Internal difficulties

Kirill Krivosheev

In the seven months that have passed since the entry of Russian troops into Ukraine, a number of unwritten rules for life in the new conditions have developed in the countries of the post-Soviet space. Moscow, realizing that strong pressure on its neighbors is fraught with destabilization of the region, did not demand too much from them. There was no need to recognize the DPR and LPR or to support the “special operation” – simple neutrality was enough.
The list of bans was quite short. The main thing is not to supply weapons and ammunition to Kiev (out of harm’s way, Kazakhstan completely stopped the export of weapons), but humanitarian aid is possible. Even pro-Ukrainian publications in the media and statements by opposition politicians were usually turned a blind eye.
The new balance looked, though fragile, but capable of stretching for quite a long time. However, the Russian leadership itself broke the barely established status quo when it announced mobilization, pushing neighboring countries to take a more radical stance.
Counter flows
Mobilization in Russia created two streams of problems for its post-Soviet partners at once. On the one hand, a new, even more powerful wave of Russians rushed to storm the border to leave. About 100 thousand people left for Kazakhstan alone in a week. On the other hand, the Russian authorities openly invite migrants, that is, citizens of neighboring countries, to sign an army contract, enticing them with good pay and simplified citizenship.
Concluding a contract, of course, does not yet mean being on the front line, but even a hint of this caused an immediate reaction in the Central Asian capitals. The Ministries of Foreign Affairs of Uzbekistan , Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan issued statements warning “against participating in hostilities on the territory of foreign states, for which criminal liability has been established.” Theologians followed the diplomats : “A Muslim today must be more attentive and vigilant than ever before. One should not intervene in conflicts during various disasters and unrest that threaten human development.”
These appeals are addressed not only to those who wanted to get a Russian passport, but also to those who have already received it, keeping the Uzbek, Tajik or Kyrgyz one. And the point here is not so much the possible dissatisfaction of the West due to the participation of Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in the battles near Kherson, but the fact that as a result, the states of Central Asia can get a considerable number of citizens with combat experience who were not there before, except for a few jihadists.
It also creates a not too pleasant legal incident when, according to one passport, a person will be considered an honorary veteran, and according to another, a criminal. A scandalous and embarrassing moment for all parties can also become if, say, Uzbeks or Kyrgyz are captured by Ukrainians, and they have to decide where to return them – to their homeland or to Russia. So in the future, this issue may become perhaps the main source of tension between Moscow and the capitals of Central Asia.
Hospitality costs
Another task that now has to puzzle over is what to do with tens of thousands of Russians who hastily arrived. Azerbaijan turned out to be in the most successful position – they just have n’t opened the land border there yet under the pretext of coronavirus. Otherwise, now tens of thousands of residents of Dagestan, who most actively protest against mobilization, could move there. In the most difficult situation is Kazakhstan, which has a huge, and most importantly, open land border with Russia, as well as a developed railway connection.
So far, post-Soviet capitals are comforting themselves with the fact that a significant part of the newcomers will soon leave for more attractive countries. But, given the position of the European Union on visas for Russians, this will not work for everyone. Rather, we can expect the migration of Russians who have left the post-Soviet space: for example, from Tajikistan to Kazakhstan or from Uzbekistan to Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia.
Many of these states are together with Russia in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and, as members of the same military bloc, in theory, should at least not harm each other’s defenses by sheltering deviators. But so far, as practice shows, the systems of the post-Soviet states are rather striving for dry formalism. The authorities of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have already stated that they are obliged to extradite Russian citizens to Moscow only if they are put on the international wanted list. And this is impossible without committing a crime of medium gravity and above, to which draft evasion ( Article 328 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation) does not apply.
This position is quite consistent with the public mood in these countries. Many people show sympathy for the Russians, although sometimes it is interspersed with suspicion and even fear. The suggestion that tomorrow Putin will decide to protect Russians who have fled from him looks casuistic, but not entirely unbelievable.
