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Michelle O’Brien | Livelihoods, Risk, and Migration to Russia

Liberal Democratic Party of Russia

August 19, 2015

On August 12, the Ellison Center (REECAS) in collaboration with the Center for West European Studies (CWES), the European Union Center, and the Center for Global Studies hosted a teacher workshop which included presentations from local and visiting scholars on the subject of migration in Europe. Educators from around the Pacific Northwest and beyond convened at the University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Studies for a day of presentations, discussions, curriculum development, and light refreshments. UW PhD student in sociology Michelle O’Brien delivered a talk on Central Asian migration to Russia, a phenomenon of considerable importance in the post-Soviet era. O’Brien is currently investigating the effects of shifts in migratory patterns and rising nationalism in Russia on the Central Asian community, both in Russia and at home.

 Central Asia in the Post-Soviet Landscape

by Michael Brinley

Michelle O’Brien delivered a compelling presentation of the intricacies of the Central Asian migration issue with a battery of maps, graphs, headlines and the passion and confidence of a researcher enmeshed in her field. Over 50% of the GDP of Tajikistan and 31% of Kyrgyzstan’s comes from remittances, wages earned abroad that are sent back to a worker’s home country, she noted. Nearly half of Tajikistan’s able-bodied labor force is employed abroad, mainly in Russia. One third of the legal immigrants to Russia are from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan alone. Given such numbers, O’Brien asserted, it is in many ways impossible to speak of contemporary cultural, economic, or political issues in Central Asia without addressing the migration issue.

As O’Brien stated, estimations of the number of immigrants are highly politicized, so one finds that the Federal Migration Service in Moscow conservatively reports the total migrant population at 4.5 million while many fear-mongering nationalist groups estimate it as high as 15 million. The “push/pull” factors of immigration to Russia, to use demographic parlance, include significantly lower GDP rates in Central Asia coupled with a much higher fertility rate than among the rapidly aging Russian population. By comparison with Central Asia, Russia’s economy is booming but its population is not. In addition, there is a cultural familiarity deriving from years of Soviet and Russian imperial governance which enables Central Asians to assimilate relatively quickly to the Russian work environment and thus renders Russia attractive. Nevertheless, the experience of many Central Asian immigrants in Russia is one of discrimination, abuse, and sometimes outright violence. Zeroing in on what happens to Central Asian migrants when they get to Russia, O’Brien observed, “in summation, it’s not good.”

Zhirinovsky and the LDPR

Ethnic Russian population of former Soviet republics in the 1990s.

Ethnic Russian population of former Soviet republics in the 1990s.

O’Brien highlighted the enduring presence of ethnonationalist sentiment in post-Soviet Russia. Such sentiment is perhaps best demonstrated by the repeated election successes of the euphemistically named Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) and its ‘rabid dog’ spokesman, Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Despite often preposterous political positions, Zhirinovsky and the LDPR have consistently secured substantial percentages of State Duma seats since the early 1990s. Zhirinovsky, the “clown prince” of extremist Russian politics, once devised a plan for the disposal of nuclear waste material that involved installing enormous fans along the border to blow the material into the Baltic Republics. “Zhirinovsky is the Donald Trump of Russia,” O’Brien quipped. The remarkably stable success of LDPR in Russia is, according to O’Brien, an important indicator of Russian attitudes towards immigrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia, especially in the capital.

Migration and Rising Nationalism

The crux of O’Brien’s research revolves around the current growth of neo-nationalism in Russia and its effect on Central Asian migration. Some experts are seeing a decreasing trend in immigration from Central Asia to Russia during the last few years as the value of the ruble has declined and Russian immigration and work visa policies have become more prohibitive. Others note the growing role of China in Central Asia and foresee a pivot of migrants’ attention to the East. There is no doubt that it is becoming less financially profitable for migrant workers to make a living in Russia, and their departure en masse to Central Asia would have effects on the labor markets and societies of both Russia and their home countries. Tajikistan, for example, would likely suffer short term harm and possible disaster if its foreign labor force were to return home in large numbers, O’Brien observed. She noted hopefully, however, that such a situation might ultimately lead to increased independence from Russian influence.

Avid Listeners-Aural Recipients

Workshop attendees listening to Michelle O’Brien’s talk on Central Asian Migration in Russia.

O’Brien located the Central Asian/Russian migration issue in a broader geopolitical perspective and presented comparative statistics on rising right-wing anti-immigration movements across Europe. She compared the political tensions in Russia with those also evident in Switzerland, France, Norway, Denmark, and the United States, identifying some noteworthy similarities. O’Brien also noted the presence of similar issues across history, pointing out the recurrence of anti-immigration dominated politics in the United States in the 1840s and at the beginning of the twentieth century, for example. In this broader context, Russia’s reactionary political situation does not stand out too starkly as exceptional, although the rise of Russian nationalist sentiment remains disquieting. O’Brien made a case for taking seriously the anti-immigration rhetoric of neo-nationalist Russia.

In summary, the position of Central Asian migrants in Russia is very precarious and many cyclical migrant workers find themselves caught in between a rock and hard place. Michelle O’Brien ended her presentation with a quote from an Economist article of Sept. 2013 that highlights the nature of the migrants’ dilemma: “A young Tajik at a bazaar near Dushanbe shuddered when describing his three years as a taxi driver in St. Petersburg. There, he preferred working nights so that police would not notice his darker skin. Yet he was home only briefly, to find a wife, and will soon leave his bride for more work. ‘Without Russia, we’d die.’”