‘We Ask God for Peace’: Western Sanctions on Russia Strike Central Asian Labor Migrants
For years, Russia’s big cities have been a source of employment and income for the people of Central Asia and the Caucasus. Now, as sanctions undermine the Russian economy, they and their families will also feel the pinch.
At 71 years old, Aigul has a lot to worry about. Besides struggling with diabetes and high blood pressure, she is also raising six grandchildren and great grandchildren while her son and daughter are away working in Russia.
It’s a common situation in Kyrgyzstan, a small country of over 6 million people in Central Asia where many citizens seek higher wages abroad.
Until recently, her children’s Russian earnings allowed Aigul to take care of the youngest members of her family. But then, on February 24, Russia invaded Ukraine. In the next few days, the United States, European Union, and United Kingdom imposed debilitating sanctions, causing the Russian ruble to lose a quarter of its value in a week.
Many Russians support their country’s invasion, which the government has portrayed as a limited “special military operation” necessary to ensure Russia’s future security. The Western sanctions are meant, in part, to make them feel the pain of the devastating war.
But in distant Kyrgyzstan, Aigul, who asked that her name be changed to protect her family’s privacy, is suffering too.
The money her son and daughter send now doesn’t go as far as it used to — even in her small village. The prices of groceries and medications have gone up. And even if their work in Russia dries up completely, her children may not be able to return home — plane tickets are more expensive and, in any case, there are few good jobs for them in Kyrgyzstan. Now Aigul is wondering what the future looks like for her family.
“Let there not be a war,” she told OCCRP, seated at a low table in the dim kitchen of her village house. “From morning to night we pray, we ask God for peace. We are afraid [the war] also hit us.”
She isn’t the only one who's worried.
Saida, a 33-year-old clothing trader at a Moscow wholesale market who asked to be identified with a pseudonym, has watched her clients disappear one by one. Now she can’t afford to send money home to her family in Kyrgyzstan.
“For two weeks, there’s been almost no trade,” she said.
Elnur, 32, a Moscow restaurant administrator from Azerbaijan, had to tell his wife he can no longer send money home because “A4 printer paper is more expensive than rubles.”
They are among millions of migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus working in Russia whose incomes are plummeting as a result of sanctions. That, in turn, threatens to impoverish their families back home — people who have nothing to do with Putin or the war.
In the coming weeks and months, experts say, many of the migrants will find out whether their longstanding strategy of earning money in Russia is still tenable. If not, the sanctions could cause an enormous reverse migration home.
It’s not the first time labor migrants have experienced economic shockwaves. The 2008 financial crisis and the sanctions imposed on Russia for its 2014 annexation of Crimea delivered heavy blows to their earnings.
But the new sanctions are “unprecedented,” according to Nodira Abdulloeva, a lawyer and labor migration specialist from Tajikistan.
So far, no one knows what to do, she told OCCRP.
“The scariest thing is poverty. We are poor and we will get poorer,” she said. “Those who are in Russia will get poorer and those who are in Tajikistan will get poorer.”
“But if during previous crises, it was somewhat comprehensible, now it isn’t comprehensible. Because now the sanctions are very burdensome.”
Authoritative statistics are hard to come by, but according to a Russian official, there were seven million migrants living and working in the country in 2021. Other sources put the total at nearly twice as high. Even during economic downturns, working in Russia — frequently on construction sites, at markets, and in the service sector — has offered Central Asians an escape from poverty at home and a means to keep their families afloat.
The phenomenon is so widespread that money the migrants send home makes up a substantial portion of their countries’ economies. As of 2020, remittances amounted to nearly a third of Kyrgyzstan’s gross domestic product, and more than a quarter of Tajikistan’s.
Migration represents a kind of “coping strategy” for the people of Central Asia, according to Irna Hoffman, a researcher on labor migration and rural development in Tajikistan.
“We cannot really call it resilience,” she told OCCRP. “This crisis now also shows the vulnerable side.”
To get a sense of what this looks like for individual people, OCCRP spoke with over two dozen labor migrants and their family members. Virtually all asked to be identified only by first name due to the risk of speaking critically about the political situation in Russia.
In the weeks since the sanctions first hit, some have already lost their jobs. Others have seen their wages cut. And all have discovered that the money they send home doesn’t buy as much as it used to.
For Saida, the Kyrgyz market trader, the sanctions threaten to ruin a second career.
