Central Asia struggles with massive influx of Russians fleeing military

ALMATY, Kazakhstan — As Russians fleeing a partial military mobilization in their home country drank their morning coffee at a cinema that opened its doors to them in northwest Kazakhstan, Central Asia woke up to even more fallout from Moscow’s bloody war in Ukraine.

Nearly a week after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the start of a campaign to recruit soldiers on September 21 in response to a volatile Ukrainian counteroffensive, sightings of Russians wandering the streets of towns across the region with backpacks and lost expressions have become commonplace.

The same goes for the lines stretching out at state borders that Russian citizens can still cross visa-free, as reports that Moscow may soon close exits – at least for men of fighting age – worsen the panic.

For the time being, traditions of regional hospitality are continuing in Central Asian host countries which are now experiencing a second wave of Russian guests since the start of the invasion on February 24.

In Oral, the Kazakh town where a movie theater called Cinema Park hosted around 200 Russians over the weekend, RFE/RL correspondents witnessed local residents handing out free bowls of pilaf, or plov, to Russians gathered at the city station.

“We help them however we can. If we could do more, we would,” said Miras, a volunteer who told Russians to ignore negative comments online from Kazakhs about their northern neighbors arriving.

“We will always accept you, we will always treat you with kindness”, he said.

But there is also a lot of anxiety among locals over further spikes in the cost of living in a region where inflation is already soaring. Some have their doubts about the dazed arrivals, many of whom admit they know nothing about the countries they have arrived in.

On September 26, a man cycled from the Kazakh steppe town of Karaganda to the capital Astana with a sign on his backpack calling on authorities to close the border with Russia.

“It’s time to think about the future of our republic,” said activist Askar Nurmaganov. told the Kazakh service of RFE/RLciting the threat of rising prices, soaring rental rates and competition for jobs as reasons for his protest.

“Kazakhstan is not a court pass!”

Qaragoz Qasym (left) and Aisultan Qudaibergen were arrested at Almaty airport as they held up posters saying, ‘Did you realize you are cannon fodder? and “Either respect or leave.”

Three days before Nurmaganov’s protest, two Kazakhs were briefly detained over a protest at the airport in the largest city, Almaty.

One of the protesters, student Qaragoz Qasym, told the Kazakh service of RFE/RL that she “wanted to show what the people of my country think of all this”.

“There is no guarantee that those arriving here in droves will not stab us in the back later,” Qasym said, apparently referring to the potential support of the arrivals for separatism in the multi-ethnic country.

‘Random choice’

Kazakhstan is the only Central Asian member of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union that borders Russia.

Like Georgia in the Caucasus, the country has seen mile-long lines of Russians in cars, on foot and on scooters queuing to escape mobilization.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said on September 21 that only those with relevant combat and service experience would be mobilized, not conscripts and students.

But reports soon emerged from the Kremlin cast a wider netethnic minorities seem to be targeted.

Kazakh authorities have taken steps to allay local fears about labor market impacts, while acknowledging that flows of Russians – both in and out – were two or three times last year’s levels in the last days.

Under Kazakh law, Russians can stay up to 30 days without registration and an additional 60 days after that, but they need a note from their home government to apply for an extension of residency.

Russians line up to get a Kazakh personal identification number at a public service center in Almaty on September 27.

Russians line up to get a Kazakh personal identification number at a public service center in Almaty on September 27.

On September 26, Kazakhstan released a draft changes laws that would prevent foreigners using internal – rather than foreign – passports from staying longer than 30 days.

The amendments drafted by the Ministry of the Interior are in the public debate phase until October 10.

Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev said on September 27 that most Russians coming to his country “are forced to leave due to the current desperate situation. We have to take care of them and ensure their safety.” Speaking from the Turkestan region of Kazakhstan, Toqaev added that “we will hold talks with the Russian side and resolve this issue for the benefit of our country.”

On the way to Tajikistan

But the great Russian exodus from the mobilization effort is visible throughout the region.

On September 25, an RFE/RL correspondent met two escapees, Igor and Arkady, at the Coffee Moose, a trendy cafe on Dushanbe’s central Rudaki Avenue which was packed with customers.

The men, both in their 20s, said they abruptly left their hometown of Kaluga, some 150 kilometers southwest of Moscow, after Putin’s announcement.

“I don’t want to be sent to Ukraine, I don’t want to be killed or lose a limb there,” Igor said. “I’m only 26.”

Arkady admitted that the capital of impoverished Tajikistan was a “random choice” in his flight from Russia.

The two friends were “out of options” as ticket prices skyrocketed overnight to all visa-free destinations with thousands of conscript-aged Russian men thinking along the same lines.

“We just wanted to leave Russia immediately. We were afraid the borders would be closed soon,” Arkady said. “We will not return to Russia as long as Putin is in power,” he added, noting that Uzbekistan would be their next destination.

Russian recruits board a bus near a military recruiting center in Krasnodar on September 25.

Russian recruits board a bus near a military recruiting center in Krasnodar on September 25.

In addition to restaurants, hotels and short-term rentals, Central Asian cities are enjoying a post-season mobilization boom.

Several hotels in Dushanbe appeared to be charging more than 50% of their usual rates with rooms fully booked until the first week of October.

A woman named Orzu, who rents a two-bedroom apartment in a Soviet-era apartment building not far from the city’s famous Rohat teahouse, said her flat had never seen such demand.

Orzu has “two Russians staying until the end of September and I’m getting a lot more phone calls from other potential clients. Most of them are Russian,” she told RFE/RL.

Cold, Tired, Hungry

It is the same story in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, and in other cities of this country.

In Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, Gennady Voitenko, the owner of the Lavitor Hotel, told Current Time that he had made repeated errands at the city’s airport to pick up his “fallen-faced” new customers.

Although cities in many former Soviet republics saw a major influx of Russians in the early weeks of Russia’s bloody war, the energy is somewhat different now, Voitenko said.

If in March the arrivals designated in slang as “relocators” were “hipsters, computer people, from Saint Petersburg, from Moscow”, they are now “anyone with the opportunity”, observed Voitenko.

Back in Oral, a city of over 250,000 people, space is scarce.

Trains and planes from the city are fully booked for the next few days, while taxi drivers charge the usual 30,000 tenge ($62) fee several times over to get to Aqtobe, the nearest Kazakh town with an airport, RFE/RL’s Kazakh service reported. .

The 2,650 kilometer trip across the country to Almaty would have cost 1 million tenge ($2,070), almost three times more than usual.

Rent for many one- and two-bedroom apartments, even on the outskirts of town, has doubled over the past week.

Lukpan Akhmedyarov, a freelance journalist, offered a free room in his house to a woman and her son of conscription age who do not have a foreign passport.

“Russian refugees are everywhere,” Akhmedyarov said. “They talk about a 20 kilometer queue at the border. Twenty! And taxi drivers always bring them.

Dilara Mukhambetova, director of Cinema Park, told RFE/RL that her cinema briefly closed for sanitary measures after hosting fleeing Russian citizens at night and screening films during the day.

But Mukhambetova said the City Center Mall where the cinema is located is considering other ways to open up its space.

“A part of [the Russians] said they had been at the border for almost two days. They were cold, tired and hungry. Then the volunteers came with food and tea,” Mukhambetova recalls.

Farangis Najibullah in Dushanbe, Mariya Melnikova, Elena Veber and Current Time in Bishkek contributed to this report.

About Jun Quentin

Check Also

Crime in Burnaby: Man convicted in random transit attacks

Rainier Jesse Azucena, 35, was sentenced to parole and three years probation after pleading guilty …