Reshaping Realities in the Caspian Region: 2023 in Review
Continuities and Re-Orientation in Migration
In 2023, migration flows from Central Asia saw both continuity and the beginnings of a shift away from Russia as the traditional destination for migrant workers.
During the first quarter of 2023, foreign laborers migrating to Russia surged by 1.3 million, marking a 60% increase compared to the same period in 2022. Central Asian laborers still constitute a significant portion of labor migrants in Russia, with 350,000 Tajiks, over 630,000 Uzbeks, and 173,000 Kyrgyz working in Russia. All these groups experienced a significant surge in labor migration to Russia compared to the previous year, with Uzbekistan witnessing a 72% increase and Tajikistan recording a notable 40% rise. Remittance inflows from Russia to Central Asia have also exhibited resilience, increasing by a substantial 50% from $16.8 million in 2021 to $25.1 million in 2022.
Possible causes of such high growth include a Russian labor shortage caused by military conscription and mass migration out of Russia, or rebounds after the initial invasion of Ukraine deterred migrants.
Due to mounting concerns for Central Asian migrants in Russia, governments in the region are actively exploring diversification in the destinations of labor migration, especially Uzbekistan, the most populous country of the region.
In September 2023, Uzbekistan took another step towards diversifying labor migration destinations by establishing agreements with Germany. The Agency of External Labor Migration under the Ministry of Employment and Poverty Reduction of Uzbekistan held discussions with Goldcliff Stark, an international law firm based in Germany, who expressed interest in providing labor assistance to Uzbekistan by employing Uzbek workers.
Uzbekistan is also actively exploring opportunities in the Middle East. On September 25, representatives of the Agency for External Labor Migration held discussions with the Israel Association of Manufacturers (IAM), an Israeli company with over 2000 enterprises and industries. The discussions concluded with an agreement to undertake the necessary steps required for admitting Uzbek workers into IAM through government-authorized arrangements.
A similar agreement was reached between Uzbekistan and Saudi Arabia in September following discussions with the International Recruitment Company of Saudi Arabia.
Credit: Nicholas Castillo
2023 also witnessed a continuation of the influx of migrants fleeing Russia due to the ongoing invasion. Of those Russians who fled abroad, hundreds of thousands have ended up in the Caspian region, usually initially viewing the countries as transitory locations.
A July 2023 analysis that sought to determine how many Russians were establishing some kind of medium to long-term residency and utilized official government statistics found that roughly 150,000 Russians had emigrated to Kazakhstan, 110,000 to Armenia, 90,000 to 100,000 had gone to Türkiye, and around 62,000 had gone to Georgia between February of 2022 and July of 2023. These statistics are roughly concurrent with the number of Russians who have likely stayed in these states, given many exited hoping to move to other countries (although the statistic for Georgia especially deviates from other reports, which claim as many as 200,000 Russians may have entered Georgia, although most likely moved on to other locations).
While these arrivals likely spurred higher economic growth, in Georgia particularly, local residents have complained of skyrocketing rent costs as well as the resurgence of the Russian language’s public role. In the last year events in Georgia such as the resumption of commercial flights to Russia and the arrival of a large Russian cruise ship, have sparked outrage in the population, some of whom staged widely covered protests in response. Anti-Russian graffiti is now ubiquitous in Tbilisi. Georgian public opinion is highly supportive of Ukraine and its efforts to defend itself from Russia’s invasion, a conflict that one poll found 87% of Georgias see as analogous to their own conflict with Russian-backed separatists.
Harsh reactions have not been felt in other Caucasus countries, although as anger mounts against Russia in Armenia, it will be interesting to see if similar tensions develop there.
In Kazakhstan, while anti-Russian sentiment is not high (60% of Kazakhs describe themselves as neutral in the Russo-Ukrainian war), it does appear to be growing. A May poll found that the number of Kazakhs fearful of a Russian invasion of their country had risen from 8% to 15% and that a third reported the war in Ukraine had worsened their perception of Russia in the last year. The Kazakh government looks to be tightening restriction this Russian migration and has ended a loophole in visa requirements that allowed de-facto unlimited stays for Russians in Kazakhstan.
Migration in and out of the Caspian region has the potential to shape the region for years to come. Russian language and culture, which were declining in influence across the region may see a revived place and public life, which in turn may stir hostilities. Outmigration to destinations other than Russia however may have the opposite effect in years to come, de-centering Russia from its longstanding role as the de-facto center for educational and economic opportunities.
Street Protests in South Caucasus
Credit: Nicholas Castillo
Georgia continued its tradition of street protests this year. Beginning on March 6, thousands of mostly young Georgians took to the streets of Tbilisi in order to protest the proposal of a bill that would have classified non-governmental and civil society organizations that receive significant amounts of foreign financial support as “foreign agents.” Critics of the bill, including street protesters as well as Georgia’s President Salome Zourabichvili, attacked the bill as a threat to Georgia’s democratic society and akin to similar legislation passed in Russia. The protest lasted from March 6 to 10 and entailed dramatic scenes of protesters waving European Union flags and clashing with riot police on the steps of the Georgian parliamentary building. Over 130 protesters were arrested and 50 police officers were injured over the course of the protest. Following the protests, the parliament withdrew the proposed bill.
Credit: Nicholas Castillo
Throughout late September, thousands of Armenians would come to protest on Yerevan’s main square due to the perceived inability of the government of Nikol Pashinyan to prevent the dissolution of the ethnic-Armenian separatist administration of the Karabakh region. Over the course of several nights, protesters would call for the resignation of Prime Minister Pashinyan, who they blamed for their defeat in the long running conflict over the territory. Members of opposition parties attempted to control the protests and called for road blockades and rallies in order to force Pashinyan, who himself came to power in a 2018 revolution, to step down. The protests grew chaotic, with police deploying stun grenades to control the crowd and with hundreds of protesters detained by police. However, the protests seem to have changed little, with Pashinyan securely in control of the country and currently taking part in efforts to normalize relations with Azerbaijan.
Especially in Armenia in Georgia, public opinion remains strong and has mobilized in the last year. Yet in Armenia it has not proven effective and in Georgia, while street movements have been effective in shaping policy in Georgia, it has likewise not challenged the control of the governing party, who despite minimal popularity remain better positioned than any opposition group.