To make the arriving Russians more “trustworthy”, local public figures come up with various initiatives. For example, in Kyrgyzstan they are offered to talk about the events of 1916, when local residents rebelled against mobilization to the fronts of the First World War. And Kazakh TikTokers record videos about the famine of 1928-1934, for which the Soviet government is blamed.
True, it is more likely that problems with visitors will arise much earlier due to more mundane issues. For example, because of the shortage of places in kindergartens and schools, which in Central Asia are not enough even for their own. Those who rent apartments in large cities are also worried. The local media is already full of stories that landlords are simply evicting their fellow citizens in order to rent out housing to Russians at twice the price.
It is also not entirely clear how those who come from Russia will interact with local Russians, who are numerous in all Central Asian countries (about 3 million in Kazakhstan, 720,000 in Uzbekistan , and 340,000 in Kyrgyzstan). Nationalists fear that the influx of Russian deviators could change the ethnic balance in the host countries, especially in areas where Russians already made up a large part of the population, like northern Kazakhstan or Bishkek.
Internal difficulties
Among other things, Putin’s mobilization came at a time when internal political tension is already high in literally every country in the post-Soviet space. Kazakhstan is undergoing a global restructuring of the state, which began after the January riots and should be completed in November with early presidential elections.
In Uzbekistan, there is a constitutional reform, some of its points have already led to bloody events in Nukus. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have just completed another round of border fighting, but the conflict remains unresolved. In Armenia and Azerbaijan, all attention is focused on a new round of confrontation around Karabakh and large-scale clashes on the border.
To avoid unnecessary difficulties, Kazakhstan is tightening migration laws. A draft law is being prepared that in order to obtain a residence permit, it is mandatory to present a foreign passport (and not an internal one, according to which Russians are also allowed to enter Kazakhstan) and a certificate of no criminal record with a signature and official seal – and not just an electronic copy. At a minimum, the overwhelming majority of those fleeing mobilization will not be able to provide the last document – you need to wait about a month for a certificate, and then pick it up at the Russian department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. And without a residence permit, Russians can stay in Kazakhstan for no more than 90 days, although leaving the country even for one day resets this period.
In Uzbekistan, which is not part of the CSTO and the Eurasian Union and generally keeps a distance in relations with Moscow, the Russians are already waiting for a colder reception. Without temporary registration, you can stay there only 15 days, and with it – no more than 60.
The authorities of Kyrgyzstan and Armenia , which are trying to position their countries as local centers of the IT industry, look at the influx of Russians more favorably. But the situation may change along with the composition of visitors.
The stereotype that most of them are IT people has long been outdated. Indeed, everyone is fleeing from mobilization, including those who were not going to work abroad.
The influx of refugees from Russia inevitably forces the authorities of the post-Soviet countries to choose their words very carefully. Even a direct answer to the question of why Russians have rushed abroad en masse can piss off the Kremlin. During a meeting with Putin in Vladivostok, Pashinyan could still choose a neutral wording: “Many Russians have relocated to Armenia because they need to receive salaries from foreign companies, but now banking complications have arisen.”
But that was before mobilization. After it, only Tokayev dared to comment on the reasons for the flight of the Russians, and then very veiledly: “Most of them are forced to leave because of the current hopeless situation.”
Soon, possible conflicts between Russians and local residents will inevitably force officials to add specifics to these words: how do the post-Soviet states feel about the choice of these people to avoid being sent to Ukraine? And how should one treat Putin’s policy, which put them before this choice?
Apparently, Russia’s post-Soviet neighbors will try to further distance themselves as much as possible from the problems created by Moscow, keep silent or use cautious phrases about the “inviolability of the territorial integrity of states.” But as the number of Russians fleeing to these countries grows, and the number of citizens of these countries fighting in Ukraine, it will become increasingly difficult not to notice what is happening.
Sooner or later, we will have to call a spade a spade, especially since the population will most likely approve of such a verbal attack on Moscow. So far, the non-recognition of the referendums held by Moscow has been announced aloud only in Kazakhstan. Tokaev, who called the DPR and LPR “quasi-state entities”, clearly liked the reputation of a daredevil who challenged Putin. But others will surely follow.

Courtesy:  The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.