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Kyrgyz Abandon Passports Along With Country

Population loss has serious implications for Kyrgyzstan’s future, say experts.
By Ainagul Abdrakhmanova
Politicians and analysts in Kyrgyzstan are raising the alarm as more and more members of the country’s expatriate population opt to stay away and take out Russian nationality.

Apart from the loss of some of Kyrgyzstan’s most enterprising people, the transformation of Kyrgyz into Russian nationals will reshape the Central Asian state’s demographic map, they say. Nor does it say much for the state of a country which so many people want to leave.

The number of Kyrgyzstan nationals applying for Russian passports is expected to rise again following a June 1 decision by Moscow to cut the number of temporary work permits it issues to foreign workers.

The Russian embassy in Bishkek was unable to tell IWPR what the new migrant quota would be, but it is expected to represent a significant reduction on the previous limit, set at four million, according to an Itar-TASS report from April.

Kyrgyzstan’s State Committee for Migration and Employment says 400,000 people are away working in Russia, while unofficial estimates put the number at around one million.

The Russian construction industry used to be the major employer of people from Kyrgyzstan as well as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, although the continuing financial crisis has hit this sector badly and jobs have been shed.

Migrant labourers also work in farming, logging, catering, and transport. Over the last couple of years, skilled professionals such as doctors, nurses and engineers have joined the exodus, attracted by the prospect of better pay.

Some of these “gastarbeiters” are strictly seasonal, going back home during the Russian winter when the building trade contracts. Others go back less regularly, and some begin to put down roots.

Russia’s immigration service says that in the last four years, some 200,000 Kyrgyzstan citizens have obtained Russian passports, and the pace is picking up.

Citizens of Kyrgyzstan enjoy a shorter application procedure than most other foreigners thanks to a special bilateral arrangement with Russia, under which it takes three months to issue citizenship once all the right papers have been received.

Despite the economic downturn in Russia, settling down and taking out citizenship there remains an attractive option, certainly when compared with returning home.

“In this time of global financial crisis, finding and retaining work is easier in Russia than in Kyrgyzstan,” said Nur Omarov, a political analyst in Bishkek.

Once Kyrgyz workers gain Russian citizenship, they are free from the immigration quota system and the threat of deportation for breaching work or residence regulations. They find it easier to get work, generally with better pay and conditions, and can claim full welfare benefits.

Valeriy Uleyev, head of Slavic Diaspora, a community group in Jalalabad in southern Kyrgyzstan, says people are still leaving the country and taking with them all the papers they would need to apply for Russian citizenship.

Once established in Russia, such people inevitably begin losing contact with their country of birth, and as time goes on they are less and less likely to consider moving back permanently.

“At first, they send money home to their families, but once they obtain citizenship, parents take their children, whom the grandparents have been looking after,” said Omarov.

Alikhan Rustemov, a welder by trade who took out Russian citizenship four years ago, will not be leaving Moscow despite being out of work.

“I haven’t got a job at the moment,” he told IWPR. “Because of the crisis, many construction projects have stopped and I’m still looking for a job. But I won’t be going home. What would I do there?”

Azat Tuleberdiev has been a Russian citizen for eight years now, and is well established as a dentist in a private clinic in Moscow.

“I probably won’t return to Kyrgyzstan,” he said. “My daughter goes to the local school and my wife is a teacher. We have residency and we’ve got nothing to complain about,” he said.

Nurdin Tynaev, head of the Bishkek-based Network of Labour Migrant Assistance Centres, says the loss of citizens to another state is an indictment of the standard of living in Kyrgyzstan.

What is worse, “the majority of those now leaving belong to the working-age population”, he added.

Uleyev said the outflow of people could be a drag on economic growth, which in turn would prompt more people to leave.

“It’s now doubtful whether the country will continue to progress and develop,” he said. “If the economy isn’t developing dynamically, people will be forced to leave in order to find jobs and feed their families.”

Most of the migrants are ethnic Kyrgyz these days, as the mass departure of Russians from Kyrgyzstan was a thing of the early Nineties.

Nikolai Bailo, a Communist Party member of parliament, warns that the phenomenon of ethnic Kyrgyz taking out Russian nationality could alter the ethnic balance back home.

The Kyrgyz currently account for seven out of ten of the population, followed by Uzbeks and then Russians.

“It’s a serious problem for the nation’s demographics and such losses would be irreparable,” said Bailo, who is of Slavic background.

Yet all might not be lost. There is some evidence to suggest that even when immigrants acquire Russian passports for practical hopes, many still harbour hopes of returning home one day.

“Many migrants working Russia live there temporarily. At least that’s what many of them want to believe,” said sociologist Aysalkyn Botoeva.

“Some of them say privately that they’ve managed to hold onto their Kyrgyz passports illicitly, because they hope to go back to Kyrgyzstan once they’ve earned enough money to buy a property and other assets.”

Venera Junusova, a spokeswoman for the Kyrgyz State Committee for Migration and Employment, notes that it is currently hard for Russian passport-holders to reintegrate if they come back.

“When they return, they find it very difficult to find jobs because they are now regarded as foreign citizens and as such are subject to quotas placed on foreign labour,” she said.

The deputy speaker of Kyrgyzstan’s parliament, Kubanychbek Isabekov, is among those who would like to see a dual citizenship arrangement, allowing people to have security as long as they are living and working in Russia, without burning their bridges altogether.

Kyrgyz legislation does in fact allow dual nationality, but as Isabekov pointed out, a bilateral agreement on mutual recognition would have to be reached with Russia before the system could work.

“Negotiations with Russia to recognise dual citizenship are currently under way,” he added.

Ainagul Abdrakhmanova and Azamat Kachiev are IWPR-trained journalists in Bishkek and Moscow.

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