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Central Asia in Focus: Central Asians Fighting for Russia in Ukraine


RUSSIA -- Kyrgyz migrant workers gather outside the Kyrgyz Embassy in Moscow, August 17,2020. 
RUSSIA -- Kyrgyz migrant workers gather outside the Kyrgyz Embassy in Moscow, August 17,2020. 

Uzbek Presidential Election, the Xian Summit, and more.

What's Happening in the Region

Come to Russia for Work, Fight for Russia in Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on May 15 that simplifies Russian citizenship procedures for foreign citizens who join the Russian military and go to Ukraine.

As Russian military losses in Ukraine continue to pile up, there’s increasing pressure on Central Asians working in Russia to join the military and fight Russia’s full-scale war in Ukraine.

There have been attempts to convince Central Asian migrant laborers in Russia, who number more than six million, to sign up for service in the Russian military.

The wages are high and there is the promise of fast-track Russian citizenship for those who don’t already have it.

This is a good time to note that there are not enough jobs back home in Central Asia. If there were, there would not be more than six million Central Asian migrant laborers in Russia.

Going to Russia to work has been a lifeline for thousands of families back in Central Asia who depend on the money their relatives working in Russia send home.

Many Central Asians try to obtain Russian citizenship.

It makes them eligible for the benefits afforded to Russian citizens and eliminates the need for all the documents migrant laborers must have to live and work in Russia.

Central Asian men with Russian citizenship are fair game for Russian military mobilization.

But some Russian politicians want Central Asian migrant laborers, without citizenship, to be considered eligible and even obligated to go fight Russia’s war.

Russian State Duma Deputy Mikhail Matveev wrote on May 6 that a condition for Central Asian migrant laborers, presumably male, to obtain Russian citizenship should be service in the Russian military.

Matveev wrote that 45,000 Tajiks had obtained Russian citizenship in the first three months of 2023.

“Where are our Tajik battalions?” Matveev asked.

He continues, and here’s where it starts to get ugly, that in Ukraine those dying for the “homeland” are “primarily Russians, who are replaced here (in Russia) by hundreds of thousands of Asians.”

The chairman of Russia’s Investigative Committee, Aleksandr Bastrykin, said May 11 that migrant laborers should be sent to the “special operation zone (Ukraine).”

Bastrykin said murders “committed by migrants” in Russia increased by 18 percent in the last year.

Bastrykin said, “While Russians are at the front, migrants are attacking our rear.”

Why it’s Important: Life for Central Asian migrant laborers in Russia has never been easy.

They have problems with police, Russian nationalists, and unscrupulous employers who sometimes vanish without paying them, to name just a few of the common difficulties.

Now Russian officials want Central Asians to fight in a war Russia is losing.

Attempts to recruit Central Asians now happen at migration centers and mosques.

There are advertisements, in Kyrgyz, Tajik, and Uzbek, at metro stations and on city buses to join the Russian army.

Russian politicians are not even hiding that they would prefer that “Asians,” rather than Russians, were dying for Russia in Ukraine.

Uzbek Presidential Election Failing to Meet Low Expectations

Uzbekistan had a referendum to approve a new constitution on April 30, and with that completed, quickly moved on to a snap presidential election.

Incumbent President Shavkat Mirziyoev will be seeking a third term in office, but thanks to changes in the constitution, he will be seeking his first seven-year term in office.

According to Uzbekistan’s constitution, a person can only serve two terms as president, but the newly approved version changes the length of a presidential term from five to seven years.

That means the previous two elections Mirziyoev won for five-year terms don’t prevent him from running for two seven-year terms.

I was expecting the usual show for this election.

The five registered political parties would each nominate candidates.

The Liberal Democratic Party of Uzbekistan (LDPU) would nominate the obvious winner, as they always have since the party was formed in 2003.

The LDPU nominated Mirziyoev on May 12.

But instead of all five parties having their own candidate, the Milli Tiklanish (National Revival) party also nominated Mirziyoev.

Candidates must be nominated by one of the five registered political parties, so only four people will be competing this time.

Why It’s Important: Mirziyoev promised a new Uzbekistan. But this is reminiscent of the 2000 presidential election when three of four parties at that time supported incumbent Islam Karimov.

Everyone knows Mirziyoev will win the election, but if he wants to continue saying Uzbekistan is different with him as president, then there should be something different about the presidential election.

The Latest Majlis Podcast

This week’s Majlis podcast looks at what has changed in Central Asia’s geopolitics since Russia launched its full-scale war in Ukraine.

The Central Asian states have been improving ties with many countries in the last 15 months – Turkey, Iran, Arab States, and others.

However, all five Central Asian presidents were in Moscow for the May 9 Victory Day parade, and all five will be in China on May 18-19 for a summit with the Chinese president.

This week’s guests are:

  • Nargis Kassenova, a senior fellow and director of the program on Central Asia at Harvard Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies;
  • Paul Stronski, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment’s Russia and Eurasia program where his research focuses on Russia’s relationship with Central Asia and the Caucasus; and
  • Francis Olmos, senior researcher for the Spanish-based GEOPOL 21 research center where he specializes in Central Asian affairs.

What I'm Following

The Xian Summit

As mentioned above, the five Central Asian leaders will be in Xian, China for the first-ever meeting of just the Chinese and Central Asian presidents.

China has been an important partner for the Central Asian states for more than 20 years.

With Russia’s waning fortunes, China is becoming even more important for Central Asia, so it will be interesting to see what happens in Xian.

Fact of the Week

Matveev wasn’t exaggerating when he said 45,000 Tajiks received Russian citizenship in the first quarter of 2023.

Russia’s Interior Ministry said 44,854 Tajik citizens received Russian citizenship.

Some 6,900 citizens of Kazakhstan also did, as well as 5,400 people from Kyrgyzstan, 4,700 from Uzbekistan, and 912 from Turkmenistan.

Get in Touch

Thanks for reading this week’s newsletter.

Feel free to contact me on Twitter @BrucePannier or click reply if you have any questions, comments, suggestions, or just want to connect with me about topics concerning Central Asia.

Please consider filling out this brief survey so that I can better understand how this newsletter can be useful for you.

See you next week for more on what’s happening in Central Asia.

Until next time,
Bruce

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    Bruce Pannier

    Bruce Pannier authors RFE/RL's "Central Asia in Focus" newsletter and appears regularly on the RFE/RL's Majlis podcast.

About Central Asia in Focus

An authoritarian tide is sweeping through Central Asia, resulting in political repression and a stark retreat in civil liberties. Central Asia in Focus, a bi-weekly newsletter, focuses on key events shaping the course of the region. Author Bruce Pannier shares personal insights informed by his three decades of experience covering Central Asia, and tells his readers what may come next.

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