In a quiet referendum on the achievements of Kyrgyzstan’s revolution, citizens are voting with their feet -- leaving the country in search of better economic opportunities elsewhere. According to some estimates, the number of emigrants from Kyrgyzstan is surging. The exodus is fast approaching the point that it could cause long-term damage to the Kyrgyz economy, some experts warn.
The overwhelming majority of migrants are heading to Russia and Kazakhstan in search of jobs. Between 350,000 to 500,000 Kyrgyz nationals, out of an overall population of roughly 5 million, work either seasonally or full-time in foreign countries, according to some estimates. Kyrgyz MP Kubanychbek Isabekov, who chairs parliament’s Labor Migration Committee, told EurasiaNet in an interview that an increasing number of departing Kyrgyz have no intention of returning. "Besides ethnic Slavs, the number of ethnic Kyrgyz leaving country forever increased three fold," Isabekov said, adding that roughly 90,000 Kyrgyz at present are in the process of obtaining Russian citizenship.
Labor migrants have been keeping the country financially afloat in recent years. According to the official estimates, labor migrants remitted nearly $200 million in 2005 to family members back in Kyrgyzstan, a figure that is roughly half the state’s budget. Remittances, according to Isabekov, have risen steadily year-on-year, providing further evidence of an explosion in labor migration. "Labor migrants in Russia sent $160 million via Western Union [back to Kyrgyzstan] in 2004," he said. "During the first half of 2005, our citizens transferred $124 million."
Souren Hayriyan, the CEO of Unistream, a Moscow-based cash-transfer system, said the volume of his company’s traffic between Russia and Kyrgyzstan rose 400 percent in 2005, reaching a total of $83 million. "The money transfer market is growing incredibly," Hayriyan said. "The CIS market grew from 25 to 30 percent over the past year and we expect further growth. The main reason for this is that the Russian economy is growing and more people from CIS countries tend to stay and work here."
Some observers believe the actual volume of remittances from Kyrgyz labor migrants could be much higher than officially reported totals. Many Kyrgyz migrants, especially those living in more remote parts of the mountainous Central Asian nation, tend to shun wire transfer systems. Instead, they quietly repatriate their foreign-earned income without officially declaring it, observers say.
Recent changes in Russia’s citizenship legislation, initiated by President Vladimir Putin, have helped encourage a significant number of Kyrgyz to seek a permanent place in Russia. The changes make it possible for all former Soviet citizens who have legal residency status to be eligible for fast-track Russian citizenship. In addition, Russia’s Federal Migration Service announced in late last year that it would seek to legitimize up to 1 million illegal migrants from the CIS in 2006.
Russia’s population is projected to decline by about 1 million people per year over the next couple of decades. Thus, Moscow is increasingly eager to attract immigrants to fill gaps in the country’s labor pool, especially low-paying and menial jobs. The changes would seem to have the added benefit of increasing the Kremlin’s political leverage with CIS states.
Kyrgyz are rushing to take advantage of the Russian changes in order to reap economic rewards. Isabekov, the Kyrgyz MP, noted that with legal Russian residency or citizenship, Kyrgyz stand to earn higher incomes. In addition, they would be less prone to police extortion. Foreign nationals in Russia, especially those from the Caucasus and Central Asia, are often subjected to police document checks. Those whose papers are not in order must pay hefty bribes to escape detention and possible deportation.
Some migration experts say that Kyrgyzstan over the near term will benefit from the Russian changes -- mainly in the form of a rising amount of cash remittances. But there is a considerable danger to Kyrgyzstan’s economic stability over the medium- to long-term, experts add. Instead of continuing to remit earnings back home, economic migrants over time might opt to bring loved ones to Russia. "Kyrgyzstan faces irrevocable migration," said Bermet Moldobekova, a national program officer at the International Organization for Migration’s Bishkek office. Isabekov added that much of the working-age population in some Kyrgyz areas, such as the Osh Region’s Alay District, have already gone to Russia.
The Kyrgyz government should take immediate steps to ensure that Kyrgyz labor migrants retain strong ties to their homeland, some officials and experts say. Isabekov and others suggested the Kyrgyz parliament should consider legislation providing for dual citizenship. Before his ouster last March, former president Askar Akayev indicated that he intended to submit a dual citizenship bill – a move that, at the time, was primarily driven by a desire to stem the outflow of Slavic residents from Kyrgyzstan. The dual citizenship issue has largely been ignored since Akayev’s abrupt departure from power. Other suggestions include reforms to Kyrgyzstan’s tax code to encourage Kyrgyz migrants to keep sending both cash and goods back home, and the creation of a diplomatic post at the Kyrgyz embassy in Moscow that specifically works on labor-migration-related issues.
The Kyrgyz government should additionally take steps to improve the ability of Kyrgyz to compete in Russia’s labor market. Moldobekova, the IOM representative, said that after 15 years of independence, many Kyrgyz do not have a solid knowledge of Russian. "If Kyrgyzstan wishes to export its labor and benefit from it, then it should [confront] the issue of continuing to teach people Russian language," Moldobekova said.