Belt & Road in Global Perspective
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Commentary / Analysis, Migration & borders, Belt & Road

Alternative globalization and cross-border migration processes in Central Asia

This text was originally publish in Russian. You can read the original here

The Chinese BRI claims to be a new globalization project that activates and develops new cross-border routes, technologies, various flows, and mobilities. It aims to construct a global center competing with the West—one that is able to independently determine logistics, its own intensive financial and commodity presence, and its political and cultural influences. This version of globalization focuses on those countries that the West lost sight of or peripheralized. In a sense, we can probably speak of alternative globalization by analogy with alternative projects of modernization and modernity. This alternativity creates a certain point of tension between China and the West, which both aspire to be central. At the same time, it creates an opportunity for many countries that find themselves in a peripheral position to take a more important place in the parallel global hierarchy. However, it would be naive to think that all participants in the BRI project will benefit equally and that new hierarchies of hegemony will not arise to consolidate the existing peripheral status of many countries or to create a new, equally peripheral, one.

One of the areas in which global dependencies are formed is cross-border migration. The access of foreigners to national labour markets, as well as their legal status and social welfare, are topics of regular negotiations between rich and poor countries, their respective political claims and demands made of each other, as well as blackmail and conflict. Flows of migrants and cash—and especially their scope and direction—help to determine hierarchical relations among countries and which countries to consider central and which peripheral. In the modern model of globalization, the countries of Europe and North America continue to be a primary attraction for migrants, while the countries of the South serve to supply labor resources. A number of regions, such as Russia, Kazakhstan and the Persian Gulf countries, occupy an intermediate position: they are both countries of immigration and emigration.

The difference between the new alternative model of globalization proposed by China is that the new center does not consider itself a country that attracts migrants. On the contrary, the BRI project rather promotes centrifugal migration processes, apparently preserving and even strengthening the current migration processes. This perspective is well illustrated by the example of post-Soviet Central Asia.

Since the Soviet collapse, three countries of Central Asia - Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan - have been experiencing a process of intensive labor migration outside the region. This cross-border migration mainly goes to Russia and Kazakhstan. Such flows began to take shape during the Soviet period in the 1970s and 1980s and became large-scale in the 1990s and 2000s. In the peak years 2013-2014 the total number of migrants from these three Central Asian countries living in Russia reached 4.4 million people (2.5 million from Uzbekistan; 1.2 million from Tajikistan, 700,000 from Kyrgyzstan), the bulk of whom were labor migrants, most often young men.[1] Crises in 2015-2016 (connected with the aggression against Ukraine and resulting sanctions against Russia) and in 2020-2021 (connected with the COVID pandemic and resulting border closures) influenced the scale of migration: by mid-2021 there were 2.8 million people,[2] not counting those who have adopted Russian citizenship in the last decade (this number may be about 600,000-800,000). At least a half-million labor migrants from three neighbouring countries worked in Kazakhstan during the peak years.[3]

Cash flows in the opposite direction, from Russia to Central Asia.[4]  In the peak years from 2013-2014, the total amount of such transfers amounted to about 11.5 billion USD (Uzbekistan - 5.65 billion; Tajikistan - 3.85 billion, Kyrgyzstan – 2 billion). As a result of the 2014-2016 crisis, transfers sharply shrunk—nearly in half—before gradually recovering. In 2020, taking into account the pandemic crisis, this total amount is about US $ 8 billion. In Kazakhstan in 2019, migrants earned at least 300 million USD.[5] Remittances from Russia and Kazakhstan are significant - from 15 to 45 percent of the GDP of the three Central Asian countries - while they go mainly to dispersed social spending rather than investments in restructuring and improving the efficiency of the local economy.[6]

There are two main reasons for these flows of migrants and money between Russia and Kazakhstan, on the one hand, and Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, on the other. The first is a demographic and economic imbalance. Rapid population growth continues in the CA countries, but their backward economic structures do not create jobs with growing wages. The labor market in Russia and Kazakhstan, on the other hand, developed rapidly in the 2000s against the backdrop of rising commodity prices and experienced shortages of inexpensive labor. This imbalance created the well-known push-pull effect.[7]

The second reason is the relative accessibility of the Russian and Kazakh labor markets for residents of southern Central Asia. There is no visa regime between the countries.  With the exception of the 2020-2021 pandemic, border crossing has for a long time not been seriously restricted; labor migrants easily travel to Kazakhstan and Russia, where they can find work either as documented or undocumented workers .[8] This favorable legal regime is facilitated by the existence of a transport infrastructure that developed in the 20th century during the imperial and Soviet periods, which allows for the rapid movement of large masses of people via air, road and rail arteries, as well as the social ties of the countries and shared cultural and linguistic habits. Both of these factors determine the direction and nature of mass migration.

Migration processes are one of the important factors of Russia's political dominance in the region. The more Central Asian migrants leave for Russia, the more Russia enjoys instruments to influence migrants, borders, and diasporas and thus pressure the leadership of Central Asian countries. Kyrgyzstan has already entered the Eurasian Union, initiated by the Russian side, and now Moscow uses the migration argument to encourage Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to join this union.