She once worked as a journalist in Kyrgyzstan, but grew tired of struggling to earn enough to live on. Then, her sister, who had already moved to Moscow, suggested they go into business together. Today, they rent a shipping container at Moscow’s enormous Sadovod market, where they sell women’s dresses produced in Kyrgyzstan. Until recently, clients came from across Russia to buy their products wholesale.
But as the ruble lost value, the sisters lost sales and even the ability to order new goods — the prices in Kyrgyzstan went up and they simply could not break even. They also see little point in sending money home when it now loses 20 to 30 percent of its value in conversion from the ruble to the Kyrgyz som.
They’ve had to raise prices by 300-400 rubles on each item, which has driven clients away.
“We thought something would happen [after the start of the war], but nothing like this,” Saida told OCCRP. “Every day we have a shock. Every day somebody tells me the ruble is falling, the dollar is rising. We’ve all been hysterical.”
Aigerim, a 26-year-old citizen of Kyrgyzstan, left her country in 2018 to provide for a son from her first marriage, who remained behind with her parents. In Moscow, she remarried and is now pregnant with her second child.
Although she isn’t working at the moment, she has seen the economic effects play out at lightning speed. She and her husband share a three-room Moscow apartment with six other people. After Russia invaded Ukraine, they all lost their jobs.
On February 28, four days after the invasion, Aigerim and her husband had planned to convert their savings into dollars. The rate that morning was 83 rubles per dollar. But first Aigerim needed to go to the dentist. By the time she got to the bank that evening, the price of a dollar had risen to 105 rubles, she said.
“Now we don’t send money [home] at all, because we will lose about 30 percent,” Aigerim told OCCRP. “We want to save up and buy something, for example gold or a car, and go sell it [in Kyrgyzstan.] This way we won’t lose our money.”
Now, Aigerim and her husband are trying to decide whether she should give birth in Russia as they previously planned or return home.
“We got used to always having money,” she said. “Now our savings are already running out.”
Losing out in currency conversions is bad enough (though the ruble has again appreciated, at least for now).
For some migrants, however, there simply isn’t any work left.
Like many in his native Tajikistan, Khabib, 24, left for Russia immediately after graduating from high school. Currently, he works in a construction company in Moscow that he says employs around 100 migrants. This year, it planned to build 20 housing complexes. Now, it’s only building three.
“Many of the construction materials come from abroad and are now in short supply,” he told OCCRP.
Najibullo, 26, from Tajikistan, is still working.
“But my nephews worked in construction and they are now unemployed,” he told OCCRP. Their employers “stopped working and told them to wait until March 15th or 20th to find out what’s next.”
Even with a job, Najibullo is feeling the pinch. Prices for staple foods are rising in Tajikistan and his family is asking him to send money. But he is waiting for the exchange rate to improve.
According to several migrants, the sanctions are also changing employers’ hiring preferences: They now prefer to hire Russian citizens from far-flung regions of the country.
Rysbek, a citizen of Kyrgyzstan who has lived and worked in Russia since 2013, currently does delivery for a supermarket, working alongside both migrants and Russians. But his managers recently announced that they would no longer employ foreign citizens after April 24, blaming the decision on unspecified issues with Russia's Interior Ministry. Now around 40 of Rysbek’s 70 coworkers will lose their jobs.
“As far as I understand, that’s happening across Moscow, not just in delivery, but in other jobs, too,” he told reporters. Two other migrants described a similar trend.
For some relatively recent migrants, the sanctions are the second setback they have faced. Ali, 32, who works in delivery, left his native Azerbaijan in November 2019.
Just four months later, the Covid-19 pandemic began, and he thought of going back. But there were no flights, Azerbaijan had closed its land borders, and the economic situation at home was far from rosy. So, he stuck it out.
Now, just as Russia was emerging from that crisis, Ali feels like he has been hit again. Before, he was able to send roughly $1,000 home to his wife and two children every month.
“Now I see I won’t even be able to send 500 Azeri manats ($300),” he told OCCRP. “This is why I don’t want to stay here.”
Ali even bought a ticket home, hoping to return to his family, whom he had only been able to visit once in the previous two-and-a-half years. “But on March 6, in just one hour, they decided to halt all flights,” he said.
“Only God Knows What Comes Tomorrow”
When migrants depart for Russia, they usually leave behind families who depend on their earnings.
These remittances fund virtually everything: day-to-day expenses, medical care, education, home construction, and even startup capital for small businesses.
For Zebi, a 54-year-old mother of five from Kyrgyzstan’s far southwestern Batken Region, remittances are a vital lifeline. Before her 24-year old son left for St. Petersburg in November 2021, her family was in dire straits.
