Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kyrgyz Emigrate in Droves

Emigration by Kyrgyzstan's young skilled workforce is doing untold harm to the economy
By Meder Imakeev

Around a tenth of the population of Kyrgyzstan have chosen to leave their country in the last decade, dealing a severe blow to the labour market in this country of just under five million.


The fact that this emigration particularly affects the young, skilled and best educated Kyrgyz is causing most concern.


"Kyrgyzstan's emigrants are much younger now," says Vasiliy Ostapchuk head of the Federal Migration Service in Kyrgyzstan. In the early 1990s, most emigres were elderly people going to live with relatives in Russia, he says. "These days, it's people in their early thirties."


Ostapchuk says most recent emigrants were drivers, builders, engineers, teachers and doctors. And most were ethnic Russians, who felt discriminated against by the Kyrgyz government.


In the last decade the Russian population has declined drastically. Formerly Russians were the second largest ethnic group, comprising 21 per cent of the population. Now they have declined by 50 per cent.


The departure peaked in 1993 when 121,000 people left, worried by the effects of conflicts in neighbouring Tajikistan and Afghanistan and the economic and social problems which beset the country following the break-up of the Soviet Union.


Vitaliy Bussel, a leader of the opposition Ar-Namys party, believes discrimination against ethnic minorities, especially in the public sector, is a major factor behind the latest increase in departures.


"It is no secret that the ethnic majority has achieved absolute domination in positions of power and government administration," he said. "The number of non-natives in the government continues to dwindle steadily." Requirements for civil servants to take Kyrgyz language examinations, are a means to exclude minorities from public service, he says.


Traditionally, Russians occupied highly skilled jobs in Kyrgyzstan. Many Russian professionals have managed to hold onto niche jobs in sectors such as engineering. But only a token few have survived in the political arena. The post of deputy prime minister is perceived as a 'Slav' job, but it is totally devoid of real decision-making power.


The Russian community is well aware of the experiences of minorities in other republics formed after the break up of the Soviet Union. Such fears fuel a growing desire to leave Kyrgyzstan, where they believe their safety and security is no longer assured.


Most departing Russians are leaving, or have left, homes in Bishkek and the neighbouring Chui region. This has had a severe affect on the labour market, especially on the manufacturing and service sectors, in which qualified Russians were strongly represented.


The apartments they left have been filled by young Kyrgyz and Uzbeks from rural areas who lack the qualifications needed to fill the employment gap.


Bishkek and Chui as a result are undergoing an economic downturn. Massive investment is needed to raise skill and education levels to meet the needs of the labour market. In the meantime the new city dwellers face unemployment, growing poverty and an increasing crime rate.


Ar-Namys says that the government ought to be doing more to curb the Russian exodus. It describes high profile presidential initiatives to combat the problem as window dressing.


Emil Aliev, a member of Ar-Namys's policy board, says the Russian Language Act, passed last year, and another decree aimed at regulating the flow of migration "were no more than part of a political scam to boost support in the run-up to the presidential election."


Svetlana Suslova, a poet, agrees, calling the attempts to curb emigration "a well-advertised, ludicrous lie."


To her mind, economic factors are only a part of the problem. "The very fact that thousands of Russian-speakers are leaving the country is a sign of their resentment against an ailing society in which only force and money rule an increasingly servile, ignorant mob."


Government officials steal openly, and the government is unable to do anything about it, says Suslova. "The country's mendacious, corrupt political system, thinly disguised as a democracy, defies the very notions of human rights, morality and culture."


If there is pressure from within Kyrgyzstan to leave, there is also an increasing incentive to move from Russia, which is inviting younger ethnic Russians to return.


A policy shift in Russia is contributing to the relative youthfulness of emigrants from Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere. Until recently, Russia had a vested interest in keeping large ethnic Russian communities scattered around the former Soviet Union as a lever in its dealings with Commonwealth states.


But even the most optimistic forecasts estimate Russia now needs between three and five million immigrants to boost her own declining population. Demographic pressures have prompted Moscow to actively encourage Russians to leave the 'ethnic outback'.


Early this year, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, signed a decree which effectively raised the status of the Federal Migration Service offices in Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Latvia to that of consulates.


Human rights advocate Natalia Ablova predicts that this autumn may see what she calls "an unprecedented exodus of Russians from Kyrgyzstan, driven by Russia's negative demographics."


Ablova estimates that Russia's mortality rate has exceeded the birth rate each year since 1992, and that Russia's population decreased by 768,000 in 1999 alone.


A well-informed Kyrgyz government official, who wished to remain anonymous, said statistics revealed that 85 per cent of Russians leaving Kyrgyzstan were of child-bearing age. "We clearly discern a hypocritical policy on the part of the Russian Federal Migration Service in Kyrgyzstan behind this trend. Whilst encouraging the influx of qualified labour, Russia knows better than to bring in older migrants who will claim pensions, welfare, and so on."


An officer at the Federal Migration Service said in recent months for the first time the number of ethnic Kyrgyz leaving for Russia outnumbered ethnic Russians. Rampant poverty, unemployment, low pensions and welfare payments are driving people away in droves. Those with skills and experience are lured to better prospects elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, especially Russia. But even those reliant on welfare payments believe Russia offers a better standard of living than their homeland.


The Kyrgyz government has paid only lip service to the emigration problem with predictably poor results. It will take more than patriotic appeals and empty promises to stem the tide.


Meder Imakeev is an IWPR contributor