Better Lost than Dead: New Influx of Russians in Central Asia4 min read

 In Central Asia, Civil Society, Editorial
In the days following President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of a partial mobilization of the Russian population to be sent to fight in Ukraine a mass exodus ensued. Thousands of cars flooded nearly every road leading out of Russia forming miles-long lines, impeding logistic routes across the region. Russians frantically left their country without any long-term plans to unprepared neighbors in a mass panic. Many chose to flee to Central Asia, as this area is part of the Eurasian Economic Union allowing Russian citizens to travel without an international passport. 

According to Russian law, the government can mobilize troops in the “event of foreign aggression or an attack on Russia”. While to date all of the fighting has taken place on Ukrainian soil, the announcement of the incorporation of four regions of Ukraine into the Russian Federation has provided Putin with a defense for launching a partial mobilization, the first since World War II. It was promised that only those with relevant military experience would be called, however in the rush to move conscripts those exempted from service including students and elderly received orders. Hundreds of thousands unwilling to wait until they were next decided it would be better to leave Russia than potentially be sent to the front lines. 

Nearly half of the 400,000 people who left, ended up in Kazakhstan, an attractive destination as Russians have the right to both work and reside there as long as they register. Another significant portion headed further south for the other Central Asian republics. The knock-on effects were immediately evident as prices on plane tickets from Russia to neighboring countries began to rise. For example, a flight from Moscow to Dushanbe which typically costs about less than 400 US Dollars rose in price to over 600 US Dollars following the announcement. Despite the increase, tickets began to sell out fast and many went as far as to even charter private jets just to leave the country. Those that were unable to secure a ticket or afford one were forced to wait for days in the seemingly endless sea of cars flowing out of Russia.

Once in these countries, the situation would usually grow dimmer as hotels quickly filled up and those with vacancies doubled their prices. Many in Central Asia have expressed sympathy for those entering their countries. In Oral, a city in northwest Kazakhstan, a movie theater opened its doors to Russians unable to secure housing. In addition to the free accommodation, some volunteers also distributed free food. Others have taken to Telegram to support those fleeing, including a Welcome to Kyrgyzstan group which has gained thousands of members in the last few weeks. 

Despite the support from many locals not everyone in the region has been as hospitable. Meme pages in Kazakhstan uploaded posts calling those in Oral “bootlickers” and referring to the Russians entering the region as colonizers. Two activists even held a small protest in the Almaty airport holding signs saying: “Did you realize that you are cannon fodder?” and “Either respect or go away”.  This anger, however, is not unfounded as Central Asians in Russia are often the target of racist remarks and violence. Many within the region have expressed on social media that they noticed the same attitudes being expressed by those entering the region. 

While reactions amongst the public have been mixed, most government officials have provided the same response to the influx of Russian citizens in the region. On September 27, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev stated that “they “are forced to leave because of the current hopeless situation. We must take care of them and ensure their safety.” In Uzbekistan, the foreign ministry expressed a similar sentiment assuring that as long as they do not break any laws, no Russian entering the country will be deported. In Tajikistan and the Kyrgyz Republic, there has been no public showing of support, but also no evidence of a concerted push to remove any of those fleeing.

After the immediate shock of the partial mobilization subsided, nearly 150,000 of those that fled moved elsewhere from the Central Asian countries they originally arrived to. Despite this tens of thousands still remain in the region and are pursuing long-term residency. This has the potential to give rise to conflict within the region, especially among those incensed by the recent arrivals. However, given the unprecedented trajectory of the war in Ukraine, making any predictions about the long-term effects in Central Asia seem to be a futile endeavor for the time being. 

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