The dynamics of cross-border migration in post-Soviet space are not linear, but cyclical, and its structure is gradually undergoing not only quantitative but also qualitative changes. Today, Central Asian migration is becoming a more complex phenomenon. It is more and more differentiated by social groups, drawing different economic classes into mobility. It is becoming more and more differentiated in terms of motivations; in addition to earning temporary wages, Central Asians may migrate to receive qualifications, education, new work experience or even completely change their country of residence. It is becoming more regionally differentiated: in addition to Russia and Kazakhstan, whose markets still absorb the bulk of migrants, Europe and America, the Middle and Far East (for example, South Korea), and Southwest Asia are increasingly important destinations. Migration, in other words, is getting out of the postcolonial and post-Soviet rut and is being built into new global hierarchies, where the center is the West, Russia and the rich countries of Western Asia and South Asia.

How might the BRI project affect migration? Can the intensity and direction of migration from Central Asian countries change? Will new political ties and dependencies around migration appear or will they remain the same? Of course, with the BRI project in the initial stages of planning and deployment, this question is fairly hypothetical, and an answer can only be speculative.

It seems that BRI plans continues the well established trend of migration from Central Asia to Russia, even strengthening the factors that drive the pattern. A tentative conclusion is that, thanks to the deployment of new transport and logical infrastructures within the framework of the BRI plans, we can expect the creation of additional labor markets in construction and related sectors of the economy where migrants are employed. Moreover, the main markets will be those where the distances are greater and the intensity of infrastructures higher, and where the end consumer is closer and richer, that is, in Russia and Kazakhstan. These updated infrastructures themselves will create new technical opportunities to increase the speed, throughput and intensity of goods and human flows, which should also contribute to the growth of migration. In addition, one of the consequences may be additional pressure on labor markets in Central Asia itself from the Chinese labor force, which is usually involved in infrastructure projects financed by China.[9] Thus, the BRI project is likely to create additional effects of pushing labor out of Central Asia towards Russia and Kazakhstan.

However, one innovation is also possible. If plans to build a new transport corridor through Central Asia to the Middle East are implemented, this could become an alternative infrastructure to Russia’s long-standing infrastructure, with its imperial and Soviet roots and associated with Russian-speaking historical and cultural models of identity, attitudes and behavior. Without a doubt, this will lead to a gradual strengthening of the lower and upper communication of Central Asia with the countries of the Turkic-speaking, Persian-speaking and Arabic-speaking macro-regions, the exchange of various kinds of ideas and resources, including cultural ones, and the strengthening of Muslim identification and practices. Along with the intensification of commodity and information ties, the already emerging human flows between Central Asia and the Middle East will increase, mainly from the former to the latter. The BRI project is thus capable of generating a new direction for mass Central Asian migration with the prospect of its gradual growth and partial replacement of migration towards Kazakhstan and Russia.

All these hypothetical prospects indicate that the transit role of the Central Asian countries between China, Russia, the Middle East and Europe, although undoubtedly beneficial to local economies, will generally consolidate its subordinate peripheral character in relation to the old and new centers. The old points of tension and cooperation associated with Russia and the post-Soviet space will not disappear, but they will be supplemented by new ones from the east and southwest.

Are all these prospective changes really alternatives to the current global order and the global hierarchy of centers and periphery? It seems that they are not. The BRI project activates those trends in migration that have already taken shape or began to take shape earlier, in the existing world system, and reproduces, even to some extent enhances the inequalities that have already been embedded in them. These are the inequalities between the current post-Soviet regimes of Central Asia and Russia, which are gradually complemented by growing political influences from the Middle East. All sides, including China, are in contradictory relations with each other, look at each other more with suspicion than with hope, and see the same cross-border migration as problems and risks for their countries rather than opportunities for development. Neither China itself, nor members of various international associations created in the BRI space, are likely to be able to control the existing and emerging points of cooperation and tension, negotiate to resolve controversial issues, and create mechanisms to overcome inequality between countries and within them.

[1] Olga Chudinovskikh and Mikhail Denisenko Labor Migration on the Post-Soviet Territory / Mikhail Denisen-ko, Salvatore Strozza, Matthew Light (Eds). Migration from the Newly Independent States 25 Years After the Collapse of the USSR. Springer, 2020. P.55-80

[2] Мкртчян Н., Флоринская Ю. Миграция: основные тренды января-февраля 2021 года

[3] Казахстан. Расширенный миграционный профиль. 2014-2019. International Organization for Migration, 2020. С.42)

[4] (Трансграничные переводы физических лиц по основным странам-контрагентам )

[5] Казахстан. Расширенный миграционный профиль. 2014-2019. International Organization for Migration, 2020. С.91

[6] Jakhongir Kakhkharov, Muzaffarjon Ahunov , Ziyodullo Parpiev, Inna Wolfson. South-South Migration: Remittances of Labor Migrants and Household Expenditures in Uzbekistan

[7] Grigo-ry Ioffe Migration Between Successor States of the Soviet Union: Long-Term Fac-tors

[8] Rustamjon Urinboyev. Migration and Hybrid Political Regimes Navigating the Legal Landscape in Russia. University of California Press, 2020

[9] Садовская Е. Инициатива Китая «Пояс и путь» и её влияние на миграционные потоки и политику в Центральной Азии. International Centre for Migration Police Development, 2019