The Economic and Social Implications on the Caspian Region of Russians Escaping Mobilization
Author: Samantha Fanger
Nov 10, 2022
The world has kept a careful eye on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, monitoring its trajectory and economic and political impacts. The large crowds of Russians stranded for hours in buses and cars at border crossings or scrambling for flights, also seeking refuge, is a consequence of the war that has gained lesser attention. Most fleeing Russia are military-aged men with their families seeking to avoid mobilization to fight in the war. Many have relocated to other countries in the region, with Kazakhstan receiving the bulk of them and other neighbors like Georgia, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan receiving high numbers as well. Though the long-term effects on the regions and states receiving large numbers of Russian migrants are yet to be seen, the social and economic implications are starting to show.
When the invasion began in February 2022, a number of Russians relocated because of concerns over adverse economic impacts or the potential for a call for martial law. Others left because they were “repulsed” by their country’s decision to impose war on Ukraine. However, the more recent wave of Russians choosing to leave their country is avoiding the draft. Many military-aged men have feared being roped into fighting in Ukraine since Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement on September 21 of partial mobilization. The mobilization decree is intended to create a “stop loss,” which prevents military personnel shortages as Russia trudges on with its invasion of Ukraine.
One serious problem of the current conscription is that many are being sent to war zones with little to no traditional training. According to a recent assessment, “The Russian military leadership is continuing to compromise the future reconstitution of the force by prioritizing the immediate mobilization of as many bodies as possible for ongoing fighting in Ukraine.” Since Putin’s announcement, it is estimated that about 261,000 Russian men have fled, with tens to hundreds of thousands more who have left over the past month to avoid the call to fight in Ukraine. The exact numbers of individuals leaving Russia for refuge are difficult to gauge because figures reported by media sources and state governments include men fleeing the draft, their family members, and other travelers, leaving room for both under and over-reporting.
Kazakhstan is one neighbor that has welcomed draft dodgers with open arms. In a speech, President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev reasoned, that “most of them have to leave because of the hopeless situation. We have to take care of them and secure their safety.” The interior ministry of Kazakhstan announced that it would only extradite those Russians who are on international wanted lists. In Kazakhstani cities near the border with Russia, volunteers are even providing food and accommodation to fleeing Russians, using mosques, theaters, and gyms as makeshift sleeping quarters.
One significant consequence of the recent influx of Russian migrants is surging rent prices. In cities like the capital of Uzbekistan, Tashkent, an increase in the demand for housing alone has caused costs to spike. Russians willing or able to pay double or even triple in rent to be tenants have generated an additional blow. In Kyrgyzstan, some landlords have chosen to evict Kyrgyz tenants who do not have the means to compete. According to reports, hotels and hostels are filled, and flights from Russia to places in the region have increased significantly. Some who came to live in Kyrgyzstan within the first six months of the war, came with one purpose—to open a bank account to circumvent Western sanctions. Because the incentive for Russians to migrate to a new city is no longer just economic, it is possible that some Russians will choose to take up permanent residence. In the Kazakhstan’s Almaty and Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, rent prices have doubled overnight, causing unrest among citizens.
Though negative economic impacts are still developing, countries such as Georgia are also reaping benefits. Currently, Russian citizens have the right to remain in Georgia without a visa for 365 days, which makes Georgia an ideal relocation destination for draft dodgers and others. The increase of Russians entering the country provides additional economic stability in the short term because the Georgian economy relies heavily on tourism—Russians bringing in business and spending money, regardless of their reason for being there, adds value to the national currency.
Kyrgyzstan has also capitalized on the initial wave consisting mainly of Russian tech workers by implementing a Digital Nomad program to allow IT specialists to remain within its borders without needing to obtain work documents or registration. There is a wide range of economic backgrounds within the demographic of Russians now entering neighboring countries. Some are willing and able to spend money, adding to the tourism economy, while those same people could be more apt to keep their current jobs and merely work remotely. Others might enter the workforce in these countries, adding to the labor force but not having the same means to spend money.
Political and Social Implications
Just as Russians leaving their homes to avoid fighting in the war is perhaps telling of lacking popular support for the Kremlin’s aggression toward Ukraine, Kazakhstan’s acceptance of Russian draft dodgers might be interpreted as a show of political strength and opposition to the war on Ukraine. Unlike Belarus, where security officials are ordered to arrest and report Russian draft fleers to Russian authorities, Kazakhstan is choosing to be a haven for any Russians who refuse to participate in Putin’s war on Ukraine.
The Russia-dominated Eurasian Economic Union allows for open-border policies among member states, and in recent years, the flow of migration tended primarily to be Central Asian workers moving to Russia for greater economic opportunities, while most Russians opted to go to Europe for the same purpose. The migration pattern has shifted due to the war. As more and more Russians trickle into other former Soviet Republics, however temporary this shift may be, a new generation of Russians and Central Asians will be affected. Though the influx of migrants may cause economic strife and internal tension over the newcomers, it might be an opportunity to reshape the ideals and perceptions of this generation of young Russians.
Several sources have reported first-hand accounts of individuals who have migrated, with some finding themselves “surprised” by the strength of infrastructure and digitalization of public services. One article followed the story of a young Russian tech worker who fled to Kazakhstan and how his previous perception of the country as one that is “somewhat backward” were reshaped by living in the country, with one observation being that Kazakh public services that were even better than that of St. Petersburg.
While Central Asian countries have maintained an official level of neutrality, a significant number of people in the region support Ukraine. Differences in attitudes towards the influx of Russians vary from a willingness to support draft dodgers to fears over potential colonial mentalities, given Russia’s history with the region and continued imperialistic pursuits, particularly towards neighboring countries like Ukraine and Georgia in years past. How this shift will impact the countries on the receiving end of the change and whether it will be an opportunity to reshape regional relations for the better remains to be seen.