners with them. Akhmedyarov noted that most migrants are highly skilled and are employed in the IT sector. The second biggest group are people coming from the artistic sphere — musicians, artists, sculptors, bloggers, and so on. The third group, which is a direct necessity for the Russian war effort, are medical workers, ranging from regular doctors to very high-skilled medical experts. Akhmedyarov noted that the smallest group among the newcomers are low-skilled professionals. This breakdown in ages and professions has been seen in other regions of Kazakhstan, reflecting in general the most mobile groups of Russians — those who were best able to pack up and could afford to leave the country.
In an October 27 statement, Kazakhstan’s Minister of Digital Development Asset Turysov said that there had been around 200,000 applications since the start of the Russian mobilization for obtaining an individual identification number (IIN) in Kazakhstan. He did not specify how many applications were submitted by migrants from Russia, stating that these numbers cover all foreigners. However, taking into account the dates and the unusual numbers, it’s likely that a majority, if not almost all, of the applications were submitted by Russians.
Obtaining an IIN is one of the first things resettling Russians do, as the number is necessary for employment in Kazakhstan, as well as for setting up a phone number and a bank account in the country. Still, there is no clear estimate of how many Russians entered Kazakhstan since the start of the mobilization and chose to stay in the country. Numbers vary and the movements of individuals have been so dynamic that at the moment it is challenging to asses and evaluate how many Russians remain in Kazakhstan weeks after the mobilization. This uncertainty makes it difficult for the Kazakhstani government to come up with a coherent strategy for the economic and social integration of Russians, and to asses the political and security risks in the current unstable geopolitical climate.
The whole movement of Russians after the mobilization announcement has been for the most part chaotic, unplanned, and executed in a state of shock and urgency. Many chose to come to Kazakhstan as it was the easiest option in terms of proximity and border crossing regulations. This does not necessarily mean, however, that fleeing Russians planned to stay and settle down in the country or that they will actually stay long term. Many seem to be making their plans on the go, choosing to go somewhere where a community and accommodation can be found.
According to official reports, the number of incoming Russians has slowed and general figures are returning to previous indicators. More people are leaving Kazakhstan now (around 10,000-11,000 per day), than coming in (8,000-9,000 per day). From numerous interviews with fleeing Russians, it is evident that many view Kazakhstan as the first stop in a long-term move toward countries like Georgia, Turkey, elsewhere in Central Asia or further onward to Europe. The reason for that is many are afraid “that Putin will be able to negotiate with Kazakh President Tokayev and have them returned.” Still, others are considering building a new life for themselves in Kazakhstan and are being meet with efforts from private businesses looking to snag high-skilled professionals. At the same time, Kazakh authorities are preparing a bill that will allow those who invest more than $300,000 in the Kazakh economy to obtain a 10-year visa.
The prevalence of the Russian language and a similar social context are contributing factors to why some Russians are considering staying in Kazakhstan long-term. Another factor, which came as something of a surprise, is the Kazakh government and general public’s positive and overall welcoming attitude toward the Russian migrants, many of whom had never before been to the country and knew little about it. Commenting on the sudden migrant inflow, Tokayev stated, “In recent days, many people from Russia have been coming to us. Most of them are forced to leave because of the current hopeless situation. We must take care of them and ensure their safety. This is a political and humanitarian issue.”
The government has been working intensively on leveling the crisis, ensuring a smooth arrival for migrants. Self-organized volunteers have swiftly arranged accommodations at private businesses, distributed food and shared rides for free. One might say that this reaction can be framed within the narrative that the Kazakh people are hospitable by nature and have historically proven to help “politically undesired elements” of the Russian government in the past, people who were repressed and sent into exile far from the center. Still, in the current context, many are puzzled and upset by this welcoming reaction, arguing that although people are leaving their country, they are not refugees of the same kind as Ukrainians fleeing war and should not be met with such extended efforts to help them. Many question the political views of the incoming Russians, wondering whether they support Putin’s imperial agenda, and his world view.
The Caucasus and Central Asia have experienced an unprecedented influx of Russian migrants. In the early 1990s, ethnic Russians were leaving countries like Kazakhstan; their migration to Russia helped create conditions for the titular nationalities in the former Soviet Republics to reinforce and re-discover their ethnic identities and rule themselves. Now this migration trend is being reversed yet again. In Kazakhstan alone the percentage of ethnic Russians shrunk from 37 percent in 1991 to 18 percent in 2020. It is now up to governments and locals to accept and efficiently integrate migrants, and up to migrants to be willing to be integrated. And of course, it is up to Russia to allow them to go and not use these newly formed communities of expatriate Russians destructively in the future.