oDR: Feature

New Russian citizens from Central Asia face uncertainty over Ukraine war

Russian citizenship is pragmatic for migrants from states like Tajikistan. But they may be dragged into Putin’s war

Elena Borisova
17 October 2022, 9.57am

CC BY NC ND 2.0 International Labor Organization / Flickr. Some rights reserved

Laziz* came to Russia almost ten years ago as a migrant worker after graduating from high school in northern Tajikistan. Since then, he’s managed to obtain Russian citizenship, get married in his home village, and bring his young wife and two-year-old twins to St Petersburg.

He’s now facing an uneasy future.

While Russian men of military age have fled abroad since Russia declared “partial mobilisation”, migrant workers from Central Asia who recently acquired Russian citizenship, like Laziz, often aren’t in a position to rush back home.

Instead, they hope they will be able to avoid Putin’s mobilisation for the war against Ukraine.

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As Laziz’s father-in-law Farkhod, who also lives in St Petersburg, told me: “Where would [Laziz] go? He took a huge loan from a Russian bank. Where would we all go? We have no money. We’re staying here.”

For new Russian citizens, the intertwining of lives in countries like Tajikistan with lives in Russia – already a complicated feat prior to the war – is now presenting even more difficulties.

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CC BY ND 2.0 International Labor Organization / Flickr. Some rights reserved

For Central Asian migrant workers, a Russian passport means avoiding costly payments – and serves as a protection against deportation. Russia’s labour licence system means that migrant workers who aren’t citizens can spend up to 20% of their monthly income on paying for their right to work in the country.

The number of Tajiks seeking Russian citizenship has also risen rapidly since the tightening of Russia’s migration regime in 2012, which brought a sharp rise in deportations and entry bans for those who (sometimes unknowingly) violated migration rules. According to data from the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs, 103,681 Tajikistani nationals acquired citizenship in 2021.

Estimates show that, out of Tajikistan’s population of 9.5 million, approximately 700,000 to 800,000 are working in Russia. Migration became a new survival strategy for many families in the wake of Tajikistan’s civil war, when thousands left in search of work due to the never-ending economic and political crises back home.

As a result, the economies of Tajikistan and Russia are deeply entangled. Tajikistan is regularly placed in the top five most remittance-dependent countries in the world, with remittances making up around 35% of national GDP.

A pragmatic citizenship

For many, the process of gaining Russian citizenship is gruelling. People have to invest time, effort and resources into finding information, contacting intermediaries, doing paperwork, taking language exams, and dealing with bureaucratic mistakes such as incorrect transliteration of Tajik names.

But obtaining citizenship doesn’t necessarily mean that people plan to settle down permanently in Russia. Many Tajiks maintain a transnational way of life, going back and forth between Russia and Tajikistan.

Instead, Tajik migrant workers generally view a Russian passport in terms of strategic or pragmatic citizenship. Russian citizenship does not signify a feeling of belonging to the Russian state, but rather reflects a desire to find opportunities there in light of increasing legal and economic uncertainty back home.

However, the relationship is strategic on both sides.

While citizenship seekers are looking to maximise their access to labour markets, mobility and higher standards of living, the Russian state is looking for new citizens, driven by concerns over labour shortages, rural depopulation, ageing and demographic decline.

As widespread narratives about Russians ‘dying out’ were exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic, President Putin made the policy plain, stating in July 2020: “Russia needs an inflow of new citizens.”

The overwhelming majority of these new citizens come from former Soviet countries, with Ukraine and Tajikistan at the top of the list. Various measures have been taken to attract potential people from these countries, including the expansion of the State Programme for the Voluntary Resettlement of Compatriots, which grants ‘fast-track’ citizenship within three to six months.

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(c) Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

But this strategic relationship between migrants and the Russian state appears to be very fragile, since citizenship can be revoked.

As Russia is facing major setbacks on the battlefield in Ukraine and Putin struggles to recruit more soldiers, concerns are mounting that Central Asian migrants will be lured into the ‘special military operation’ either by the promise of easy access to Russian citizenship – or by the threat to revoke it.

I spoke to young men of military age who told me that they would like to leave Russia but were afraid that, if they did, their families would lose Russian citizenship, which had taken years to acquire.

Their fears are not completely irrational. In September, the Moscow embassies of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan issued warnings that “mercenarism” – a clear reference to going to fight in Ukraine – would be considered a criminal offence. Shortly afterwards, a member of Russia’s Human Rights Council claimed that the council was working on a new initiative that would allow naturalised citizens who refuse to join the military to be stripped of their Russian citizenship.

How can Russian citizenship be revoked?

In 2017, Russia changed the law to make it possible to revoke citizenship on the basis of “a lack of intention to take up one’s lawful responsibilities as a citizen” or providing “counterfeit documents or deliberately false information”.

This vague wording opens up a vast terrain for manipulation, and potentially allows the Russian state to strip any naturalised citizen of their status.

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Farkhod, Laziz’s father-in-law, has lived in St Petersburg for three years. He initially tried to obtain Russian citizenship, investing a lot of effort in the process, including a failed attempt to enter into a sham marriage with a Russian woman.

Nowadays, though, he thinks he is lucky not to have a Russian passport.

“These days I feel ziq”, he said, using a Tajik word meaning world-weary, sad, depressed.

“No matter where you go on the street, everyone looks so down, people even cry on the bus, you can’t see a single smiling face around! It’s very scary. Now all my nephews have a problem. All of them are Russian citizens, so they might be mobilised soon too.”

After our conversation, Farkhod called his son-in-law and nephews and tried to persuade them to leave Russia and “wait the war out” in Tajikistan. But they were not very enthusiastic about the idea. “They all say ‘we can’t leave, we have debts, we need money’,” he said. “Laziz’s father also needs a heart surgery, so they are sitting tight for now.”

Farkhod does not know anyone who has received a call-up from the military commissariat yet, but he has seen videos online showing mobilised Tajiks leaving Russia.

While ethnic Russians are fleeing the country and paying huge amounts of money for their journeys, new Russian citizens feel their opportunities to leave are constrained. In the past 30 years, the notion of migration to Russia has become so deeply ingrained in Tajikistan’s culture that it is extremely hard for Tajiks to envisage a different present. At the same time, the recent changes in Russian citizenship policy add to the many other vulnerabilities migrant workers already experience in Russia.

I asked Farkhod what he would do if he or his son were summoned to join the war against Ukraine.

Jokingly, he mentioned the popular advertisement webpage Avito, where, in the weeks following Putin’s “partial mobilisation” speech, ads offering new services to “break a leg or an arm without pain” mushroomed.

*All names have been changed to protect identities.

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