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Central Asia: Migrants and the Economic Crisis
Central Asia: Migrants and the Economic Crisis
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
What Does Kazakhstan’s New Military Doctrine Reveal about Its Relations with Russia?
What Does Kazakhstan’s New Military Doctrine Reveal about Its Relations with Russia?
Report 183 / Europe & Central Asia

Central Asia: Migrants and the Economic Crisis

The economic crisis has caused millions of migrant labourers from Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to lose their jobs in the boom economies of Russia and Kazakhstan.

Executive Summary

The economic crisis has caused millions of migrant labourers from Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to lose their jobs in the boom economies of Russia and Kazakhstan. Remittances that kept their relatives afloat have plummeted and many migrants have returned home to certain destitution, putting weak Central Asian governments under severe strain. In Tajikistan half the labour force is without work, while Kyrgyzstan suffers from massive rural unemployment. Before the crisis hit, up to five million people from these countries left home for Russia and Kazakhstan to take on poorly paid and unskilled jobs, often the unpleasant tasks that local people no longer wished to do. Yet at home they were viewed with respect: the most daring members of their society, who were willing to take a jump into the unknown to pull themselves and their families out of poverty. Remittances also boosted their home countries’ economic data, allowing governments with little ability or interest in creating jobs to claim a modest degree of success. By 2008 remittances were providing the equivalent of half Tajikistan’s gross domestic product (GDP), a quarter of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP, and an eighth of Uzbekistan’s.

The economic crisis of 2008-2009 destroyed this semblance of prosperity. First oil prices plummeted, then the crisis rolled through the highly leveraged banking sectors of Russia and Kazakhstan, finally bringing construction – the single largest source of migrant employment – to a near standstill. Migrant labourer quotas were cut, xenophobia increased in Russia, companies laid off migrants or in some cases simply stopped paying them. In the migrants’ home countries, governments first refused to believe the crisis would affect them, then slowly began to assemble a package of largely symbolic and ultimately unsuccessful palliatives. At least several hundred thousand and possibly as many as one million migrant labourers were believed to have returned home by the end of 2009.

The crisis has focused attention on one of the crucial weaknesses of Central Asian governments: the ability of states like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to survive a crisis depends on good external conditions, not good policy. They handled unemployment, for example, by exporting it, did little to create jobs at home, and are now floundering in the face of the crisis. In the past they would have just muddled through. Now problems are building up, and muddling through is becoming less of an option. Migrant labourers also unwittingly performed a valuable political service for Central Asia’s leaders. The export of surplus labour allowed governments to rid themselves for part of the year of the segment of society – especially young men – that is the most likely source of unrest.

The financial crisis and the return of labour migrants sparked predictions of unrest, intensifying the concern that radical Islamists had been making inroads into the labour diaspora. Though there are strong indications of attempts by radical Islamists to recruit among migrant labourers, particularly in Russia, there is not enough data to ascertain the breadth of their success. And while many labourers have returned home, many more are waiting it out in Russia and Kazakhstan, taking even more menial and lower paying work, or surviving on family handouts in the hope that the situation will improve. Many work illegally, at the mercy of corrupt police, officials and dishonest employers; in Russia they are also subject to considerable discrimination and even violence. Opposition leaders in the region have long believed that migrant labourers would one day form the spearhead of an attack on the entrenched and incompetent regimes. This shows no sign of happening yet.

All groups affected by the crisis hope that one day the boom years will come back. The hiring nations look forward to a time when they will again be serious players on the world economic stage. The labourers need the work, because their own countries cannot provide it. The labour exporting governments need, as usual, outside assistance to solve their problems: none of them under their present dispensations are likely to come up with a successful strategy either to reintegrate migrant labourers or find an alternative source of income. The chances are, however, that the story will not end so neatly. Russia and Kazakhstan are likely at best to achieve a sort of sub-optimal recovery – assuming that a second round of economic crisis does not, as many economists predict, hit in Russia.

In all three countries covered in this report, society has been politically inactive or silent for many years. In Tajikistan this is attributed to the still-fresh memories of a brutal civil war; in Kyrgyzstan to disillusion and cynicism that followed the so-called Tulip Revolution of 2005; in Uzbekistan because of a ruthless and often brutal system of top-to-bottom social control. Western pressure has done little to mitigate this behaviour in the past, and pressure is likely to diminish even further as NATO and the U.S. look to Central Asia to host crucial military supply lines to Afghanistan. Past performance in the region is, however, no guarantee of future behaviour. Insecurity is growing, in part domestically generated, in part because of proximity to Afghanistan; infrastructure is collapsing, weak economies are slipping still further. The governments of the region need to take energetic measures to carry out sweeping reforms. The international community needs to pressure them to do so. At the moment, neither seems likely.

Bishkek/Brussels, 5 January 2010

Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia

What Does Kazakhstan’s New Military Doctrine Reveal about Its Relations with Russia?

Originally published in Eurasianet

Without much ado, Kazakhstan adopted a new military doctrine in September, replacing a 2011 document that had become dated. The new document states that Kazakhstan does not have enemies. Yet, Astana seems alarmed enough by Russia’s aggressive actions toward Ukraine since 2014 to have produced a doctrine that is an obvious reaction to Moscow’s hybrid warfare tactics, which include cyber-disruption and propaganda.

