By Chris Rickleton
Relations between Bishkek and Moscow are on the upswing with the inauguration of a pro-Russian president in Kyrgyzstan. Even so, Kyrgyz labor migrants in Russia are facing a new challenge.
Almazbek Atambayev took the presidential oath on December 1, and, in his inaugural address, he called for greater interethnic harmony. He also emphasized that his administration will work to strengthen ties with Russia. “Of course, our strategic partner is Russia,” he said.
The new hassles faced by labor migrants indicate that underlying tension in the Kyrgyz-Russian relationship will not dissipate anytime soon. Long accustomed to a relatively painless citizenship-application process, Kyrgyzstanis now must contend with new rules that require more paperwork and a much longer wait, with less freedom of movement. At home, frustrated migrant groups are again calling for a dual-citizenship agreement with Moscow, but Bishkek has little leverage to negotiate with its powerful neighbor, particularly at a time when xenophobia in Russia seems to be growing.
On October 24, Moscow announced that citizenship applications from citizens of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan would no longer fall under a “simplified” three-month process. New applications are expected to take a year, during which applicants cannot leave Russian territory.
Kyrgyzstan’s economy is deeply dependent on its migrant laborers. Though officials admit their figures are unreliable, they say as many as 700,000 Kyrgyzstanis work abroad, the overwhelming majority in Russia. In late October, a Foreign Ministry official said migrants sent home over $1 billion in 2010, equivalent to roughly 22 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP.
For years, migrant groups have lobbied Bishkek to formalize a dual-citizenship agreement with Moscow. Without this, migrants who hold two passports fall into a legal gray area and become vulnerable to Russia’s increasingly thorough Federal Migration Service. Many Kyrgyz activists also hope that codifying dual citizenship would pave the way for bilateral arrangements to improve social protection and streamline burdensome, ever-changing travel and work regulations.
“Dual citizenship would help solve many of the most important problems our migrants face,” says Kadyrbek Busurmankulov, chairman of Zamandash, a migrant-support group in Bishkek. “Currently our migrants contribute to social funds [which pay pensions and medical benefits] in Russia … but find it difficult to receive pensions and welfare unless they stay there and become citizens. This makes them less likely to return and invest in Kyrgyzstan.”
For all the talk of dual citizenship, Bishkek is in a poor place to make demands, says Jomart Ormonbekov, a former Kyrgyz diplomat who now teaches international politics at the American University of Central Asia. “If there is political will in Russia, this [a dual-citizenship agreement] will be pushed through,” Ormonbekov told EurasiaNet.org. “As it is, it is difficult for the Kyrgyz side to negotiate because Kyrgyzstan is such a small country.”
Russia’s steady population decline makes it reliant on labor migration to keep its economy on an even keel. But according to Russian statistics, Kyrgyz nationals account for less than 4 percent of foreigners in the country. Such a small group has little leverage.
The Kremlin appears unlikely to commit to any long-term bilateral agreement that would hinder its ability to “play the migration card” in diplomatic relations with its former satellites, said Ormonbekov. Recent events in neighboring Tajikistan serve as a warning for Bishkek: When Moscow felt snubbed by Dushanbe’s decision to jail a Russian pilot, Russian authorities quickly started rounding up migrants for deportation.
Many Central Asians feel that racism, increasingly strong in Russia, is the main reason for the more stringent citizenship requirements. Parliamentary elections this month and presidential elections in March mean Russian politicians want to look tough on migration. In general, said Ormonbekov, Moscow has a “selective approach” that favors “Moldovans, Ukrainians and others that share the Slavic culture and religion, and who look less like outsiders in terms of appearance.”
In April the chief spokesman of Russia’s Federal Migration Service, Konstantin Poltoranin, told the British Broadcasting Corp that many of the country’s non-Slav guest workers fail to assimilate into Russian society and that, over the longer term, “the fate of the white race is at stake.” Though Poltoranin was fired for his comments, he caused panic among many Kyrgyz migrants.
“That was scary,” recalled 27-year-old Sayid Nurbekov, who works seasonally as a bricklayer in Novosibirsk and returns to Kyrgyzstan each winter. Fearing a shift in official attitudes, Nurbekov and nine others with whom he shared accommodations applied for Russian citizenship in May, receiving it by the end of the summer.“ This way, when I return next year, I won’t have any headaches,” Nurbekov said.
His choice was prudent. According to the Kyrgyz Embassy in Moscow, the increase in the number of documents now required to obtain citizenship has made Kyrgyzstanis vulnerable to scams, with criminals posing as middlemen charging up to $1,000 dollars to “fix” Russian citizenship, RFE/RL reported on November 2.
A representative of Russia’s Federal Migration Service at the Russian Embassy in Bishkek refused EurasiaNet.org’s request for comment.
At home, political figures and advocacy groups are pressing Bishkek to do more to lighten the bureaucratic load on their nationals in Russia. Kubanychbek Isabekov, a candidate in the recent presidential elections, made the issue a central part of his electoral campaign.
Kyrgyz lobbying groups have little power, because decisions on dual nationality and citizenship applications are entirely up to Moscow, said Nurdin Tynaev, head of the Center for Citizens of the Kyrgyz Republic Employed Abroad at the Ministry of Labor, Employment and Migration. “Our constitution already allows citizens to hold two passports, but for true dual citizenship, an agreement must be struck with a foreign government,” Tynaev explained. “Forcing the government of a foreign country to make changes favorable to [our citizens] in its migration regime – this we unfortunately cannot do.”
Chris Rickleton is a Bishkek-based journalist.