Inter-communal conflict in Kyrgyzstan flared up in 2010. Since then ethnic Uzbeks, the largest racial minority, have been on the move. Sometimes they travel to Russia; sometimes back again. It's always difficult to know where to call home, says Abdujalil Abdurasulov.
A group of travellers sitting on their bags stared anxiously back at the Kyrgyz border behind them. Babies were crying on their mothers’ laps. An elderly woman was using a folder as a fan to find some reprieve from the blistering sun. Everyone looked agitated because, as I later found out, the border guards had stopped several men from their group from leaving the country. I met these people at the Kyrgyz-Kazakh border crossing in August 2010. They were ethnic Uzbeks from Osh who were leaving for Russia.
I witnessed this scene two months after deadly conflict shook the cities of Osh and Jalal Abad in southern Kyrgyzstan. There are no official statistics concerning the number of people who left Kyrgyzstan in the aftermath of the 2010 conflict, though anecdotally it amounts to several thousand, Kyrgyz and Uzbek alike.
'The main reason for this new wave of departure was and remains the general climate of fear and intimidation. Human rights organizations report continuing arbitrary arrests and torture.'
This post-conflict migration has been largely invisible in official discourse because it has merged into the already significant numbers of Kyrgyzstanis seeking seasonal work in Russia.
No longer just seasonal workers
Prior to 2010, most Uzbek migrants from Kyrgyzstan were men. The majority travelled to Russia for seasonal work as unskilled labourers. Most had no intention of staying there permanently. The profile of migrants has drastically changed since then. Today entire families, including women and children, move to Russia and often for good. Middle-class citizens, businessmen and skilled professionals who had never previously thought of moving, started leaving Kyrgyzstan too, often for the first time in their life.
The main reason for this new wave of departure was and remains the general climate of fear and intimidation. Human rights organizations report continuing arbitrary arrests and torture.
Farukh, who was a taxi driver in Osh, described the intimidation that led him to leave. ‘Once I was stopped by police. They started checking my documents and took away all my money. When I asked them what they were doing, they said, shut up or we will find a gun in your car and then you’ll be in trouble.’ Farukh decided to leave Kyrgyzstan after police arrested several of his neighbours.
It is important to note that animosity among many ethnic Uzbeks is not rooted in cultural differences or primordial feelings. ‘I have many Kyrgyz friends who helped me with food during the conflict and I feel no resentment towards them at all,’ says Sardor from Osh. The main push factor for many ethnic Uzbeks is not ‘ancient hatred’ towards the Kyrgyz but lawlessness and feelings of defencelessness. If the authorities maintain the rule of law, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks will live in peace, they say.
In the immediate aftermath of the conflict, when law and order was at its weakest, many people tried to leave by any means they could. Some hired a police escort to accompany them to the capital Bishkek, from where they hoped to drive further on to Russia, several days’ journey away by car. Others tried to go by plane but found that there were no tickets available for several weeks ahead. The prices for real estate and cars dropped drastically, in some cases by half, as many were desperate to liquidize any assets they could quickly and leave for Russia.
The experience of this new wave of migrants is somewhat different from others who went to Russia before 2010. They had different intentions and reasons for coming to Russia. The June conflict has altered their attitude towards their ‘Motherland.’ And their feelings of being abandoned and alien ‘back home’ ultimately shaped their experience in Russia.
The absence of justice created a strong feeling of alienation among ethnic Uzbeks. For them Kyrgyzstan became, as one migrant told me, a ‘step-Motherland’ that provides no support or protection. Mistrust towards government authorities and fear of law-enforcement officers only added to the image of Kyrgyzstan as anti-Uzbek. The nationalistic rhetoric of some state officials was just another proof in their eyes that their homeland no longer felt like home.
Problems of a new life
Yet, for those who decided to leave Kyrgyzstan, particularly as an entire family unit, the challenges were considerable. In Russia, Kyrgyzstani Uzbeks who fled violence merge into the large population of Central Asian labour migrants and face the same harsh realities when it comes to finding a job and a place to stay as well as sorting out permits and registration.
'Many migrants complained that their job applications were ignored simply because of their non-Russian names. Adverts in public transport specifying ‘Slav nationalities only’ reminds them that they are not ‘at home’.
Any foreigner who arrives in the Russian Federation must register within 72 hours. An army of police in the streets make sure that you comply with the law. Dilshod in Yartsevo, a town near Moscow, had to spend almost a quarter of his salary to get temporary registration. ‘I have no relatives or friends here. The flat owner refused to help, so I had no address where I could be registered as a resident. I had to pay some babushka (grandmother) and get a temporary registration at her place.’
But even then many fear that local police officers may check whether they truly live in that address. Migrants can be fined and even deported for systematic violations. Unlike those who came before them, they are alien in Russia and are treated as gastarbeiters, just another group of Central Asians who come to Russia in search of work. Institutions that they have to interact with –Federal Migration Services, police and an employer – often make them feel they are not welcome there. Many migrants complained that their job applications were ignored simply because of their non-Russian names. Every day they see adverts in public transport specifying ‘Slav nationalities only’ and this reminds them that they are not ‘at home’.