Kazakhstan is not alone in sensing that it now lives in a rapidly changing security environment that demands new policies. Belarus, another neighbor of Russia, introduced a new military doctrine in July 2016. But while Belarus made explicit that it is reacting to Ukraine’s fight against Russian-backed separatists and Moscow’s use of hybrid warfare, Kazakhstani authorities have not commented publicly on changes to their military doctrine.

Still, similarities between the new Kazakhstani and Belarussian doctrines abound, and it is not difficult to see the origin of  Astana’s threat assessment. Kazakhstan shares a 7,500-kilometer land border with Russia and northern Kazakhstan is home to a significant Russian minority with deep roots in the region. Though their numbers are dwindling, Russians still account for roughly 20 percent of Kazakhstan’s population. Much to Astana’s irritation, the area is romanticized by some Russian politicians as still being Russian territory. In January 2017, a State Duma deputy, Pavel Shperov, suggested the Kazakhstani-Russian border was not a permanent fixture and that Kazakhstani territory was merely on loan to Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan pursues a multi-vector foreign policy with Russia, China and the European Union as its main partners. Balancing these relationships allow it to demonstrate that it has the political clout to act more independently of Russia than other Central Asian states.

Kazakhstan pursues a multi-vector foreign policy with Russia, China and the European Union as its main partners.

Still, Astana and Moscow remain very close allies, bound by economic ties through the Eurasian Economic Union and militarily through the Collective Security Treaty Organization, or CSTO, which also includes Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The CSTO functions as much as a vehicle for Russia’s bilateral security agendas with fellow member states as it does as collective entity. As an organization, it has also redefined what it sees as security threats -- a process that began after the pro-democracy “color” revolutions in Georgia, 2003, Ukraine, 2004, and Kyrgyzstan, 2005. Analysis and recommendations from the CSTO played a pivotal role in shaping Russia’s own military doctrine of 2014, after the annexation of Crimea.

The alleged basis of Russia’s actions in Ukraine is a self-proclaimed doctrine under which Moscow can act as the protector of the rights of Russians experiencing alleged discrimination wherever they may be. The circumstances that prevailed in Ukraine prior to the start of Russian meddling in 2014 are not evident in present-day Kazakhstan. Russia’s concern that Ukraine was drifting toward the EU’s orbit was an underlying motivation for its actions in 2014. There is no reason for Moscow to worry that Astana is tilting toward the EU these days. Meanwhile, the Russian minority in Kazakhstan experiences little or no discrimination.

Just because the circumstances are different, doesn’t mean Kazakhstan isn’t vulnerable. Astana should recognize that national and ethnic unity since independence in 1991 is a thin construction, far too dependent on fealty to President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Kazakhstan’s new military doctrine is explicit about the risks to its borders and also the potential for an outside party to manipulate ethnic populations inside Kazakhstan.

Alongside the outward-looking nature of Kazakhstan’s 2017 military doctrine, there is sharp focus on internal threats. Nazarbayev in the past three years has undertaken measures to strengthen the government, bolster the economy and to resist firmly any speculation that a Ukrainian scenario could happen in Kazakhstan. When citizens protested against plans to lease farm land to Chinese investors in May 2016, Nazarbayev issued a stark rebuke, using Ukraine as an example of what can go wrong if protests get out of hand.

Kazakhstan’s new military doctrine is explicit about the risks to its borders and also the potential for an outside party to manipulate ethnic populations inside Kazakhstan.

Nationalism is growing nonetheless. It not only showed itself during the May 2016 land protests, but also in long-term trends such as renaming previously Russian-language place names to Kazakh. Some Russian politicians see Kazakhstan’s move to Latinize the Kazakh alphabet, which is currently written in Cyrillic, as an anti-Russian move. It is indeed a highly symbolic gesture, one that a Western diplomat described as an act of defiance and post-Soviet national identity-building.

The Russian language has equal status in Kazakhstan, but Kazakh is ascendant, and knowledge of it is required for government jobs. It’s also worth noting that not one of Kazakhstan's ministers has an ethnic Russian background.

Astana has sought to manage its relationship with Moscow as an equal partnership. Its success in doing so is largely attributable to Nazarbayev, who has led Kazakhstan since independence. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Putin was a KGB functionarynt, while Nazarbayev was the already powerful and ambitious First Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan. With Nazarbayev turning 78 years old next year, a transition in the vast but sparsely populated Central Asian state is inevitable. The crisis in Ukraine has brought into focus the risks of any sort of transition or internal instability in Russia’s neighborhood.

As Nazarbayev ages, political transition is inevitable and unless handled smoothly that transition could be destabilizing. The Kremlin’s military doctrine and its foreign policies are premised on Russia exerting itself as a great power with historical privileges. Kazakhstan understands that in the long-term it could be vulnerable to Moscow’s expansionist tendencies. Its new military doctrine addresses that external risk in a clear-headed and robust manner. But when it comes to the domestic challenges that could provide the very opening required for an assertive foreign power to gain a foothold, Kazakhstan still appears to be sleepwalking.