Friday, October 5, 2007

Window on Eurasia: More Central Asian Migrants in Russia Inevitable But Problematic

Paul Goble

Vienna, October 5 – Because of economic conditions in their homelands and in the Russian Federation, the number of Central Asians coming to work in Russia is likely to continue to grow over the next several decades. But these new arrivals will be very different than their predecessors and thus likely to create more problems for Moscow.
In an article posted online yesterday, Moscow analyst Aleksandr Shustov points out that deteriorating economic and social-political conditions in many Central Asian countries -- because of conflicts and rapid population growth -- and the need to fill jobs left vacant by the Russian demographic collapse makes an increase almost inevitable.
As various observers have noted, that alone would likely contribute to a further rise in xenophobia among Russians, but Shustov points out that there are three reasons why the new arrivals are likely to create even more problems in this regard than have Central Asians already living in Russia (
First of all, Shustov says, the share of migration flows from Central Asia to the Russian Federation consisting of ethnic Russians is likely to dwindle to almost nothing. In the 1990s, he notes, three-quarters of the 2.6 million migrants from Central Asia to Russia were Slavs, with more than two out of three being ethnic Russians.
The number of ethnic Russians remaining in Central Asia (excluding Kazakhstan) is small, and few of them have demonstrated much interest in leaving their positions in the key institutions of the capital cities of these countries. Instead, those arriving now are and in the future will be almost exclusively of Central Asian nationalities.
Second, given the degradation of the educational system in many parts of Central Asia over the last 15 years, especially in the rural areas of these predominantly and even increasingly rural countries, fewer and fewer of the new Central Asian arrivals in the Russian Federation know Russian and thus are able to integrate quickly into Russian life.
Instead, he continues, their lack of knowledge of Russian will increasingly prompt them to try to live only with others from their home countries, a choice that will at a minimum create ethnic enclaves or even ghettos and spark suspicions among some Russians that these people by their presence constitute a threat.
And third, in sharp contrast to the Central Asians who arrived in the Russian Federation in the past, most of the new arrivals are and are going to be from rural areas. Consequently, when they move to Russian cities where most of the jobs are, they will face and create difficulties because they lack experience with urban life.
That too will isolate them, generate mistrust in the Russians with whom they live, and leave them at risk both of mistreatment by unsympathetic bosses and officials and of recruitment by Islamic radicals who will argue that they are being treated the way they are not because they do not speak Russian but because they are Muslims.
The Russian government faces a Hobson’s choice in the matter: If it allows such immigration to continue and to continue to grow, it will undoubtedly have to deal with the spread and intensification of xenophobia among the indigenous ethnic Russian population.
But if it does not, then Moscow will have to sacrifice economic growth, unless the authorities and Russian business are able to attract workers from somewhere else, a distant prospect at best as the central government has learned in the course of its largely unsuccessful campaign to get more ethnic Russians to return to their homeland.
At present, as Shustov notes, the Russian Federation has a visa regime with only one Central Asian country (Turkmenistan), but if the situation becomes more tense, then “very quickly the task of regulating migration flows [with all the others] will confront the Russian authorities very sharply.”
Given the current Russian government’s focus on economic questions largely to the exclusion of social and political ones, it appears likely that Moscow will allow this influx to continue unabated for some time. But the result of such a policy, Shustov warns, could be the kind of explosion that could threaten Russia’s stability.

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