“My pension is not enough — it only covers my husband’s medicine and groceries,” Zebi told OCCRP. “We try to scrimp. We borrow money and then, when the pension arrives, we pay it off.”
But in just a few months working as a meat packer in Russia, her son has managed to pay off the family’s debts.
If she had more money, Zebi would like to do some repairs on the family house and marry off her son: a pricey but important undertaking in Kyrgyz culture. Now, their future looks uncertain.
“That’s how we live, barely getting by,” she said.
Bakhodyr, a welder from Uzbekistan, also came to Russia to help his many dependents. He planned to support his brother’s large family, pay for his sister’s university education, help his parents, and save money to finish building his house back home in the city of Fergana.
Once the house was complete, he planned to return home and get married. Now, thanks to the sanctions, Bakhodyr’s employer plans to close down and he is wondering what to do next.
“I don’t know about my plans. Today you think everything is okay, but only God knows what comes tomorrow,” Bakhodyr told OCCRP. “I can’t tell anything now, not even what will happen after lunch.”
Back in Uzbekistan, he owns ten acres of land with a vineyard. But his income from that is under than $1,000 a year — less than one semester of his sister’s university fees.
Rough Road Ahead
Rustamjon Urinboyev, an associate professor at Lund University in Sweden who studies labor migration from rural Uzbekistan, says that every facet of daily life in Central Asia will be affected.
That means that lifecycle rituals like weddings will get smaller, people in villages will do less home construction, and there will be more demand for help from the government.
“The Uzbek economy is not able to absorb so many migrant workers [returning from Russia],” Urinboyev told OCCRP.
He believes the sanctions will be a serious test for regional governments. For nearly two decades, Central Asian states postponed important reforms because remittances reduced social tensions and decreased the economic burden on the authorities.
“Governments were able to continue kleptocratic practices and corruption,” he told OCCRP. But when many migrants return home, he said, “there will be big pressure on governments to introduce more social protection measures, more jobs.”
Even Central Asian countries that do not send significant numbers of migrants to Russia may be affected.
On March 2, Kanat Kopbayev, a veteran Kazakh businessman who works in shipping, sent a letter to the business community sounding the alarm about the sanctions’ impact.
“I’ve been working in international business for 20 years, but have never seen anything like this in my life,” he wrote in the letter, which was subsequently published by Forbes Kazakhstan. “Crimea happened, Syria happened, and we somehow handled it. But for the first time in our modern history we’re in a situation that I can describe as a catastrophe for our country.”
He noted that all major shipping companies had refused to accept cargos in Russia, including ones that originated in Kazakhstan.
Not everybody is forecasting a catastrophe.
Kazakh economist Kassymkhan Kapparov believes that, due to sanctions, Central Asia will source more goods from China, increasing Beijing’s role in the region. But he also is not sure Russia’s influence will decrease much — after all, Central Asia is now one of the few places where Russia can export its goods.
Because there is still a “decent income” in Russia and demand in the country has not disappeared, he even thinks the situation could provide export opportunities for Central Asia.
“I think that the decrease in living standards in Russia will be higher than the decrease in living standards in the region,” he said.
For now, among the migrants themselves, the dominant feeling is uncertainty. Many interviewed by OCCRP said that they have not yet made up their minds on whether to return home. They are waiting to see whether Russia’s war against Ukraine ends in the coming weeks and how the sanctions ultimately play out.
Urinboyev, who studies migration from Uzbekistan, suggests that many migrants may choose Turkey as an alternative destination. However, his and his colleagues’ research suggests that migrants there face more exploitation and often earn less than in Russia.
Omurbek, 36, a Kyrgyz former migrant who worked in Moscow between 2009 and 2011, says he is already seeing some of his friends head to Europe in search of new opportunities. They also face less discrimination there than in Russia, he says.
“Every police officer treats them like [the country’s] own citizens,” he told OCCRP.
Elnur, the restaurant administrator from Azerbaijan, now plans to head home — as do many of his friends. He previously worked as a photographer and videographer in the Azeri capital of Baku and wants to return to that.
“I’m 32 years old,” he said. “I don’t want to spend another five years here, because there’s no opportunity here.
Others are looking for a silver lining. With European imports now unavailable in Russia, Saida, the clothing trader, hopes there will be increased demand for Kyrgyz-made goods.
“Not long ago, we had a joke: ‘The devil doesn’t wear Prada. The devil doesn’t wear H&M. The devil only wears Kyrgyz local production,’” she told OCCRP. “That would be wonderful.”