Small World, After All

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by Casey_Michel on 6/25/2012 · 2 comments

An interesting, if bizarre, refrain one hears over in Central Asia is that the post-Soviet space was remarkably untouched during the 2008-09 economic crisis that rocked the rest of the developed world. Due to its distance, its diversity, and its diligence, Central Asia remained an unscathed bastion of economic prowess, testament to the ruling and the ruled alike. Others suffered, but not the former Soviet republics. Or something like that.

(Nazarbayev nonetheless used fears of double-dip economic instability as one of the main reasons for shotgunning the Majlis election last January. Man’s trying to have his tort and eat it, too.)

Of course, while any slowdown was less significant than, say, the PIGS, to say Central Asia escaped the hardship is patently untrue. Everyone was affected. Everyone, or nearly everyone, stumbled. Such is the background for Daria Anichkova’s new paper out of the Carnegie Endowment, focusing on the economic slump’s effects on Central Asian migrant workers in Russia. I’d not done much research on the topic — outside of the occasional Putin-as-a-nationalist piece – so Anichkova’s piece was as enlightening as it was illustrative, showing that, indeed, Central Asia’s working populations were as beleaguered as much as any developing area’s:

Some unemployed migrants went home in late 2008 and early 2009. Others stayed to wait out the crisis, subsisting on savings. According to the FMS, new arrivals to Russia dropped by 10 percent in January 2009. Remittances dropped across the board. In Tajikistan, remittances per worker fell by around 30 percent. In Kyrgyzstan, 32 percent of the households that had received remittances in 2008 received nothing for the first five months of 2009. In Uzbekistan, remittances dropped two and a half times in the first quarter of 2009 compared to last quarter of 2008.

For these numbers to carry any significance, however, you’d need a bit of reference. This isn’t a small agglomeration of farmhands pushing shopping carts — these were massive numbers of low- and unskilled laborers fighting for the one income most of their families ever saw. These were entire populations, trying to make remittance-based ends meet:

Official figures say that 300,000 Kyrgyz migrants and 250,000 Uzbek migrants traveled abroad in that period, while more realistic estimates put those numbers at 800,000 Kyrgyz and three million Uzbek migrants, out of populations of 5.4 million and 28.2 million, respectively. Tajikistan, the poorest state in Central Asia, relies most heavily on labor migration: as many as 1.5 million of its 6.9 million people work abroad, the vast majority of them in Russia. …

Families of migrant workers rely heavily on remittances. In Tajikistan, over 30 percent of households have at least one family member working abroad; for these households, remittances account for an average 59 percent of income. Similarly, in a survey of labor migrants’ families in southern Kyrgyzstan, over half of the households questioned relied on remittances as their main source of revenue.

Somewhat paradoxically — and contra the situation in the States, in which migrant immigration largely fell off as a result of the economic downturn — many Central Asian migrant workers found even fewer jobs among their local communities, and horseshoed back to Russia. (This makes sense, if you look at the wildly disparate GDPs.) But the jobs — which, while perhaps fewer in number, were nominally available — became that much tougher to land, with a bit of that tik-our-jawb mentality, the kind besotting so much of Red America, seeping its way into an increasingly xenophobic (and homophobic) Russia. Putin’s restrictions set in, and more look likely to rise. But with a cratering, aging Russian population, these regulations can only last so long. There won’t be enough hands, and, as evidenced by the migrants’ returns to Russia, there’s an obvious flow that’s itching to enter.

Anyway, the piece is worth a read in full, and helps pop a bit of the aforementioned myth that many people have swallowed. It mirrors the socio-economic situations in the US/Canada and northern Europe, further shrinking the economic distance between the spheres. Looks like we’re a bit more connected than we’d thought, and all that.

Which is funny, because, in a similar vein, Daria lived a floor beneath me for a few years while at Rice, and it was a treat to find a Google Alert with her name attached. Small world, huh?

Image via RFE/RL

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Casey Michel is a graduate student at Columbia University's Harriman Institute, focusing on Eurasian political and social development, and he has worked with both International Crisis Group (Bishkek) and as a Peace Corps Kazakhstan volunteer. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, RFE/RL, Al Jazeera, The Moscow Times, The Diplomat, and Slate. You can follow him on Twitter at @cjcmichel.

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Kuda July 5, 2012 at 12:11 pm

Hi Casey,

Yep, agree, CA was affected by the downturn.

However, my small comment is that I’ve not really heard that CA didn’t suffer from the downturn. Most folk I know were hit by the rocketing price of commodities – witnessed by the price increase of food staples. The financiers moving into food commodities as safe bet once they realised the sub prime gig was up…

Others in the construction industry told me they had to close operation for a good few years…

Casey_Michel July 5, 2012 at 2:04 pm

Hi Kuda,

I don’t doubt that commodities/construction were affected by the downturn. (I remember increased food prices being linked to Zhanaozen, as well.) I’m not sure if it was because of a warped media narrative, or simply a head-in-the-sand obstinancy, but the (anecdotal) evidence I found over there was in line with what I wrote earlier. Here’s hoping that the double-dip Putin et al. anticipate will not come to pass.

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