Although those who fled violence face the same problems as other labour migrants, they still behave differently. Almost all Uzbeks who came after 2010 sought to apply for Russian citizenship as a first step after their arrival. Entire families, not just male members, tried to change their citizenship. Farkhod from Jalal Abad who helps migrants to register and obtain Russian citizenship in Perm says that after 2010 the number of family applications went up from close to zero to more than 90% of the total number of applications.
The benefits of Russian citizenship
The purpose of getting Russian citizenship has also changed. Whereas prior to 2010 those Kyrgyzstani Uzbeks who applied for Russian citizenship did so with the pragmatic goal of improving their employment prospects, now it is primarily a means of seeking protection. For them, this passport means they are no longer subjects of Kyrgyzstan law, which in their opinion only defends the Kyrgyz. I still remember the delighted face of a 20-year old boy in Jalal Abad showing his friends his red Russian passport to his friends which he felt would prevent him from being detained.
But Russian citizenship further alienates ethnic Uzbeks from Kyrgyzstan. This is due not just to the symbolic affection it implies but also to more tangible factors. As Russian citizens, many migrants experience that the state, at least on the institutional level, protects its citizens no matter what ethnicity they belong to.
‘I got child benefit worth 384,000 roubles, which I can use to buy a flat,’ Sardor from Osh proudly tells me. ‘We also get about 2000 rubles a month for child care’, he adds.
'Russians will not be any more tolerant if a migrant has a Russian passport. But as Akrom in Perm explains, ‘nationalism here is not as bad as it is in Kyrgyzstan.'
Dilshod told me how he was positively surprised by the quality of medical services in Russia. ‘My daughter was born here [in Russia] and I was so surprised when doctors from the local medical clinic came to check on her. They now come so often that I’m tired of them. My two sons were born in Kyrgyzstan and we didn’t have anything like this at all.’
But, most importantly, migrants say the laws do work in Russia. Dilshod described to me a case when Uzbek migrants were attacked by a local Russian gang. The police arrested the culprits, who were later jailed.
A queue of Uzbek and Tajik migrants seeking job permits from Russia's Migration Serivce in Sverdlovskaya Oblast (photo: Pavel Lisytsyn, RIA Novosti Agency, all rights reserved).
The Russians will not be more tolerant if a migrant has a Russian passport. But as Akrom in Perm explains, ‘nationalism here is not as bad as it is in Kyrgyzstan. Nobody breaks into your house, nobody sets fire on your property.’ Here, Akrom says, it doesn’t matter whether you’re Uzbek or Kyrgyz, Azeri or Tajik – we are all ‘blacks’ for them. ‘In my homeland, in my hometown, I’ll be picked on just because I’m Uzbek. They say you’re a Sart [a derogatory term for an Uzbek].’
But as yet few people consider Russia to be their new home. Migrants talk about a ‘mentality’ in Russia that is alien to them. ‘The worst thing in Russia is that there is no culture of respecting elders,’ Polat in Moscow says. ‘When I get old I don’t want to end up in an old people’s home.’ For Sardor, raising his children is also a serious concern because, he says, even girls as young as 11-12 start smoking and drinking.
Migrants from Kyrgyzstan suddenly become aware of how different they are. ‘In Russia, you feel your roots much more strongly,’ says Polat. ‘You realize here that you’re Uzbek and you’re Muslim. I have never been a devout Muslim before but I have started attending a mosque here’.
Interestingly, many Uzbeks from Kyrgyzstan feel no attachment for Uzbekistan either. ‘What did Karimov do to support Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan during the war? Nothing!’ Akrom is full of anger and disappointment. ‘We can’t even go to Uzbekistan. You can only stay 3 days because it’s impossible to register there.’
'‘We are alien everywhere’, ‘we have nowhere to go’ – these are common phrases you hear from Kyrgyzstani Uzbek migrants in Russia.'
‘We are alien everywhere’, ‘we have nowhere to go’ – these are common phrases you hear from Kyrgyzstani Uzbek migrants in Russia. The feelings of being betrayed, abandoned and rejected are central to their worldview. This cannot be considered as an identity crisis, since they feel they do belong to a community. The problem is that they don’t know where the community itself now belongs. Now many Uzbeks in Russia, consciously or not, are trying to define where their society belongs, first of all, geographically.
‘I think the future of Kyrgyzstani Uzbeks should lie in a newly-created region, an area in Russia where we will all move in and create mahallas,’ Polat tells me passionately. ‘We can’t live alone, we have to live in a community, so that our kids can grow up according to our traditions.’
But the tremendous difficulties they face in Russia, when their hard work is barely enough to cover basic needs and their life turns into an endless battle for survival, mean that many Uzbek migrants from Kyrgyzstan face a dilemma. They have to decide whether to return to Kyrgyzstan, where they feel unsafe, or whether to stay in Russia where they struggle to earn enough to feed the family. Unable to overcome the harsh realities of Russia, many migrants have started returning to Kyrgyzstan. But the growing nationalism there forces them to leave again. The quest for home continues.