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Eurasia on the Move: The Regional Implications of Mass Labor Migration from Central Asia to Russia

Over "the past 10 years, Russia…has become the migration magnet for the rest of Eurasia," stated Fiona Hill, a Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, at a 27 September 2004 Kennan Institute lecture. "We've literally had millions of economic migrants moving into places like Moscow, St. Petersburg, and many other Russian cities in search of work and a better life." Between 1991 and 2001, an average of 790,000 people immigrated to Russia annually, Hill said, noting that only the United States and Germany receive more immigrants per year. She argued that migration has had important effects on the political, economic, and social situation not only in Russia, but throughout Eurasia.

According to Hill, Russia has experienced positive net migration since 1991, with the majority of immigrants arriving from other Soviet successor states. Ethnic Russians migrating to their titular homeland from other Soviet republics comprised nearly 60 percent of total immigration to Russia between 1989 and 2002. However, Hill noted that these numbers reflect only legal migration. She argued that significant numbers of non-Russian labor migrants have come to Russia from the Caucasus and Central Asia, often illegally. As many as 2 million Azerbaijanis, 1 million Armenians, 650,000 Tajiks, 500,000 Georgians and Kyrgyz, and 100,000 Uzbeks may be working in the Russian Federation.

High levels of immigration have affected Russia in a number of ways—many of which, Hill argued, have been very beneficial to the country. She noted that the Russian economy has more than doubled since 1999 and that domestic demand has increased significantly. Immigrant entrepreneurs provide Russian consumers with cheap goods (primarily from Asia and the Middle East), which is particularly important in Siberia and the Far East, where transportation costs make goods from European Russia prohibitively expensive. In addition, "cheap labor is filling a void inside Russia itself…the whole of the lower-paying sectors in the Russian economy are increasingly being filled by migrants from elsewhere in the CIS," she said.

Immigration has also helped to ameliorate the consequences of Russia's demographic decline, Hill argued. Russia could face serious labor shortages in all fields due to out-migration of skilled workers, high death rates among working age people, low birth rates, and a high percentage of the population above retirement age. However, according to Hill, immigrants have compensated for three-fourths of Russia's natural population decrease between 1992 and 2003. The majority of immigrants are of working age, and although many are employed in low-skill sectors of the economy, migrants from the CIS also include a large number of university graduates.

Hill contended that labor migration to Russia has also had a stabilizing effect in the Eurasian region as a whole: "Russia's biggest contribution to the security of this very vulnerable region over the past decade has not been through its military presence…or security pacts, but has been specifically through absorbing the surplus labor from the Caucasus and Central Asian states, providing markets for their goods, and transferring funds in the form of remittances." Russia's labor market has provided an outlet for hundreds of thousands of people who would be unemployed in Central Asia and the Caucasus, and remittances from migrants working in Russia have become a major component of the economies of many former Soviet states—as much as 25 percent of GDP in Georgia and 18 percent in Tajikistan.

Hill warned that "in spite of the mutual benefits for all the Eurasian states as well as for Russia…we're starting to see migrants become the new front for social upheaval in Russia." She explained that both within the government and in the general population there is a perception that immigration has led to increased crime and unemployment among native Russians. In addition, migration and other demographic factors are increasing the proportion of non-Russian ethnic groups in the population. These conditions have contributed growth in the popularity of extreme right-wing nationalist groups in Russia, according to Hill. Although currently support for such groups remains limited, she noted that "many Russian analysts are increasingly fearing the emergence of an ultra-nationalist political party."

A backlash against immigrants is not inevitable. Hill noted that there are many people within Russia, including in the government, who understand that migration is vital to Russia's economy. There are also a significant number of NGOs that promote the rights of migrants and work with state agencies to create rational migration policy, she added. However, Hill cautioned that there are also strong factions that want to limit migration in the name of national security. In the wake of serious terrorist attacks on Russia in recent months, Hill concluded that it remains an open question "whether there will be more of an attempt to really curtail migration, to restrict where people can work, and, indeed, to send people back to their home countries, which would, over the long term, not be great for Russia, and certainly wouldn't be good for the rest of Eurasia."


About the Author

Erin Trouth Hofmann

Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, Social Work, and Anthropology, Utah State University
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more