Russian Flight from Central Asia Seen Accelerating
by Paul Goble

On-going series: Crisis in the Caucasus - 2009
The Russian / Georgian Conflict and Its Impact on Azerbaijan

Window on Eurasia: Original Blog Article

Vienna, February 3 - From 1.4 to 3.2 million ethnic Russians are likely to leave the former Soviet republics in Central Asia over the next four years in order to live and work in Russia, according to a study prepared by the Moscow Institute of CIS Countries for the Russian Federation's foreign ministry.

If that projection holds, it would have profound effects on both the Central Asian countries and on Russia, making the former far more ethnically homogenous but at the cost of the loss of some of their most educated people and the latter less able to play the ethnic card in its effort to maintain Moscow's influence there.

At the end of last year, the Moscow institute polled ethnic Russians in four of the five Central Asian countries. (No survey was made in Turkmenistan.) Thirty-nine percent of ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan said they wanted to move permanently to Russia, as did 72.2 percent in Kyrgyzstan, 34.6 percent in Uzbekistan, and nearly 50 percent in Tajikistan.

Because this poll asked about intentions, it is entirely possible that these figures, which would represent a significant rise in Russian out-migration compared to the last decade, overstate, perhaps by a large measure, the share of ethnic Russians in that region who will leave, especially if economic conditions in the Russian Federation deteriorate further.

The reasons that ethnic Russians have for leaving are obvious: a demographic situation in which their share of the population will continue to decline even if none of them leaves, the policies of the governments there to promote both the language and status of the titular nationalities, and economic conditions even worse than those in Russia.

The rapid growth of the titular nationalities and the relative and absolute decline of the ethnic Russian community are illustrated by the transformation of the ethnic mix in Kazakhstan. In 1970, there were 5.5 million Russians and only 4.2 million Kazakhs. As of 2006, ethnic Kazakhs formed 58.9 percent of the total, and Russians formed only 25.9 percent.

Similar and in some cases even more dramatic global shifts have occurred elsewhere, and they have been regularly reported over the last 15 years, with many in the capitals of these countries welcoming such trends while some in Moscow have expressed concern about what this means for the future of Russia's relations with these countries.

But far less attention has been given to the way in which Russian flight has contributed to changes at the micro level, changes that appear in some cases at least to have reached the point of no return. That is, the ethnic Russian communities involved are now so small that they cannot support the kind of institutions that have traditionally held them together.

In an article posted on this week, Viktor Dubovitsky, an ethnic Russian historian from Dushanbe, describes how this is taking place with regard to parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church in Tajikistan, parishes that have declined to the point that they cannot hold or even attract priests.

As a result, he writes, there has been "a nearly universal collapse of parish communities," one that church leaders have failed to address by providing special training for new priests. As a result, seminary graduates "do not understand how to organize" parishioners in often difficult locations and do not want to serve in places like Tajikistan.

"For many years," he continues, "there has been a shortage of priests." In the city of Kurgan-Tyube, for example, the parishioners have not had a resident priest since 2000. Occasionally, a priest does pay a brief visit, but the community is suffering from the lack of having a leader on the spot.

And it is not just the decline in the number of ethnic Russians there that is driving this process: with the withdrawal of Russian troops, priests who serviced them and also other Russians living in the region have departed, leaving their non-military parishioners without a spiritual father.

At a time when the Moscow Patriarchate takes pride in having increased the number of monasteries from 18 to 300, Dubovitsky complains, the church has signally failed to provide "a single priest" to provide spiritual and cultural support for the dwindling ethnic Russian communities in Central Asia.

If the causes of Russian flight are obvious, so too are the consequences: For the Central Asian countries, the departure of the ethnic Russians will leave them more ethnically homogeneous and more Islamic and less attached to the Soviet past. But it will also deprive them of people with significant skills and thus make their economic situation even worse.

(More significantly but also certainly more distantly, the departure of the ethnic Russians could open the way to greater cooperation among the Central Asians. That is because it would allow Kazakhstan to take part in regional projects more fully and, by acting as a counterweight to Uzbekistan's power, thus open the way for the other countries to do so as well.)

For Moscow, the consequences of this new Russian flight also will be mixed. On the one hand, many Russians will celebrate what they will call "the return" of their "compatriots" as a measure of the continuing attractiveness and economic and cultural superiority of their nation over the peoples of Central Asia.

But on the other, Russian policy makers will have to cope with a situation in which they will no longer be able to exploit the presence of ethnic Russians in the Central Asian countries as the foundation of ties between Moscow and the region and also with the probability that they will have to deal with a more Islamic and even Islamist set of states nearby.

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