Sitting out the crisis: sanctions, remittances, and patience in migrant Moscow

Madeleine Reeves

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is having profound and far-reaching consequences away from the field of war. While western states worry about rising fuel prices and some countries begin to ration the sale of sunflower oil, the impact on food security in the global South is likely to be far more severe. In peacetime the World Food Programme buys 40% of its wheat from Ukraine, leading David Beasley, the executive director of the WFP, to speak of ‘collateral hunger’ in places like Lebanon and Yemen, where rations for refugees displaced from other wars have already been halved.

 In this post, I consider how the sanctions are beginning to affect populations in Central Asia. The region includes two of the most remittance-dependent states in the world, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which derived the equivalent of 31% and 27% of their 2020 GDP from migrant transfers. Around 1 million people, or 1 in 7 of the Kyrgyzstani population, works in Russia; in Tajikistan that figure is closer to 1 in 4. A week into the war, the World Bank dramatically revised its forecast for remittance transfers from Russia to Central Asia in 2022. Instead of the pre-war prediction of a 3% increase in transfers year on year, the World Bank now estimated a 33% decline. In Tajikistan, meanwhile, remittances are expected to decline by more than a fifth, as opposed to a pre-invasion prediction of a 2% increase. But what is that likely to mean in practice, in terms of departures, returns and staying in place?

Catching cold

“You know what we say? when Russia sneezes, Kyrgyzstan catches a cold.” I first heard this comment in the winter of 2009 in a village in northern Kyrgyzstan. Janybek was on his way to the local market to sell his cow so that his son and daughter-in-law, stuck in Moscow without work and with mounting debts to pay, could meet their living costs in the dormitory apartment that they shared with fourteen others. The financial crisis that was rippling through the global economy had stalled several years’ growth in the Russian construction sector, and Janybek’s village was feeling the pinch. Rather than returning home to near-certain unemployment, however, Janybek’s son and daughter-in-law decided to ride out the crisis in Russia itself, ‘sucking their cheeks’ in the hope that work would reappear soon.

I heard a version of the same comment in 2014, this time during fieldwork in Moscow, when economic sanctions imposed on Russia in the wake of the annexation of Crimea led to sharp declines in the value of the remittances sent by Central Asian migrant workers to family members back home. The Kyrgyz seasonal workers whom I interviewed for my research stressed the importance of patience (sabyr) and canny (akyl) to be able to ride out this crisis. Some of my informants switched from construction work to taxi-driving, which provided more autonomy and security, albeit lower margins. There was plenty of defiance too: Russia, after all, was a ‘great state’ with a strong leader. Things here were hard, I was told, but returning would be even worse. As one of my acquaintances asked rhetorically, ‘what am I going to do if I return? At least Putin gives us work.’

The fall-out for migrant workers from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 are likely to be severe and long-lasting: less a cold than a debilitating and chronic illness as the impact of sanctions reverberate through multiple sectors of the Russian economy. 80% of remittances to Kyrgyzstan come from Russia, transmitted in roubles and then converted into local currency. The vernacular rule of thumb for my informants in the mid-2010s was that if the rouble-to-som exchange rate was equal or higher to 1 to 1.5 you could make ends meet. Today, that exchange rate is close to 1:1 and the Kyrgyz som has fallen precipitously against the dollar, making imported goods (which includes many basic foodstuffs) even more expensive. There has already been a run on sugar throughout Central Asian cities, leading to price hikes and shortages, and in Kyrgyzstan, which imports 90% of its wheat from Russia and Kazakhstan, the cost of bread has been rising.

Amplifying pressures

These rises come on top of a number of existing economic pressures. The covid-19 pandemic had already severely impacted household budgets through declining remittance transfers, rising unemployment, and border closures. Many of the young men and women who had planned to work in Russia in 2020 and 2021 were unable to leave because of border closures, lockdowns and, in Tajikistan, eye-watering hikes in ticket prices when Russia reopened its borders (the agency that had a monopoly on ticket sales is owned by the President’s daughter).

The sanctions have also occurred at a time of existing inflationary pressures in Central Asia, which had been impacting household budgets and creating a febrile atmosphere across the region. In January 2022, protests over a sudden hike in liquified petroleum gas prices in the oil-town of Zhanaozen spread throughout Kazakhstan, resulting in an official death toll of 227, and the arrest of over 9,900 people. Tracking of protest movements by the Oxus Society for Central Asia shows a sharp increase between 2018 and 2021 in protests linked to socio-economic grievances and demands for higher wages. Russia’s invasion occurred at a moment when families were beginning to hope that 2022 might be a year of comparative recovery after the lean years of the pandemic, when many families resorted to selling assets or taking out loans. For many of those employed on the construction sector, early March typically marks the start of the sezon: the construction season, when young men leave in droves to seek employment in construction brigades across the Russian landmass. Many would-be migrants are now reconsidering whether the debt of departure is worth the risk. On 17 March, the Uzbek-language telegram channel, Uzmigrant, published a video asking ‘is it worth trying to get to Russia this season?’ At the time of writing, under a week later, the video has been viewed almost 600,000 times.

Sitting out the crisis?

What, though, of those migrant workers who are already in Russia? Here I should stress that my insights here are anecdotal. The everyday pressures facing migrant workers as visibly-marked outsiders in a country where war cannot be named make me wary of messaging my interlocutors about their response to the war, and many of our habitual channels of communication have been blocked. Three things, however, seem clear. The first is that the full force of the sanctions is yet to hit. Some sectors have seen mass lay-offs, but others are recruiting. On Kyrgyz-language job boards, adverts recruiting to Burger King (which still operates in Russia) abound now that McDonalds has shut up shop.

Second, whatever their private attitudes about the war (and there is good evidence that migrant workers in Russia are exposed to a more diverse range of news sources than monoglot Russian speakers), they are acutely aware that deportation and re-entry bans are material risks for those who do not hold Russian citizenship, even in times of peace. An online warning that prospective Uzbek migrants should wipe any material pertaining to the war in Ukraine from their phones before attempting to enter Russia had received more than 1.3 million views in the space of a fortnight. As Russia-based anonymous writes in a recent blog post for Cultural Anthropology, “decades of socioeconomic pressures has created collective immunity to speaking of ‘politics’. No one wants to get fired.”

The third thing that seems clear is that even if there were migrant workers keen, for economic or political reasons, to return home, doing so right now is prohibitively expensive. Many flights between Russia and the states of Central Asia have been cancelled. Russia’s Federal Air Transport Agency has advised Russian airlines with aircraft leased from abroad to stop flying passengers and cargo from Russia, and others have been unable to access international insurance as a result of sanctions. Anecdotally, it seems that, at least to certain destinations in Central Asia, tickets are disproportionately being bought by Russian citizens seeking temporary refuge in some of the few states that they can on an internal passport in the wake of the Russian invasion. Jokes and memes abound about the local inflation in rental costs, replicating racialised economies of access (‘only Slavs need apply’) to which migrants are regularly exposed in Moscow.

The long-term impact of this substantively new dynamic of post-imperial migration remains to be researched. For Central Asian migrant workers in Russia, meanwhile, patience and canny will, as in 2014, probably be the watchwords for sitting out this crisis, even if that means switching job, working longer hours, or combining jobs to make ends meet. As one Tajik migrant commented to an RFE/RL journalist: “the only thing I’m sure about is that I will stay in Russia even if the rouble falls.” Previous period of krizis have normalised the work of patiency: ‘sucking cheeks’ and waiting out until things improve, belying expectations of mass return in the wake of economic declines.

 

This blog is part of the forum: Making sense of the war in Ukraine